I confess: I have been, well, chicken about holding the hens. It doesn't make sense; I've wrangled feral and stray cats; I was a "cat socializer" in a shelter with truly antisocial felines; for years I had a pet-sitting service and confidently cared for typical household critters plus rats and iguanas. I've been bitten, scratched, and dragged once on my ass along icy pavement by a zealous standard poodle puppy. But the hens' skittishness makes me skittish; I jump when they flap. Also, I feel badly about handling an animal that displays such a desperate resistance to being handled. I picked up Captain Pecker once, but she was about to die and gave as much resistance as a supermarket broiler. But I had volunteered Michael to bring a bird in for circle time at Stellina's school and he had to work, and showing up with picture books and a dozen eggs just wouldn't cut it. I gave myself a stern talking to, put on a pair of work gloves that made me feel less vulnerable (vulnerable to what, I don't know. They have no teeth; being pecked is about as painful as being poked with a pair of kid's scissors).
(Betty, center. Notice the vicious pit bull lounging to the left.)
Betty is a minorca with beautiful blue-black feathers, and truthfully not the quickest of the flock in either acuity or agility. I scooped her up and held her tight, tucking her under my arm. I actually think she liked it -- not getting caught, but being held. She hunkered down in her portable nest and I tried not to think about how many fried-chicken meals may have been transported in that vintage, gingham-lined, ample picnic basket.
Upon our arrival, Stellina's classmates were already seated around the edge of the Earth-motif rug, and teachers Miss Karen and Miss Annie were reminding them that the Montessori ethics of grace and courtesy extend to guest with feathers. Stellina helped me unpack our props -- cartons of eggs, a photo book of unusual chicken breeds, containers of pine shavings and layer pellets, a travel-size waterer -- to which the kids gave a polite, cursory look, but all attention was on the rustling basket. I spread a towel on my lap and made poop jokes, always a guaranteed hit with the 3-to-6-year-old set. And then I acted like I'd held a chicken on my lap more than once (that one time being en route to the vet with a failing Captain Pecker) and Betty seemed calm, like she was a regular attraction on the education circuit. Or she was catatonic. I don't think so...but what do I know of the emotional life and body language of poultry?
The children were quiet and gentle -- all except Stellina, who found it challenging to share a parent and a pet at the same time. In my mind she threw a Tasmanian Devil-caliber tantrum, yet all the while the rest of the kids stroked Betty and asked questions, and her teachers gave me reassuring looks, mouthed "it's okay," and calmly redirected her. As literate as I am of the emotional life and body language of my daughter, she is so central in my consciousness, as symbolized perfectly by her stomping in frustration in the middle of the continental carpet, that I can't possibly see (or hear) her objectively. Miss Annie later assured me that Stellina was composed and cooperative within moments of Betty's and my exit. As for Betty, when I unlatched the basket back at home, she hopped out and joined her flock without incident for a session of bug-hunting among the autumn oak leaves.