It’s part of her life. It has always been part of her life. At least, as far back as she can remember, and she can certainly remember, because she knows who I am. When the earthquake comes, it is nearly always followed in quick succession by another, and another, sometimes more, before calm returns and she lies on her back or side, breathing heavily. Within a minute or two, though, she is up on her feet and demonstrating her determination to survive and enjoy life. The seizures cause no pain. The risk of permanent brain damage exists if epilepsy is left untreated but, once medication has begun, the primary thing to watch out for is injury. It is all too easy to bash your head or bruise yourself during a seizure that has you thrashing around all over the place, insensate.
This is why Roxy, a bird, has nothing in her cage that could prove physically harmful to her. She has soft bedding under foot and needs no toys, other than a mirror and bell. The cage, despite being what it is, a construction designed to contain, is not a prison, for Roxy spends many hours each day out of it, on my shoulder or hiding inside my dressing gown or riding on the backs of the pet cats she sees as members of her flock. Rather, the cage is her refuge, a place where she is always safe and can go to sleep without feeling vulnerable or exposed; and, while the cats are generally well-behaved towards her, contrary to their own natures, I can rest easy myself knowing none of them will give in to their carnivorous instincts and hurt Roxy when I’m not around, if she’s in her cage. It’s unlikely they ever would. They show every sign of accepting her as a family member and, therefore, untouchable. I don’t believe in tempting fate, though – especially when it comes to gambling with the life of a much-loved pet. No way.
I don’t call the cage a cage in general conversation, of course. I refer to it as a palace. After all, Roxy gives every indication of believing herself to be of a royal lineage. Much imagination is brought to bear in talking to, and about, Roxy. Undoubtedly, very dull people with limited minds will see me as completely crackers, living up to the reputation we authors have for strangeness. And I freely acknowledge, though never admit for an admission should be reserved for crimes only, that it is indeed very strange to have a pet chicken.
Yes. A pet chicken. I have many chickens that, while pets, live the lives you’d expect them to live: outdoors, roaming free, digging up worms and sleeping in a coop. Roxy, however, through no fault of anyone, cannot live the normal life of a chicken. But she is happy. I make sure of that, every day. A chicken needs a flock, so it’s easy to see why, for Roxy, that flock is composed of one tall human and five cats in a coop called a house that we all see as home.
Michael Jackson had his monkey. This author has his one of a kind, very special, pet chicken. Officially, Roxy is a bantam breed – that is to say, miniature – and is a Poland hen (or Polish if you’re in the US). Polands are renowned for their gentle characters and zany antics, being kept more as ornamental (that is to say, pretty) birds than for meat – never for meat, they don’t have much on them – or eggs, although the eggs are edible, just small, and you don’t get any in the winter months. Unofficially, I refer to Roxy as a nano- or micro-chicken, because she has two conditions, only one of which seems to cause her trouble, that being epilepsy. The other is dwarfism. Roxy is roughly only a third of the size a Poland hen should be. The world’s smallest chicken breed is the Serama, and I have three of those – a cockerel and two hens. Roxy is the same size as the smallest of those two Serama hens, maybe just a smidgen smaller still.
Whether dwarfism is more prevalent among Polands, I cannot say or even guess, although I know epilepsy is common. Polands have big mop-top feathers on their heads, and any breed of chicken with that kind of look comes with a built-in design flaw: a hole in the top of the skull. If it is pecked or hit, the effect is worse than the Vulcan neck pinch of Star Trek: while Spock can fell a man into unconsciousness, a blow to the head can instanteously kill a Poland chicken or result in lasting brain damage.
I don’t think Roxy was hit on the head by another chicken, nor did she fall and bang her head. Quite early on in her development – I hatched a number of Poland eggs under a Dorking hen and a Silkie hen, they shared mothering duties – I noticed that Roxy simply wasn’t growing as fast as her siblings. I first saw her have a seizure when she was about six weeks old.
Roxy doesn’t know my name; rather, she knows the part I play in her life. The fact that I am a man is irrelevant; to Roxy, I am the mother hen. The protector. The person she trusts. Like all animals that have been domesticated and brought inside our homes, Roxy is infantile, although not deliberately made so. As with cats and dogs being forever kittens and puppies in our company, Roxy, being a pet bird, is a forever chick.
Roxy is aware of her own existence, of course she is. She knows her name, despite not knowing mine. She seems to have learned that my parents get referred to as ‘Nana and Grandad’, although I suspect she sees ‘Nana and Grandad’ as a destination rather than two individual human beings. That’s because, in much the same way as a dog recognises ‘walkies’, Roxy perks up if I say to her ‘let’s go visit Nana and Grandad’ because that’s the cue for her carry basket to come out, followed by a three-quarter-hour trip in the car with me. My father, who is 92, greatly benefits from these visits, not only, I am sure, for seeing one of his sons but also because he gets to pet and fuss Roxy. My father and mother are both much too old now to be burdened with the responsibility of a pet full-time but the ability to show tenderness towards Roxy is, I think, a positive contribution to their lives – and mine, because I like to see my father, especially, smiling as Roxy walks up his arm and perches on his shoulder like the strangest parrot you’d ever see.
Roxy is capable of making choices, decisions – do I go this way, shall I wander over there, I like this, I don’t like this. When you’ve spent a lot of time in her company, as I have, you come away from each encounter with a deepening sense that this tiny, disabled bird is far more complex than your average person would imagine or even entertain as a notion.
There are those for whom the idea of keeping a pet chicken, regardless of Roxy’s circumstances being exceptional and rare, as completely ridiculous; something to laugh at, to mock, to pour scorn over. Being frank, people like that make me sick. First of all, it’s none of their damn business what pets other people have, so long as animal welfare is being maintained at a high standard all the time. But more importantly, I rail against this bad attitude because it simply doesn’t make any sense. I mean, almost every day I see people walking their dogs of all shapes and sizes; the majority of those people are obviously responsible and love their animals, because they bring with them plastic bags to scoop up the poop their pets produce, and bin it. Now, while I see this as entirely appropriate behaviour, I could choose to interpret it in another light, from a different perspective. I could say, how ridiculous it is to follow a dog around with a plastic bag to pick up its shit. I might add, a chicken’s poop can be put to good use in the garden, where as a dog’s crap certainly can’t, lest it contaminate growing vegetables and fruit or, worse, infect your children with strange worms and invisible parasitical organisms. That is, after all, why you follow your dog around with a plastic bag in the first place. To ensure the safety of others.
Even though some of my best friends are feline, you could see the cat litter tray as a total absurdity. How many of us keep one of these toilets on the kitchen floor, and are prepared to change it regularly while holding our noses? And let’s not even mention putting up with fur balls, disembowelled mouse gifts and more.
My point is, it can be argued that keeping any pets at all is stupid or wrong or crazy. And there are people who do think that way, viewing pets as unnecessary, troublesome and difficult to manage when you want a holiday. Which is fine. They’re not wrong. The reason they’re not wrong is because their view is what it is. My view, shared with millions of others around the world, is that pets of all kinds can be very rewarding to keep. Responsibility for their care is a joy, most of the time. The heartache that comes when they die is only a full stop at the end of a long and happy sentence and, beyond that period marker, we keep the memories forever, being shaped by them, influenced by them, even, in our careers or whether we go on to keep other pets, what pets we go on to get. And we’re not wrong, either, because our view of the world is what it is.
Ultimately, what bugs me is the judging. Enough already. Mind your own. If you think keeping a pet chicken is daft, I feel sorry for you having such a closed mind.