The Physics of Giving a Chicken a Bath


The white pasty butt on the chicken was still there in the morning. And that evening too. It continued on for weeks, despite all my wishing that it would suddenly disappear. No one had warned me about this when I inquired about the live edged, hand crafted chicken coop that would add a touch of character to our suburban backyard. Or when I picked out fancy chickens by name. Buff Orpingtons, Speckled Sussex, Rhode Island Reds. To me they practically evoked varieties of wine. I imagined myself walking across the green grassy yard to collect the eggs. What kind of basket would I carry them in? Maybe an embroidered apron instead? Friends gifted me ceramic egg holders.

High hopes, indeed, for my free range chickens. There would be Omega 3 rich eggs that I could add to the milkshakes of my picky eater son just like when we ate them raw in my own childhood. I would confidently make French Meringue icing without calculating the risk of salmonella to my family. I would be the humanistic keeper of autonomous backyard chickens with a climbing stick jungle gym. Go forth and be free and watch out for hawks, I whispered. Their sunny yellow feathers rustled in the wind as they hunted for bugs among the flowers.

The day I noticed the weird white stuff on her tail feathers took me aback. I hoped it was an aberration of sorts. I quickly shifted my gaze to the other chickens who seemed fine and decided to push the pasty butt to the back of my mind just like I did back in high school geometry class when I didn’t understand the proof. I would think about it later, I promised myself. Maybe the chicken would get better on its own. Just like I would wake up and suddenly understand previously proven theorems before the final exam.
But it did not. It continued on, the white feathers, my averted gaze. Any eggs I collected were now under suspicion. I secretly bought free range eggs from the store and threw ours over the fence when no one was around. And it seemed like things were getting worse as the affected hen had decided to take naps in the coop. Any resentment I was feeling shifted over to guilt as I looked up images on the internet and realized I was dealing with something that had a name and a treatment. My hen probably had vent gleet. Suggestions to fix it required bathing and anti-fungal medication.
I stared at the pictures with a mixture of horror and disgust; the unwanted responsibility I felt for my sick chicken that I had tried to give a nice life. My inaction made me a fraud. What was I more willing to do? Give the chicken a bath or let it die? Learn the geometry or fail the exam?

I called a friend who had a son who had once raised chickens. Now he ran a goat cheese farm and wore muddy boots all the time. He did not wear cute aprons or imagine his hair blowing in the wind as he birthed baby goats, only imposters have time for such fantasy. I sent him a text, a begging sort of text, could he please stop by and have a look at my chicken and I would do anything for him, sort of text. I considered it a miracle when he stopped by after delivering cheese in the city and changing a flat tire that same afternoon.
We walked out back together and I pointed out the hen. He picked her right up in his weathered knowing hands, turned her upside down and gave the feathers a sniff. I hid my recoiling instinct and tried to act as if this was usual. I pretended we were two farmers, together, working things out. There was nothing to be scared of, I thought, as he set the hen back down. Just like when my math teacher erased the chalkboard and asked for volunteers to solve the next problem on the page. But still, I did not raise my hand.
“Do you have a bucket?” he asked. I stood there, considering his question, my few chicken supplies running through my head, (latex gloves, cat carrying cage that I had once used for a sick rooster, straw) “We could use this”, I said, pointing to the water pail. I picked it up and headed to the faucet. He suggested I add a drop or two of Dawn. And to also grab some towels. Emboldened by his company, I sprang into action with these things I understood. Baths, towels, soap.

We headed back out to the chicken. He made it look simple as I stood there clutching the towel, a safe distance away, acting helpful. I casually snapped a picture on my phone of the submerged bird. It looked so easy, bathing a chicken. Why had I been afraid? I sheepishly wrote him a check before he left, feeling like no amount was enough to make up for my inadequacy.

The chicken was much improved for a week or so but then the pasty butt came back. This time, I was on my own. But I knew what to do; after my haircut that Saturday I would bathe her myself. I dressed in comfortable yoga pants and one of those t-shirts with words on the front meant to inspire.
“Live with Intention” this one proffered. As I sat in the chair while the man blow-dried my hair I considered the afternoon that awaited. I felt more confident as I admired my hair in the mirror, feeling slightly smug that I defied stereotypes of farmer style. Maybe I could do it all.

It started out fine, just like when my real farmer friend did it, when I dipped her gently in the water, again, and again. But I sensed something amiss because she did not seem so relaxed. I felt her trying to escape my grip. Maybe she wanted to shake off the water herself? I decided to give her a break. I set her down with the tinest of tosses away from me so she didn’t get me wet when she shook, or my freshly dried hair.
Though she landed feet first, it was the unbalance of her wet feathers, a physics I did not predict, that caused her to do an unexpected flip. She frantically flapped her wings and did not right herself up. I stared at her in horror. It was her neck, suddenly and terribly askew. My body went numb at what I had accidentally done. Though she was still very much alive, the geometry of her body was very, very wrong. Even I could see that. I cursed my efforts and gathered her up in my arms, sinking to the ground. I sat her on my lap, her beak rested against my yogic shirt.

I am sorry. I said. I was only trying to help. And I watched her close her eyes.

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