I like Chicks in Bikinis…
Maizee was momma’s girl. She was like my little shadow, everywhere I went, she followed waiting patiently for me to drop a morsel of food or reach down and tussle her feathers. In the evening she would patiently wait for me to sit down so that she could climb up on my lap and settle in for the night. See, my first lap pet had been a little red frizzle hen named Pizzy. That little bird changed my life in ways that I could never adequately express. She quite literally shaped my personality as I know it today and her death was something that very nearly killed me. She was like a child to me and she died suddenly of something I could have prevented had I been better educated on the needs and welfare of chickens. In her memory, I have gone to some pretty extreme measures to guarantee the health and safety of all my little ones. But kids being kids, even when they are actually chickens, they are bound to get into something that you could never anticipate. Maize was one of those girls. She was also a little red frizzle hen and although I didn’t love her any more than any of the others in our little flock, there was certainly a case to be made that she was my favorite.
Maizee was a unique bird to say the least. She had some quirks that made her quite comical. Chickens that are raised in the house often take on more personality characteristics of what they see every day than traditional barnyard chickens. They don’t understand mirrors enough to be able to reason that what they see as their reflection is what they look like in reality. So, frequently, they will mimic the actions of the other “animals” that they do see. Often they appear to think that the humans are just very large birds with very colorful feathers that can be molted and changed daily. In fact I can remember, on more than one occasion, a young bird with an absolutely horror stricken look on their face the first time they were witness to one of us undressing for the night. “But…the feathers! Where did your feathers go!” they seemed to say.
It wasn’t long after we moved into Wood Haven that I adopted a quirky little habit of my own. Because we had no experience with a wood fired furnace, we scarcely understood how to regulate the heat that it produced. So in the wintery evenings, the temperature in the house was well above what I considered comfortable. Seeing as the only other living things in the house were my husband and a small flock of chickens, nearly every night when I was done chores and cleaned up from dinner, I would take my pants off and curl up on the couch for a while. Maizee would still jump up with me and settle in, but the heat clearly overwhelmed her a little too, especially once she was next to me and my body heat. She would pant a little, but wouldn’t leave my side.
At this point, it was still late fall. Most of the birds had finished their molt. Maizee had not molted because she was in the house and never experienced the temperature change and reduced amount of day light that came with the change in season. She looked a little ragged in places after wearing the same feathers for a year, but she was happy and healthy, so what did it matter. Soon, I started to notice little red curly feathers here and there. A couple in the kitchen, a few in the living room, one or two by the back French doors where she liked to sun bathe. I presumed she was molting finally. This went on for a week or two and it wasn’t until we noticed the strange feather pattern emerging that we understood what little Maizee must have been thinking. She had systematically removed all the feathers from her waist down. Maizee had taken off her pants! She ran around all winter like that until she molted in the spring and grew a beautiful new set of feathers and again looked like my little butterball.
We frequently referred to her as the butterball, because she was a full third heavier than any of her sisters. She was round and heavy and about 3 inches off the ground. Get the picture? She was most likely heavier in part because of her genetics, but I’m certain the calorie and fat rich food that she received small pieces of at dinner time must have contributed to her stature. At meals, she would stand beside the table and look up longingly until someone would take pity on her and toss her a bite. She would snatch it up and run off as though she was afraid someone would steal her little treasure before she had a chance to finish it. A few minutes later she would reappear and begin the process of guilting us into another bite. This learned behavior had its down side though. You had to be very careful what you dropped because she would run over, grab it and run away, even if it was a piece of paper, a flash drive, or even in one disturbing, yet hilarious instance, one of my mom’s cigarettes. She soon earned the nicknamed of The Amazing Grazer, because she would eat practically anything she could find.
So it was no wonder that she eventually ended up with an impacted crop. An impacted crop happens when chickens (normal chickens) eat too much dry grass or hay. Because of the difficulty of digesting these substances, they form a sort of a ball in the crop that will not pass through into the digestive tract. When this happens, a lot of other food is also kept from being digested. Occasionally it can block the duct and not allow any food to leave the crop for digestion. And, on rare occasions it can start to turn septic and if left untreated it can be fatal, although that’s definitely the worst case scenario.
By the time we realized that Maizee’s crop was impacted, it was pretty substantial. The curly fluffy feathers on her chest has hidden the ailment well. We treated her at home for more than a week. We gave her more grit than normal and egg shells to see if it would naturally break up some of the crop’s contents. We gave her apple cider vinegar hoping the acid would break down the organic matter. We waited and hoped that the situation would resolve itself. Of course it didn’t, so off we went to the local Avian Vet.
Now, Maizee’s Vet came highly recommended. She had a deplorable bedside manner, frequently accusing people of abusing their pets when they would have some unusual injury or illness, but she was also the only game in town, so anyone with a bird would recommend her. She examined Maizee and said that there was no foreign object in her crop and that she needed antibiotics and a digestion stimulant which had to be administered by injection. I was no stranger to injectibles by this time in my history of keeping birds, but it was still a little nerve racking putting such a large needle into such a little bird. But, we gladly accepted the advice, scheduled a 2 week follow up and took Maizee home.
