We don’t know where she came from: we heard a knock on the door and there she was. She stalked from room to room, pausing to check out anything that caught her eye. In the kitchen we found her something to eat, which went well. After that we saw her often, wandering from house to house, knocking to be let in. If no one answered or she wasn’t welcome, she’d try the next neighbor. But our place was her favorite hangout. She’d sit preening herself by the computer while Annie was working, or roost on the sofa as we watched TV.

One time the landlord arrived to inspect the place. He nosed about and asked suspiciously, “you’re not keeping animals here are you?” “Of course not!” said Annie warmly, propelling him round a corner, away from the large red chicken advancing up the hall.

If there’s one thing chickens hate it’s being alone. We realized that, to the red hen, our company was a substitute for that of her own kind. So we found her a companion, an old black hen who had been living by herself. They soon were inseparable.

But there came a day when the red hen didn’t seem herself. She stood awkwardly, eyes half shut, not much interested in anything. We debated what to do, but suddenly she seemed to recover, bustling about her business as usual. Then in the evening she seemed poorly again. So we rang the only vet clinic open on a Sunday night. They weren’t keen—told us the minimum fee was $90 and asked, was it worth it – for a chicken? When we got there, we waited a couple of hours while people with cats and dogs were seen before us. We sat looking at a sign announcing that priority would be given to animals with life-threatening conditions. Eventually we got to see a vet but he showed little interest. He was tired and clearly thought we were wasting his time. He pushed his fingers through her feathers and held her out to me. “Feel that,” he said, pressing my hand into the bird’s breast. “If that was a frozen chicken, you’d put it back in the freezer.” He told us she was dying and offered to euthanize her immediately.

Instead, we paid our $90 and took her back with us. She perked up enough to manage a couple more days blinking in the winter sun, foraging with her companion, eating a few morsels. Then she ebbed away. But at least she didn’t die in that unsympathetic place, at those unsympathetic hands.

Sympathy is a Greek word meaning (like its Latinate equivalent, compassion) the capacity to experience the feelings of another as your own. Sympathy and compassion for animals’ suffering is dismissed as anthropomorphism, concern for their well-being as immaturity, calls for their freedom from exploitation as irrationality. In fact, there is nothing shallow or easy about real sympathy. In fact it takes a shallow mind to dismiss the suffering of a dying red hen.




Philip Armstrong and Annie Potts