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Mourning our zen chicken

Despite my love for animals, I hesitated to welcome pets into our home because they leave me feeling vulnerable. The logical mind knows that I will most likely outlive them, and so there’s always a premature anticipation of having to endure their loss at some point.

This suffering became too real too soon for us when we lost one of our chickens. But to my surprise, the grieving experience hasn’t added fuel to my fears. I’ve instead come to realise that the pain of losing our feathered family member was far outweighed by the gratitude I felt for having him in our lives.

Kali, an Australorp chicken standing on the edge of a garden bed.
Kali, our beautiful zen chicken

Welcoming chickens into our home

At the end of 2021, we decided to get chickens for our backyard to try and live a more sustainable life. We got three chirpy little ones, who at the time simply looked like innocent balls of fluff with pointy beaks.

Three chicks playing in the dirt
Laxmi, Saraswati and Kali when they were only a few weeks old

We named them Saraswati, Laxmi and Kali after Hindu goddesses, although Saraswati and Kali eventually revealed themselves to be boys! Having fallen in love with the duo, and not being able to find a safe home for roosters elsewhere, we decided to make adjustments and accommodate them both for as long as we could (thankfully, we are blessed with animal-loving neighbours).

We have introduced a few more hens to our flock since, but we’ve always had a special attachment to Saraswati, Laxmi and Kali because we raised them from when they were only five days old. We have watched them develop their individual personalities (or as a dear friend calls it, chickenalities), and they have certainly earned a lot of our attention and adoration over the past eight months. The boys especially have been the most interactive and chatty of the lot.

There seems to be no doubt in the minds of our free ranging, bossy little raptors that they own our backyard. And believing us two people of a predator species to be a part of their flock, the nosey little brats like to keep an eye on us by watching us through our large windows. We’ve learnt to interpret a lot of their chicken talk, and even the tantrums they throw when their mischief is caught red-handed.

Two chickens sitting on a potted plant, while another chicken stands on a nearby log of wood.
Taking over our backyard

The more we observe them, the more we’re getting to understand the entertaining world of chicken politics. We’ve seen them form and maintain their social hierarchies and structures, where power, jealousy and possessiveness are no less prevalent than their self-lessness, protectiveness and friendships. We’ve come to appreciate them for the complex and busy beings they are.

Our close observations of them guarantee us daily smiles and laughs. And some of our most restful and healing experiences in the past year have come from simply sitting with them and together watching the day go by.

Our zen chicken, Kali

A young Australorp chicken sitting next to a Buddha statue
Kali with the Buddha statue

Kali was our zen chicken. We called him that because in contrast to Saraswati’s piercing eyes and Laxmi’s grumpy face, Kali had a soft and gentle gaze. He also liked to sit right next to our Buddha statue under the Lilly Pilly tree. His crowing was melodious. And, unlike the boisterous Saraswati, Kali was less talk and more action.

He had his rebellious side too. Once when the opportunistic trio outsmarted me and snuck into our “no shitting zone”, I tried to spray them with water to chase them back into their territory. The trick worked quickly with Saraswati and Laxmi, who sprinted back to their side of our backyard to keep their feathers dry. But not Kali. When I finally managed to corner him, he refused to budge. He stood there in protest staring into my eyes, choosing a drenching over an evacuation. Chasing after him was always futile because he could run and dodge like Serevi on the rugby field. In the end, I just had to wait till he was ready to go back.

But overall, Kali was a good chicken and didn’t give us too much trouble. A few pecks here and there occasionally, but otherwise he was a soul as beautiful as his glossy black feathers.

So we felt crushed when we lost him last weekend. The kind, sensitive vets and staff at The Unusual Pet Vets in Langwarrin ­— to whom we are so grateful — made their best efforts to care for Kali after he got injured. But, sadly, we had to say goodbye to our softie sooner than we expected.

Grieving a chicken and making sense out of it

The flood of tears was difficult to hold back when Kali left us. We dedicated ourselves to him every single day for eight months and he had quickly become a member of our family, so obviously it hurt.

A man holds an Australorp chicken with both his hands against his chest
Kali made a place in our hearts

For a while it was difficult to make sense out of what I was feeling. I found myself asking the same question a five-year-old posed to Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh after her doggie died – how do I not feel sad? And I found some comfort in the monk’s response to what he admitted was a difficult question – look up and see that a cloud never dies. It just transforms into rain and then becomes our cup of tea.

The “what if” questions came equally as fast at us, as we wondered if an alternate course of action would have kept Kali alive. Wisdom tells us that is a dangerous path to go down, so we instead worked on accepting what had happened. Knowledge and application often travel on different tracks though.

There was also a fear of being judged and laughed at (similar to the responses I got when our first goldfish died many, many years ago!). Afterall, who cries over a chicken? Luckily a friend answered that question for me a few days later – people who manage to connect with other living beings do.

Eventually I dared to close my eyes to see what was happening inside of me. I found overwhelm, but surprisingly it mostly came from a place of gratitude and humility. I was touched by how “just a chicken” managed to enter our hearts and give us so many cherished moments – even during some trying times.

It is the image of Kali’s trusting eyes that impacts me the most. On his good days, he felt safe enough to come and sit by our side. And in his vulnerable times, he let us take care of him without any resistance. We can only hope he felt loved in every one of those tender moments.

People often find it easy to sympathise when a dog or cat dies, but struggle to understand the grief of losing a chicken. Perhaps this is because we tend to see chickens as food or maybe we undermine them for having “bird brains”. But here our experience has given us a very different perspective (and let me assure you, our prestigious university qualifications have certainly not stopped us from repeatedly being outwitted by these super alert and sensitive creatures).

A lesson in love Blessings come in all shapes, sizes and species. We’re often told that our spoilt chickens are lucky to have come to us because we’ve created heaven for them in our backyard. But I feel we’re equally lucky to have had these chickens in our lives. Not only have they showered us with countless priceless little moments, they’ve also taught us so much about love and life.

They say one of the most precious gifts we can offer someone is our presence. That is exactly what these chickens give us every single time they see us. They make themselves available to us. They curiously follow us around. They sit with us when we seek out a quiet moment. And they talk to us in their language when they get even a glimpse of us.

A person is sitting with 3 chickens.
Chilling with the chickens

It didn’t take me long to realise that chickens, like other non-human animals, are great teachers of mindfulness! Noticing their attentiveness towards us, I always find myself putting my phone away. The cluttered mind pauses when I allow myself to just be with them, and suddenly I get to let in a whole bunch of mesmerising moments into my day.

Kali’s passing has also made me recognise that love sincerely knows no boundaries – it doesn’t discriminate between species. Unlike the clever mind, the heart does not attempt to manufacture a reason for loving a rooster any less than a hen or a chicken any less than a dog. The heart sees no value in those distinctions. It just connects and relates. And to have experienced that special bond with anyone is a blessing.

Over the past eight months we’ve realised that there aren’t many people in the urban world who are as lucky as us to have enjoyed the intriguing company of chickens, let alone roosters. Kali’s loss has been painful, but that pain is easily outweighed by the love and happiness he and our other feathered friends have brought into our lives. Truly, our lives are richer because of Kali and the rest of the troop.

As French writer Anatole France once said:

Until one has loved an animal, a part of one’s soul remains unawakened.

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