Special needs

How a chicken taught my son to live

"She set him on a path to healing he might not have found without her."

How a chicken taught my son to live

Photo: Valerie Howes

My 18-year-old son, Zach, trudged quietly to the graveside, a red geranium clutched in his hand. I walked alongside him and his brother and sisters followed close behind. The dim November light and the fallow brown fields provided a sombre backdrop for the funeral of a dear member of the family: Pipsqueak the chicken.

Our family lives on a farm, and we’ve had hundreds of friendly chickens through the years, most of whom ended up being composted in the manure pile after their death from natural causes. But Pipsqueak required a proper burial because she was no ordinary chicken. She was my son’s therapy pet.

That’s right, my son didn’t have a dog or a horse for a support animal—he had a chicken.

Zach and Pipsqueak both joined our family eight years ago, just a month apart. Zach was an emaciated kid with undiagnosed special needs twitching with anxiety after years in foster care. He was delayed at school and needed to attend a speech and language camp, but he refused to go. I begged and begged and then finally bartered. “I’ll do it for a pet chicken” he decided. That’s when Pipsqueak, a Silkie hen with soft downy feathers and a little Victorian plume on top of her head, entered his life.

Soon after joining our family, Zach was diagnosed with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder and an intellectual delay that made managing his significant anxiety disorder a difficult task. Immensely afraid of insects and always on alert for a storm rolling in, Zach remained housebound vibrating with terror. One afternoon, we held a BBQ for friends, and despite my best effort, Zach wouldn’t budge from the house—I brought him a plate of food, and he watched us from the window. He’d known so much heartache in his life, I was devastated he couldn’t enjoy a few minutes of peace in the summer sun.

Once Pipsqueak arrived, he slowly began venturing outside in order to be with her. Her soft plumes were heaven for his sensory seeking needs, and Pipsqueak was willing to go anywhere Zach did. In turn, we repaid her with treats of tomato and sunflower seeds. Inexplicably, Pipsqueak offered a stability and comfort no one else could—not our gentle Labrador, not me. Perhaps that was because Pipsqueak demanded nothing from Zach, but was merely content to keep him company wherever he went.

The next time we had a BBQ, Zach was able to come outside and join the festivities because he had Pipsqueak to sit beside him at the picnic table. He made it through the meal and even laughed at a joke or two. Then he took a stroll with his hen. Day by day, with Pipsqueak next to him as he explored the world, his fears melted away and eventually Pipsqueak spent more time rooting for insects in the grass than she did calming Zach. By the end of that summer, Zach was able to wait for the school bus as if he’d always felt safe outdoors.

Since then, Zach has matured, learned to self-regulate, and is no longer ruled by fear. Pipsqueak had started it all. On the night before her death, we stood in Pipsqueak’s coop, warming her under a heat lamp and my son—now a massive young man—fell into my arms and sobbed. She’d meant everything to him. Since joining the family, Zach had seen a psychiatrist, was prescribed medications, saw numerous counsellors, and I’d taken a parenting course designed for caregivers of children with Zach’s issues. But despite all the hours and money invested in these standard forms of treatment, I can honestly say that no one did more for my son than that funny little chicken. She set him on a path to healing he might not have found without her.


“She was my best friend,” Zach said, laying the flower on her grave. “I’ll never have a chicken like her.” And he won’t, because she’d accomplished her job. As Zach wiped tears from his eyes with his sleeve, my own tears began to fall. I owed Pipsqueak an enormous debt of gratitude I’d never be able to repay; it was because of her that my son was able to stand outside that night free of fear, to say goodbye to his feathered friend.

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