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Now and Hen

By Tina Traster

September 11, 2012 -- If you have a dog, cat or gerbil, I bet you know where the 24-hour vet is located. You probably know how long it takes to get there in an after-hours emergency.

If you have chickens — as I do — and you need help at say, 8 p.m. on a Tuesday — your goose is cooked, so to speak.

On a recent summer night, my husband Rick and I were “free-ranging our brood.” What that entails: We give them an hour before dusk to pick at bugs, slugs and grass. It’s a peaceful ritual, watching the sun slip behind the mountain while “the girls” coo with delight.

On this evening, our chicken Miracle, a Barred Rock who’s already had a couple of brushes with death, got something lodged in her throat. She was laboring to swallow and was moving her beak up and down nonstop. When she regurgitated a worm my husband hand-fed her, we knew something was wrong.

I put the rest of the hens into the coop while my husband ran for a cat carrier. We stuffed her in and high-tailed it to the 24-hour vet, four minutes from our home in suburban Rockland County. The night attendant wanted me to fill out paperwork.

“This is an emergency,” I yelled. “My chicken is choking.”

The sluggish attendant rounded up a doctor, a young, fresh-faced woman who knitted her brow when she saw a chicken in a cat carrier. She took Miracle to the back and put her in an oxygen tank.

A half-hour later, Miracle was still in distress. The vet admitted that nobody at the clinic knew how to treat a chicken. She suggested another clinic in New Jersey, nearly 45 minutes away.

When you dream about having a small flock of backyard chickens, you consider their domicile, feed suppliers, the heat, the cold, predators and a hundred ways to eat their fresh-laid eggs. What you might neglect to consider is whether there’s a trained veterinarian within 100 miles who can deal with a chicken emergency.

About 40 minutes later, we took Miracle back home. The clinic didn’t charge us. The hen was still in distress, and so were we. Miracle is our favorite. She’s the one who gurgles “I love you” — or at least that’s what we think she’s saying. (Readers of this column might remember that she lived in our house for three months after the rest of the flock nearly pecked her to death.)

People think hens are disposable, but can anyone who gives a hoot for animals stand by and watch an animal suffer?

The vet who had seen Miracle suggested we try a Westchester vet who did phone consultations. When we called and explained our emergency, the squawking voice on the other end of the phone said she didn’t think the doctor dealt with chickens but if we wanted to give her a credit card (and be charged $30), she’d reach out and see.

“Wouldn’t it make more sense to reach out and ‘see’ before we spend $30, only to be told she doesn’t deal with chickens?” I said in not my nicest tone.

After a chicken-and-egg argument over paying the money up front, I hung up and called all the 24-hour emergency animal clinics in Rockland, Westchester, Putnam, Orange, Ulster and Dutchess counties. I found sympathetic voices, but everyone said the same thing: No one on the night staff was qualified to deal with a hen. (Not even the Rockland vet with the promising name “Vet at the Barn” could help.) Some said they had vets during the day who “might” be able to help. Though they weren’t sure about that either.

She’ll be dead by then, I thought.

Even the renowned Animal Medical Center in Manhattan was a bust.

“But you see house birds,” I implored. “How different can a chicken’s anatomy be than a parrot?”

We gave up and went outside to check on Miracle. She was in her coop and seemed less distressed. My husband held up water and Miracle drank it. This was a good sign.

The following morning at dawn, I nudged my husband from bed. He threw on his clothes and went to the coop. I couldn’t breathe until he returned and told me Miracle was as good as new. She was eating and drinking. She was back to normal.

Tears of joy sprung from my eyes. We dodged a bullet, but what about the next time? I can only hope enterprising vets realize there’s a whole bunch of chicken-rearing, hen-loving folks who need the expertise of a country doctor.

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