Today I had to enlist my emergency self-care plan. After a black bear destroyed our chicken coop in the middle of the night, leaving just one lone-surviving hen — Willie, who I had to place with a new family today — I am now left with zero chickens. And let me just tell you that today has been one of the saddest (and in some ways one of the happiest) days of my life. I’m sure this story will be heavy for some of you to read, but I promise its gets lighter at the end. I’ve done my best to leave out the gruesome details, and to only keep in the parts that are essential to my message: Having a self-care practice helps us navigate life’s difficult moments more effectively.
Now back to Willie…
Willie is a survivor.
She always has been.
Many of the chicks in her flock didn’t make it past the shipping container. When I asked the farm store clerk if they had any Wyandottes available, she said she’d have to check because not many had survived.
But Willie had survived.
A couple of days after I brought her home, though, three of the other chicks ganged up on her and pecked her left eye closed completely. It was swollen shut for days and we were fairly certain she’d be blind in that eye, which is why we named her one-eyed Willie (if you’ve seen The Goonies, then you’ll understand the reference), but she proved us wrong and the other eye eventually opened.
And there have been several other attacks.
So far, she’s survived a pine marten attack, two black bear attacks, and a miniature dachshund attack (the latter of which happened this morning, just a few short hours after the last bear attack, and it was probably the most terrifying of them all).
Willie has never been much of a leader, but she’s observant, cautious, and fast. She’s a badass.
Bears are starting to come out of hibernation…and they’re hungry. Really hungry. In fact, last year (on this exact day ironically) we snapped a photo of a black bear in our front yard rummaging through the trash. It was the first bear I’d ever seen since we moved here. That was before we realized the importance of storing food (garbage, bird feeders, chicken feed, etc.) inside. But bears are no strangers to this area. Last year there were 800 reports of bear incidents in our county alone. And let’s be honest, we’re the ones encroaching on their neighborhood.
Last night, the sound of scratching outside my window jolted me awake just before midnight. It sounded like someone was prying the chicken coop apart with a hacksaw. Shining a flashlight from my bedroom window, the only thing I could see was yellow eyes. (And it sure AF wasn’t Scut Farkus.)
The game cam showed exactly what it was: a black bear. A large black bear.
I didn’t know for sure what had happened until dawn, when it was safe enough to venture out and take a closer look.
Sadly, when I arrived there were no chickens left in the coop.
The Will to Survive
I didn’t know it at the time, but the bear had somehow missed one of the chickens. One had escaped.
And I only discovered she was still alive after I heard my dachshund launch an attack. Feathers were flying and I was screaming as I ran full speed in my rubber boots, eventually face-planting in the mud and tackling her before she did any real damage to Willie.
It was a total effing sh*t show.
Covered in mud, my heart was racing, I was gasping for breath, and my lungs felt like someone had taken a bag of razor blades to them. But Willie was safe.
It became clear pretty quickly after assessing the damage that Willie would need to find a new home. Chickens are highly social creatures, so being alone wasn’t an option. But the even bigger issue was that there was no safe place for her to live here anymore. There was little doubt in my mind the bear would return. (This wasn’t his first visit here.) And there simply wasn’t enough time to make adequate enhancements to the coop.
A Parting Gift from Willie
One thing I love about living in this part of the country is that there are plenty of people who love chickens. It only took a handful of calls and texts to find my girl a new home.
After I made arrangements for her to move to Fox Hollow Farm, a local safe haven for animals, I was finally able to breathe for the first time.
I cancelled a few appointments, took a shower, and calmed myself down. But soon it was time to take Willie to her new home.
As I gathered my keys and reached for the crate she had been safely resting in, I noticed that she was standing over an egg. Despite everything that had unfolded over the past 12 hours, she still managed to lay an egg.
(I told you she was a badass.)
And it was her final gift to me.
After thanking her for the gift, we headed to Fox Hollow Farm, where horses, pigs, chickens, and I’m sure many other animals that I didn’t see on my walk to the barn, hang out like they’re at some kind of animal day spa.
Willie wasn’t quite sure what to make of her new home at first. She had never seen a horse and the bantam chickens were new to her as well. But I think she’ll fit in just fine. She’s always been the odd hen out, the lowest in the pecking order. But now she’s the largest of the bunch, and while I can’t say for sure, it seems like that has to give her a boost of something positive.
