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Chicken Big

This Man's Best Friend Was a Handicapped Hen
By Tyrone Shaw

No one knew the origin of the precocious seven-week-old hen that jumped onto Nancy's lap during a visit to a friend in Bakersfield, so she brought her home. I had just broken my foot and was in a cast up to my knee. On the porch, we built a coon-proof cage and put the chicken, Rosetta, there at night. On the third night, however, we awakened to horrific squawks: a particularly determined raccoon had managed to spring the top of that cage, ripping open our new hen's breast and shattering her right leg.

Astonished that she had survived the attack at all, our vet sewed her up and set the leg. In what has been the oddest bonding experience of my life, Rosetta and I hung out on the porch for the next two weeks, our right legs encased in white plaster.

Unfortunately, she never regained the use of hers, because the tendons to her foot had been irreparably damaged, but she soon learned to navigate perfectly on one leg, moving with incredible speed like a feathered, turbo-charged pogo stick. She'd hop up the steps onto the porch and peck at the door until we let her in. During meals, she stayed in the kitchen, often harassing guests for food with gentle ankle pecks.

When the urge struck her, which was often, Rosetta would jump onto our laps for some serious neck massages, her eyelids rolling up like window shades as she emitted distinctly musical sighs. We constructed a secure pen for her outside and a large pen inside beneath the stairs, where she slept at night.

For five years, life progressed as normally as it could with a one-legged lap chicken living in the house. During that time, Rosetta became our constant dinner companion developing a sophisticated palate in the process and alarm clock and doorbell. One of our cats formed a deep friendship with her, and the two would often cuddle by the woodstove during the winter months.

Of course, Rosetta began to give us eggs, and did so proudly for about four years. Then one night we awoke to another eruption of squawks. We ran downstairs, certain it meant the end of a by now beloved and indispensable part of the family. Rosetta soon quieted down, however, after passing what appeared to be a leathery, football-shaped object about the size of a softball. Perplexed, I placed it in a box and presented it to our vet the next morning. He stared at it skeptically, noting he had never seen anything like it come out of a chicken or any other animal, for that matter.

Science demanded further exploration, and a dissection revealed a perfect egg encased within the leathery outer shell. I don't know what to tell you, the vet said. I haven't the slightest idea what this is all about. We never did find the answer.

About six months later, I found Rosetta sitting absolutely still in the front yard, unable to move her one good leg. A few hours later, avian specialist Dr. Steven Metz gave her an extensive examination in Shelburne. He ruled out injury and viral infection, guessing she had most likely suffered a stroke. She was extremely weak and would probably die, he suggested gently. She wasn't in any pain, though, and so we had nothing to lose by keeping her hydrated and fed with a medicine dropper. Aside from the obvious impairment, Metz noted that Rosetta seemed curiously calm, alert and happy. She had a chance, however slim, of surviving. We spent weeks feeding her baby formula and performing physical therapy on her leg, including one ill-advised session of hydrotherapy in the bathtub. Soon our hen was back on her foot, and on her way to recovery. She would suffer three more strokes in the next three years, each of which should have killed her, but she kept going.

A year after the initial one, I called WKDR during Dr. Metz' weekly pet show and reminded him of Rosetta's visit, which he immediately recalled. Telling him someone wanted to speak to him, I placed the receiver in front of her, and she immediately began clucking happily into the mouthpiece. Metz was delighted and later told the audience, You know, it's things like this that make it all so worth it.

As far as I know, Rosetta is the only chicken to have spoken on a radio call-in show, at least locally.

Two things about Rosetta struck all those who met her: an obvious joy of being alive and her capacity for love. I will never forget the sight of my friend Tudor Petrov, a colonel in the Moldovan Interior Ministry, lying on the kitchen floor as he gently stroked Rosetta's back, saying in a distinctly child-like voice, Nice cheeekeeen, nice cheekeeen.

This twisted-up, somewhat spastic bird brought out the tenderness in all who knew her. When travel took us away for protracted periods, a network of friends came forward to care for her.

Soon after Thanksgiving last year, Rosetta stopped eating and began to fade slowly away. Her death five days later was peaceful and leisurely. For eight years, she taught our family and friends a lot about the compelling beauty of unconditional love and the sentience of all creatures.

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