We followed the treatment protocol to the letter. We were very careful about only letting her eat “chicken food”, which she hated, but we thought it was for her own good, so we did it with her best interest at heart. Maizee’s Crop grew in size and her over all weight started to decline. We became very worried and before she was even scheduled for her follow up, we took her back. The Vet accused us of feeding her table scraps and other things on the “disallowed” list. I of course objected, but it was obvious she had already deemed me a liar. So armed with more of the same medicine to continue the treatment, we returned home.
Everyday, I would massage her little crop and try to break up the mass. We restricted the amount of food she consumed thinking that if she could just get the crop empty, maybe she could start fresh. After another week, the majority of the contents of the crop had emptied. I was still massaging it every day, but now I thought I could feel something in there, something that didn’t feel like regular tissue to me. Thinking I had found an answer, I returned the Vet to tell her my findings. I was sure that she would be glad to hear it and maybe we could get Maizee’s problem resolved once and for all. I could not have been more wrong about her reaction. She palpated the crop, promptly and very boisterously reported that “there was NOTHING foreign in Maizee’s crop.” She proceeded to accused me of starving poor Maizee and destroying the muscle of her crop by massaging it. Surely I was the cause of all her ills and I did not deserve to have her as a pet. I left devastated and in tears. Maizee and I returned home to wait and hope for a miracle. None came. This went on for another 2 weeks. Now when her crop would fill with food, her body no longer had the ability to contract the crop to push the food toward the duct. She was losing weight and getting weaker. I was crushed that I had caused such irreparable damage to the dear sweet little creature. She loved me, she trusted me and I had harmed her so badly, albeit with the best of intentions.
I put my best problem solving hat on and went into my studio to try to find a solution. After several hours and almost a yard of mutilated fabric, I came up with a design for a little bra for her to wear. It had a fair spandex content and it would firmly, yet gently compress the crop to do the work of the damaged muscle. Maizee wore it proudly. She would strut around and show it off to the other birds and she would clean it just as she cleaned her own feathers. This solution seemed to work for about a month, but eventually even the bra wasn’t enough to hold the enormous baseball sized crop.
With my head and my spirits low, we returned to the Vet to beg for help one last time. I thought I was prepared for the abused that would surely ensue and I was steadfast in my resolution that I would do anything for my little girl. She was worth anything that I had to go through. The Vet reluctantly examined her. She was clearly angry that I was questioning her diagnosis. I stood my ground and insisted that I felt a foreign object in there. I saw something change in the Vet’s eyes, they had shifted from annoyance and irritation to full blown rage. Her face began to flush. She told me in front of everyone in the room and at levels required for every other employee and patient in the veterinary hospital at the time to hear, “You are killing this bird! You might as well have her put to sleep because this type of torture is immoral.” Her voice continued to raise until the volume started to crackle. “If you don’t like my diagnosis, then you can go get a second opinion!!” I turned my gaze from her, gathered up Maizee and left with tears streaming down my face. As I paid my bill, I could feel all the eyes in the waiting room on me. I couldn’t bring myself to look up to see if their stares held condemnation or pity. I hurried out.
I was devastated. She was of course saying something to me that she knew wasn’t possible. There was no second opinion. There were no other avian Vets around, I had called every practice within a 20 mile radius.
We sat in silence that evening. There just were no words. Maizee, who enjoyed a good drink of wine as much as the rest of us had been forbidden from taking sips from my glass when her diet had been restricted. Tonight she looked up at me and asked, so I let her. She plunged her little face down into the deep purple liquid and took a good long drink. She sat back down satisfied with purple drips running down her waddles onto her feather. When the drips hit her chest feathers, she immediately lapped them up to make sure nothing stained the little bra that she continued to be so proud of. Watching her my eyes again welled up with tears. “I’m gonna miss you”, I said to her in a quiet voice, then I took my good long drink from our communal glass. I’m a little embarrassed to say, but she and I finished off the whole bottle. And then we slept really well that night. Since she started having problem, Maizee had slept in a little hooded cat bed on my night stand. That night she never stirred.
As sometimes happens after a night of libation and reflection, I woke up in the morning with a renewed sense of purpose. It was a Tuesday and I didn’t have to work. I sat at my computer with a notebook and a pen and started searching Vets outside the 20 mile radius I had searched previously. Several hours and a couple dozen phone calls later, I found a veterinary hospital about 45 minutes away that claimed they had an exotics vet that was experienced with birds. I made the first available appointment on Thursday of that same week. I crossed my fingers and waited. Maizee and I went about our routine. I denied her nothing at this point. If I was going to lose her, I was determined that she was going to enjoy anything she wanted until it happened.
