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By Jenny Rose Ryan Urban backyard hens fall somewhere between livestock and pet. Domesticated excessively and spoiled by table scraps, the small plot laying hen is the luckiest of fowl, selected randomly from billions for leisure and relative calm — a life of ultimate privilege.
For many kids, loving these backyard hens is automatic. Our son leads them on adventures in the yard, arranging obstacle courses and gathering eggs with puffed-up pride and ludicrousness in equal measure. He’s not only learning about where eggs come from and how to keep a domesticated animal happy, he’s gaining socially and emotionally from the experience.
According to teacher Shauna Patterson-Lystra of Seattle, “Keeping animals helps kids develop and practice compassion and kindness. They can receive unconditional love and affection from all types of domestic animals, and practice relationship building as well as responsibility and maintaining a long-term commitment. Care is needed even when the newness wears off.”
The relationships we develop with these flocks range from utilitarian to extremely social, with hens like mine feeling almost more like a pet than a domestic animal providing food to our family.
Despite this idyllic outward appearance, we know how vulnerable our sweet backyard flocks can be to predators. Keeping hens safe and healthy so we can keep getting high-quality eggs from them for years is our primary motivation. But sometimes things happen. And this miserable downside of keeping backyard hens — dealing with their deaths — can be dramatic, sudden, and maybe even traumatic for kids.
In our case, it was going to be 85 degrees F and perfect, and our son was excited to meet friends at the beach. As we prepared to leave, I called our dog Laika and she wouldn’t come. I soon realized why: she’d broken down the door to the chicken run was still picking at the remains of Etta, Repecka (Pecky for short) and Lulu.
I was stunned. Laika was sheepish as I admonished her with “bad dog,” putting her tail as far under her as she could as I dragged her into her crate. We’d raised her around them, free-ranging the hens with her while we taught her to leave them alone. It was a betrayal and shocking. When I first walked upon her in the chicken run, pulling out feathers from poor Etta, she looked proud. “Look, mommy! I caught those birds!”
We were worried about how our then-six-year-old would take it. To him, our backyard hens are really pets that also give us eggs, and he saw their breed features as personality traits unique to his flock, not something created by humanity through domestication. Once you know the charm of a Barred Rock like Pecky, how can we help kids forgive the dumb dog, feel better, and move on?
Here is how we approached the situation, with some tips from a clinical psychologist.
Calm Down, Then Be Honest
“Parents might consider taking some time to adjust to the loss before talking with their kids, as children rely heavily on emotional cues from caregivers,” says Mackenzie Miller, Psy.D., LP, Clinical Psychologist, in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Share the truth of what happened after you’ve calmed down and dealt with the aftermath, using age-appropriate language that won’t scare your child. Allow them to have whatever emotional reaction comes naturally.
When Laika killed our hens, that’s what I said. My son’s response was “WHAT?” followed by “bad dog.” Later in the evening he said he was sad, but thought they didn’t suffer because Laika was a “good killer.” I guess that meant she was still okay in his book. He was sad, but he understood she couldn’t really stop herself.
Listen and Offer Support
Experts agree that you should follow the child’s lead, allowing them to ask questions and express thoughts at their own pace, in a developmentally appropriate way. Maybe they’ll be fine with it immediately, or maybe they’ll wonder about Chicken Elysium next week; you should be ready for the questions and with the hugs.
“In talking to children about loss of a beloved pet (no matter how small), be mindful of developmental level of understanding of death and capacity to cope with emotions,” reminds Dr. Miller.
If the loss of the flock or hen is a result of your mistake or negligence and something can be changed or learned from it, tell your child what you will do to help make sure it doesn’t happen again. For us, we made a family pact to not let the dog out alone while I worked on covering the run and rebuilding the door that she broke down with her battering-ram head. Say you’re sorry if you feel like you should. Lead by example with humility.
“Children’s emotions tend to be intense, but short-lived,” says Dr. Miller. “If parents model calm it demonstrates that everyone (parents and kids) can tolerate the difficult emotion — which builds these emotional regulation skills.”
Remind your child why you keep hens and what they’re for (food, one way or another). Remember the good times and remind your child that they had good lives. Refer to how spoiled yours were, and how their last meal was stew and how they had full bellies and were taking dust baths when the dog had her day. Provide information that is factual and developmentally appropriate.
“Pre-school kids have a different understanding of death compared to those at school age,” reminds Dr. Miller.
Let Them Choose Replacements
When you get around to replacing members of your flock, allow your child to select the breed/s of your new hens. Consider new options to distract from the old hens, try an exotic breed or an Easter egger or take the humorous route and get the same breed and name her Pecky 2.
Whatever you choose can help your child move through the process with ease, compassion, calm — and maybe even a bit of humor.
Why It’s Still Worth It
Kids gain a lot of confidence out of the keeping of backyard hens and other animals, learning how every creature fits into the food web and into culture. In our case, we’ve learned the circle of life includes predators that live with us (dogs) and those who are outside our families — such as the northern goshawk that took out two-thirds of our next flock just a year later.
The opportunities for keeping hens and kids happy together are as endless as the calamities that can befall our flocks.
The surviving Black Australorp, Freida, went into a three-month molt before being joined by Dave, a White Leghorn, and Henny-Penny, a Buff Orpington. Yes, they’re all hens. We are also using them to teach about gender, identity, and naming. She also really looks like a Dave.
Jenny Rose Ryan is a writer, editor, and communications consultant in the Pacific Northwest who tends an urban menagerie that includes hens, dogs, guinea pigs, and whatever she says yes to next. Originally from rural northwestern Wisconsin, she seeks to honor the hardworking farmworkers and tillers of the land by bringing her city soil back to life and helping to empower others in their own attempts. Follow her on Instagram @chaosgardens
Originally published in the June/July 2020 issue of Backyard Poultry and regularly vetted for accuracy.