A friend sent me a link to an article a week ago and I've been meaning to write about it. His email's subject line was "Grist" -- and indeed, the article was grist (as far as the ol' idiom goes, anyway). It was a link to an October 6 piece written by Marci Riseman on the Salon.com website ("My chicken's $300 vet bill") and it was overflowing with fodder for me to try to process to address in a blog post. My disgust with the piece left it on the back-burner until today.
The article starts off with Riseman's family taking in chicks left over from her son's first-grade classroom experiment -- chicks otherwise destined for a farm after having "outlived" their educational use. The chicks went from being a classroom experiment to Riseman's "urban farming experiment" and grew into four Plymouth Rock adults, two of whom she named, albeit admitting that she couldn't tell one apart from the other. They became commodities.
Riseman describes how her family has been providing the chickens with basic necessities so that they could collect and use their eggs -- eggs she says they "feel a bit smug about" since the members of her family are purportedly "masters of [their] urban farm". She insists that they live in "harmony" with these chickens, but that they draw a line concerning how they perceive them:
I can't quite say the chickens are our pets, not in the way our cat is our pet. Yet they are somehow part of the family[.]And it is while keeping this strange jumbled explanation of her relationship with them in mind that Riseman tells of coming home one day to find one of the chickens "listless" in their backyard coop. For the sake of the article, she calls the chicken Tallulah and proceeds to write of her decision to take Tallulah to the vet's. Out of sincere concern for her ailing chicken? Uh... right.
My friend Patrick was visiting from Boston, and I'd dragged him along[...]. Patrick and I looked at each other and tried not to titter in this somber place where people brought their beloved pets, a place where we had brought a farm animal.As they listened in on other patients' conversations with the vet, their hilarity overflowed and they "glanced at each other and couldn’t contain [their] nervous laughter any longer". When Riseman goes on to describe her own turn in the examination room, she first mocks the vet's somber and earnest tone during Tallulah's examination, and then conveys her own near-inability to suppress her laughter over the chicken's predicament:
I bit the inside of my lip to keep from giggling. [...] I pressed my lips together and flared my nostrils in a moderately successful attempt at mirth suppression.And then:
The vet was so earnest, so impassive. She did not know whether we considered Tallulah to be livestock or a treasured pet; I wasn't sure either. I just knew that when the vet proposed the options, they sounded absurd -- and I chose among them anyway, the way I would have for our cat[.] Extreme measures for our cat made a certain amount of sense. She was our pet, we slept with her at night, she purred and loved us back. I was not going to let her go blind. In that spirit, I agreed to an X-ray and a fecal analysis. I thought: That makes sense.Was there some sort of epiphany where Riseman suddenly saw that the chicken's life was worth anything outside of her use to Riseman's family (i.e. worth that was either earned through eggs or snuggles)? Did she suddenly feel concern for Tallulah's condition? Not really.
It was not until I was in the car driving home that I was overcome. Not with a giggle, or a chuckle, but with crazed, swerve-into-oncoming-traffic laughter as I understood the ridiculousness of this situation. For authorizing exorbitant tests, I was ridiculous. For not feeling more pain over Tallulah's obvious distress, I was ridiculous and wicked.And it was with these thoughts that Riseman informed her husband of the predicament -- of the tests and associated costs, and he too became "maniacal", pointing out to that for the $300 or so they'd be spending, they could "buy 150 new chicks".
Riseman makes sure to assure her readers that the $300+ wouldn't be spent for the chicken's sake, but the sake of her human children who would obviously be more distressed than their mother. The vet finally called with a nightmarish diagnosis of what was wrong: Tallulah's stomach had literally exploded and its contents had spread throughout her body "causing widespread infection", and although surgery was possible, the prognosis wasn't great. And Riseman? Riseman fought back the temptation to ask about the cost, fearing she "would not be able to ask without chortling".
Riseman had left her friend with the chicken and he went through the motions of dealing with the euthanasia. In her article, Riseman mocks the thoughtfulness and consideration of the staff at the veterinarian's office. They treated the friend as someone who'd shared some sort of emotional bond with the hapless chicken and if any of you have ever gone through the sad, sad experience of having to say your goodbyes to a beloved non-human in this setting, you may--as I did--feel a bit of extra disgust for Riseman's derision for these professionals who help people deal with actual loss on a daily basis.
When the chicken was gone and Riseman's friend was released from his temporary role as token pretend care-giving human, they "dissolved into peals of laughter" with "tears streaming down" their faces. The vet bill, you see, would have covered the cost of "191 chicks, 128 dozen supermarket eggs, or 55 dozen of the most expensive, organic, free-range farmer's market eggs". Riseman says of herself at one point: "I was aware that I was a small-hearted person who did not deserve to own chickens." The sad truth, obviously lost upon Riseman, is that nobody deserves to "own" anybody.
One chicken's life broken down into dollars and cents; one chicken's life for a day's worth of hilarity. That's what happens when we allow ourselves to view sentient beings as things.