After sitting with her for a while to make sure she was comfortable, I knew it was time for me to go. I lifted the crate from the barn floor and headed back to the car, but just before I opened the door to leave, Therese, the kind soul who helped me get Willie settled in, shouted “Come visit her any time you like.”
Her words felt like a warm hug.
When I returned home Willie’s egg was still warm, and it was a pleasant reminder that almost every ending comes with a new beginning.
I started writing almost immediately, with puffy lips, a stuffed up nose, and tears streaming down my face. I couldn’t help but glance out the window toward the empty coop and the splintered wood scattered across the ground beneath the towering trees. And then I closed the curtains.
My dear friends used to live out there.
Today, Willie taught me about survival, determination, and resiliency.
Learning From Nature
It might surprise you to know that I’m not angry about any of this. Am I sad that my feathered friends are gone? Hell yes. But I also understand the will to survive that Willie demonstrated is the very same will to survive that drove the bear to attack.
Nature has endless lessons to teach us. And even though it’s going to take some time to interpret the meaning behind this experience, I’ve learned that remaining open to learning is the key to healing.
I don’t understand why my friends were taken from me.
But, then again, I don’t understand why they were given to me in the first place.
They were gifts; that’s the only thing I know for sure.
Overcoming Life’s Difficult Moments with Self-Care
So here’s the reason I’m sharing this story with you: Self-care is vital. It’s not a luxury that only a few people get to experience; it’s for all of us. It’s a tool for healing. It’s how we pick ourselves up after we face-plant. And it’s what helps us say goodbye with a grateful heart.
Here are a few examples of how I enlisted my self-care survival plan today:
- Solve the immediate problem. Just like any emergency situation, safety is the first order of business. Until I was certain that Willie, the dogs and I were all safe, my brain could not process anything else. That’s basic self-care.
- Solve the long-term problem. Once I rescued Willie and safely confined her to a crate in the house with food and water, I realized I needed to find her a new home by the end of the day. Caked in mud or not, the shower would wait. When you care about other living things, self-care and selflessness are so intertwined they simply can’t be separated.
- Rearrange the day. A couple quick calls and emails allowed me focus on a few important items, and clear some space for myself. The massage that I had scheduled for earlier that morning was promptly canceled — there was no way in hell it would have been enjoyable.
- Take a hot shower. Once I found Willie a new home, I was able to take a moment to breathe. My physical body needed to recover before I could do anything else.
- Cry. After I showered, the tears flowed freely. I felt my body coming down from the adrenaline rush and the pain started to creep in.
- Meditate. Once the tears slowed, I sat quietly and until I felt calm. As an introvert, spending time alone in self-reflection isn’t negotiable, it’s a requirement.
- Close the curtains. As beautiful as my backyard is in spring-time, it just wasn’t helpful for me to stare out the window at an empty coop. I’ve learned that controlling what my eyes focus on makes a big difference in how I process moments like this.
- Journal/Write. Writing in my journal (as well as writing this blog) was a critical therapeutic exercise. It helped me organize my thoughts and process the situation.
- Turn off the chicken alarm. The alarm on my phone (affectionately titled “Damn Chickens”), which I set to remind myself to lock the chickens in at night, is no longer needed. In fact, now it’s a negative trigger.
- Make tea. There’s just something soothing about a hot cup of tea. A glass of wine would have only heightened my sad emotional state, so that was a firm no.
Through all the sadness, I can’t help but smile thinking about Willie’s fun adventures to come at Fox Hollow Farm. She’ll have more sunshine, lots of animals to interact with, and a much lower chance of encountering a bear.
Sometimes we have to look for the sunshine.
There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in. – Leonard Cohen
If you don’t love chickens the way I do, this all might seem a bit over the top. I get it. But the truth is, a personalized self-care plan can be used for just about any difficult moment: the death or illness of a loved one, the end of a relationship, a natural disaster. The list is endless. Just think of any situation that makes you feel overwhelmed with emotion and self-care has value.
When life’s heavy moments arrive, just know that if Willie can make it through, so can you. (And if you need a reminder, you can go visit her any time you like.)