Healing with hens

Healing with hens

When I adopted my son, he had been living in foster care. He was frightened and struggling. Then he was befriended by a very special chicken.

June 23, 2020

My son Zach was 10 when I adopted him; his time in foster care had taken a toll. An emaciated child, he wore a size 3 toddler bathing suit when he moved in. He pulled out his hair, hit his head on furniture, had tantrums. Terrified of storms, loud noises and insects, he wouldn’t leave the house.

Zach had special needs: Fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD), developmental delays and an anxiety disorder, among them. Kids like Zach don’t make friends easily, and often aren’t invited to birthday parties or play dates. He was lonely. 

At last a birthday invite arrived and Zach was thrilled to be included. He headed to the party in his coolest shirt, gift in hand. But the noise was overwhelming for him, and he didn’t fit in. Instead of playing with the other boys he hid in the basement and played video games by himself. He came home head down, feet dragging. I cajoled him to help with barn chores and feed the chickens. They ran to him, let him pick them up. They found something interesting in the grass and clucked, an invitation for others to join the party. 

Zach on the farm with one of his favourite hens.


Hens became a strange source of security for Zach and he took comfort in their world. He had sensory processing issues and when the world became too much he’d dump all the clothes from his dresser, build a nest of shirts and pants and huddle inside it screaming and crying. He was afraid to be outside, and if a bee sailed past or a dark cloud loomed he would duck back inside. Even if the entire family was in the yard having fun, Zach remained in hiding. 

Then one day a special hen moved in. I’d bribed Zach to attend a camp for children with learning disabilities by telling him he’d get his very own chicken. At week’s end a small white Silkie hen, who’d been destined for wing night at a restaurant, arrived. She was christened Pipsqueak. We saved Pipsqueak, and in turn, she saved Zach.

He carried her around the yard, and if a bug emerged he’d hide behind her but wouldn’t flee. If a storm came he’d tuck her safely into the barn before seeking shelter himself. 

By the time Pipsqueak reached the end of her life, Zach was a different person. A burly 18-year-old man, he sat with his dying hen—now 8 years old. Zach was crying too hard to speak. 

Zach and Pipsqueak share happy times together.

I sat down, offered a hug, and Zach stopped crying. “She’s so lucky, not being eaten, running loose on a farm and to have a best friend like you. Not many teenagers will hang out with old ladies.”

Zach laughed. “Remember how little she was at first?” he reminisced. “She was so skinny and scared but she ended up nice and chubby.”

It dawned on me Pipsqueak and Zach had resembled each other. Both arrived at the farm tiny and fearful after enduring trauma. They’d grown, healed and found freedom because of each other.

Pipsqueak died the next morning. After a quiet funeral Zach dried his eyes with his sleeve. He still had chickens to feed and a new Silkie chicken had just moved in ... Mildred the rooster.

Zach now has a whole brood of feathered friends.

Zach has changed dramatically since joining the family. His anxiety is nearly gone, his emotions are calmed, and all the ticks and twitches he once had are no more. One thing hasn’t changed: Zach’s certainty that there’s no better friend than a chicken. We call him “the chicken whisperer”. A decade after becoming a member of the flock, and months after Pipsqueak left him, Zach is still wandering the yard happily with a Silkie hen by his side.

Photos: Personal collection



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