Part One: Life Expectancy
A chicken is designed to live thirty years. Most chickens do not live that long because they succumb to a multitude of stresses, disease, and predation. But with a little common sense care and good nutrition, your birds can live a long, happy life. Poultryone.com
“Chickens!?” Mavis Purcell lifted one eyebrow and narrowed her eyes. She crossed her arms beneath her ample bosom rocked back in her chair so that she was gazing slightly upward at the foursome standing across the desk from her.
“Chickens.” The Reverend Henry Porter affirmed as the three who flanked him nodded in agreement.
Mavis tried to choose her words carefully since she had had run ins with this band of marauders on previous occasions. She glanced from one to the next before speaking, keeping her voice level and non-committal.
“You do understand the idea of this experiment is to choose a pet, like a gold fish, or parakeet or a dog, why even a cat, but chickens? Where on earth or let’s get more specific, where in this facility could you keep chickens? A chicken is not a pet and—”
Thelma Louise standing to the left and back of the Reverend Henry Porter was waving both hands and bouncing in place. Mavis smiled, but a smirk threatened to surface. Thelma Louise looked like an octogenarian cheerleader with her plump white curls, her crisp white blouse and navy blue pleated skirt that hung longer in the front than the back. Everything about Thelma Louise bounced.
“AND, Oh for heaven’s sake, what is it, Thelma Louise”? An edge crept into her voice, just a hint of stridence that Mavis struggled to control as she waited for Thelma Louise’s response.
“I had a pet chicken when I was a little girl. Daddy bought her for me at Easter. I called her Sadie. She was soft and yellow”
“And, exactly where did you keep Sadie?” Mavis asked.
“In a box, in the kitchen, near Mama’s stove.”
“And when she got bigger, did she stay in the kitchen?” Mavis cocked her head to one side, her smile gone and her tone bordering on sarcastic. This would be a tale to share with Earl over supper at the Cracker Barrel, should she ever get an evening free for such luxuries. Graduating with honors from the University of Kentucky with a degree in hospital administration failed to prepare her for the nuances of her position at Heritage Village. Chickens! What next?
Thelma Louise furrowed her brow; the bouncing stopped. Mavis watched as a large tear—made even larger due to the magnification of Thelma Louise’s coke bottom lenses—formed in Thelma Louise’s eyes. Her lowered lip trembled, but with an exaggerated intake of air, Thelma Louise found her voice.
“Sadie lived her whole life in the kitchen. I would take her out of her box to play and well, Daddy accidentally stepped on her, left her flat as a pancake.”
“How long did Sadie last?” Mavis inquired, struggling mightily not to laugh.
“Two days.” Thelma Louise admitted, then with renewed purpose and strength of voice asserted, “But the point is Sadie was a chicken and my pet.”
The Reverend Henry Porter put his arm around Thelma Louise’s shoulder patting her arm. His facial expression as he looked at Mavis stopped bordered on the kinder side of reproach. Removing his arm from Thelma Louise’s shoulder and glancing sideways at Agnes and Ruth, he eased forward, leaned over Mavis’s desk and leveled his eyes with hers.
“You said we, the residents, could choose a pet. We, Ruth, Agnes, Thelma Louise, and myself, want a rooster and three hens. We’ll build a little chicken coop. Agnes downloaded the plans from the internet. They eat bugs, you know. They lay eggs for up to 18 years. Why! They’ll likely out live all of us.” The Reverend Henry Porter’s voice crested. Mavis could tell he was getting into full preaching momentum.
Mavis unclasped her arms and rising from her chair pressed her hands flat on her desk leaning forward till her face was inches from the Reverend Henry Porter’s. Their eyes locked, then with a sigh, she smiled and stood back.
“You say they lay eggs for 18 years? Just how long do they live after that?”
“The good Lord designed them for up to 30 years with good food, low stress and protection from predators.” He added weight to the word “predators” narrowing his gaze. Mavis propped her right elbow on her left hand and tapped her teeth with her forefinger. The Reverend with his three accomplices flanking, waited for her decision.
Mavis had spent weeks researching the “Residents with Pets” project; research that included visits to two sister facilities. The in-state establishment’s program was only six months old but the out-of-state program had recently celebrated their residents and pets program’s fourth anniversary. From all Mavis could gather both programs were successful with the residents, the staff and even the administration. Just like the journal articles inferred elderly people stayed healthier, mentally and physically if they had animal companions.
The plan Mavis presented to the Board of Directors took days to prepare, because she knew it would be a hard sell. If she hadn’t presented a detailed workable plan, the pilot project would have died at that meeting. Even with all the preparations, the Board was divided. Some of the Board of Directors stood with her. An equal number strongly opposed the concept. Two of the undecided voted for it so it had passed by a narrow margin, with Mr. Frank Askew, Mr. Milk-Toast himself, declining to vote.
Even so, Chickens had never entered her mind. The policy and procedure did not specify which pets and the exclusions prohibited reptiles and wild animals, but there was no mention of chickens. Mavis cringed realizing suddenly that not only were chickens not excluded, neither was any barnyard beast. The way this day was going the Colonel would be lumbering in her office next demanding a horse. She sighed; the bottom line decided. The guidelines did not exclude chickens.
But, Thirty years! Who would think birds could live that long. The Reverend hit the nail when he said the birds would likely outlive their owners. Then what? They’d be too tough to fry or roast. With her luck, they’d leave them to her in their wills. Exhaling audibly, she bit her bottom lip then spoke.
“Okay, we’ll give it a try, but you have to have the coop built first and it has to look decent and be far away enough so that the odor doesn’t offend.”
The Reverend and his little flock smiled in unison and Thelma Louise commenced what might have been a dance step if she could have lifted her feet. As it was, she resembled one of those bobbing hula dolls. The Reverend reached across the desk grasping Mavis’s hand in his and shaking it like she’d just come forward to be baptized.
“Thank you, Thank you, Sister Mavis. We’ve cleared it with Otto. He’s picking up supplies right now and his brother’s going to build it. Agnes ordered the brooder—”
“Whoa! Hold up! What if I had said no? And a….what brooder? Where will that go?”
Ruth spoke for the first time. “We knew you wouldn’t say no. We’d already prayed those little chicks here.”
Agnes supplied the next answer, “The brooder will go into the boiler room. The chicks will be about three days old when we get them. The hatchery will have already vaccinated them for Marek’s disease. They will be in the brooder for a couple of weeks.”
In spite of herself, Mavis laughed. “Ok, chickens it is. Now you four had better get on down to lunch, before Miss Margaret comes searching for you.”
The four exited with The Reverend Henry Porter holding the door. Agnes with her walker, Ruth in her wheelchair, Thelma Louise shuffling, and the Reverend Henry Porter strutting, the foursome departed in single file. At the door, the Reverend Henry Porter turned and said,
“One more thing.”
“Yes.” Suspicion laced the word like arsenic in a drink.
“We have a name for our business, “The Early Birds Hatchery.” He saluted, pulling the door closed behind him.
“What!? Business!?!” Mavis sputtered then plopped into her chair. The office emptied and the door closed, Mavis closed her eyes and took slow even breaths. The old rooster and his hens had worn her out and it wasn’t even 11 AM.