The day of her appointment with her new Doctor, I wasn’t hopeful. I expected him to tell me the same general things as the last vet, but hopefully in a somewhat nicer way. Dr. Mike did a thorough examination; he listened to the whole sordid story with sincere interest and genuine compassion. He would make a suggestion for treatment and I would explain how we had already tried that. Then a second suggestion. Again, I spelled out what we had done and the results it had produced. He paused for a moment while he gathered his thoughts and appeared to ponder his medical knowledge for another option. Every muscle in my body tensed as I waited for him to say what I knew was coming. The end. He was going to tell me this was it, that there was nothing we could do, I could feel it like a cold breath on the back of my neck as I waited.
He began to speak, “Well… you’ve already tried everything…”
My heart sank, I could feel my face flushing. But he didn’t stop, that wasn’t the conclusion of his sentence.
“so the only thing left…”
Here it is I thought. Try as I might I couldn’t draw in a breath. My chest constricted.
“is to open up the crop and see what’s in there.”
What? What had I just heard? I played it back in my head, but the words still didn’t seem real. Had he really just offered me a solution that was never even suggested before? Was he really going to try to help me save my little girl?
I heard a voice say, “okay.” Flatly and without ceremony, just “okay.” Where had that voice come from? Was it mine? Had I just agreed to major surgery without even a second to think it though? Without any consideration of cost? My vision started to clear; I once again became aware that my feet were in contact with the floor below me. Impatiently and involuntarily my body drew in a deep breath. Again, I said it, “okay”. “When can you do it?” Dr. Mike seemed a little taken aback that I so readily agreed, but this is the answer I had been waiting months for. I would have done almost anything. Maizee had been transformed from a simple little affectionate lap pet to a driving force in my life. I had suffered from trying to save her and I wasn’t going to stop now.
Dr. Mike told me that the hospital only scheduled surgeries on Tuesdays and Thursdays, so I would now have to wait until the following Tuesday. That seemed acceptable. I asked what I could do to prepare her? He told me to only let her eat things that produced little or no mucus. That meant no chicken food for a couple of days. Huh? I believed him, but I still questioned the validity of his statement. He explained that most commercial chicken feed makes a gooey paste in the crop and sticks to everything in there. Hmmmm….my mind began to churn with memories of visits with our previous Vet.
I shook myself back to the present. I eagerly agreed to feed her anything he suggested. Then he suggested that I should massage the crop to get as much food as possible moving through. What? I told him what the other Vet had told me and how she had said that I was the cause of the damaged muscle. He explained to me how that couldn’t possibly be true, that I had not caused this. The damage to the crop muscle was because of the stretching from the massive contents. He did tell me that she would always have to wear her little bra, but he also seemed more than a little impressed that I had constructed such a device.
The day of her surgery, Justin took her in and dropped her off at the Veterinary Hospital around 7am. He worked just 15 minutes away, so it made sense for him to take her. Although it was very hard for me not to be there with her, I knew that once she got to the hospital I wouldn’t be able to be with her anyway.
I waited tensely all day. How would she do? What would they find? Would she wake up from the anesthesia? There’s always a chance they won’t wake up, but I tried not to dwell on that. I was pretty unsuccessful, but I tried. They said I would know something after 3:00pm. Three o’clock came and went. My whole body was vibrating with anticipation. Finally I couldn’t take it any longer. At 3:30 I called the office. She was doing well. I heard my body release a long sigh. I could think of no sweeter words. It was more satisfying that the first time you hear “I love you.” My baby was okay. They told me that I could come get her anytime I liked. I had my keys in my hand and was out the door before I hung up the phone.
As I walked though the door of the hospital, I was practically giddy. They asked me to wait in one of the rooms for discharge instructions. After what seemed like an eternity, but was, in reality, probably no more than 5 minutes, one of the Techs brought her into the room in her carrier box. She looked groggy, but there was an immediate change in her expression when she saw me through the little bars. It was a cross between, “Mom, I’m so glad to see you!” and “Do you know what they did to me!” I so badly wanted to take her out and hold her, but they told me that I shouldn’t handle her too much for a day or so to give the incision time to heal a little. They had cut her open from her neck to her belly and she had Frankenstein like stitches the whole way.
Suddenly, it occurred to me that I was so relieved that she had survived the surgery that I had never asked what they found. “What was it?” I asked the tech. “Did they find anything?” “You had better wait until the doctor comes in, he will explain”, she told me. I began to get nervous again. I tried to focus on the fact that she was alive and here with me now, but the questions began to creep into my consciousness. What if they had found nothing? What if there had been no answer, now what?
Within a few minutes, the doctor came in and greeted me. He knew what my questioning eyes were asking. He said nothing and handed me a small transparent bag with a red biohazard symbol on the outside. I examined the contents. A few wheat berries, some undigested cracked corn, and some matted grass. I tried to think back to the last time she has been anywhere that she might have eaten grass. I searched my memory and came up empty. I looked up at the doctor questioningly. There was nothing there out of the ordinary, how could this be? He said simply, “turn it over.” As I did I saw the orange squiggly thing wrapped up in the grass. I let out a laugh and realized immediately how inappropriate it was and stopped myself. I searched the doctors face for some idea of what the right response should be. Awe? Horror? Disbelief? His face transformed into a giant smile and he said, “It’s okay. It is pretty funny. How many chickens would eat a rubber band?”