Therapy… Chickens? Tove Danovich on Finding Comfort in Feathered Friends
“Some people pour themselves a glass of wine; others stare at chickens.”
“I’ve seen chickens on TikTok but not in person,” the student says as she wanders over to the table. Her eyes are wide, as though she can’t quite believe the rumors are true: there really is a therapy chicken sitting in front of her. Melissa has long brown hair and eyeliner drawn in a perfect cat eye. A black mask covers the lower half of her face. She reaches for the ball of fluff on the table and gives the chicken a couple light strokes at first, then starts gently raking her fingers into the bird’s feathers. Tilly, short for Atilla the Hen, sinks down into her woven cloth basket. The chicken is a sooty white with flecks of gray and black. She looks more like a hat than a hen.
“What kind of chicken is this?” Melissa asks.
“It’s called a Silkie,” answers Tanya Bailey, the woman standing next to me. Bailey has a crown of curly blonde hair on her head and wears pink pants and a floral-patterned shirt. She tells Melissa that if you look at a feather under a microscope, it looks like Velcro—covered in tiny hooks, called barbicels, that allow the feather to zipper together. “That’s what makes birds look so sleek. Silkies don’t have that gene. That’s why they just look like big poofs,” she laughs. With no barbicels, Silkies can’t fly at all.
Some version of the breed has been around so long that its exact origins have been lost to history, though in the thirteenth century Marco Polo wrote of chickens with hair like cats. Unscrupulous sellers have, on occasion, tried to pass Silkies off as a cross between a chicken and a rabbit—a genetic impossibility that nonetheless is a pretty accurate description. Handling Tilly feels like touching a furry cloud.Time spent with the flock seems to move differently than it does in the rest of my life.
Melissa pets Tilly for another minute before Bailey asks her how school is.
Melissa just shrugs.
“Are you a first-year?” Bailey asks her.
“How’s it going?” Bailey asks with light concern in her voice.
“It’s pretty good,” Melissa says, looking down as though she’s talking to Tilly. “I’ve had to learn to manage my time wisely, actually. There’s assignments for each class posted online every day. It’s hard to keep track of them all,” she says with an attempt at a laugh. “The other night all I did was homework and that was for, like, eight hours.”
Tilly nestles herself lower into the basket as Melissa pets her. I can’t see the lower half of the young woman’s face but get the feeling that this is something she’s been wanting to admit to someone for a while.
Bailey commiserates, saying that she was someone who needed a large chunk of free time to get anything done when she was in school. “It was hard for me,” she says.
Melissa nods. When another student walks up to Tilly, Melissa thanks Bailey and says goodbye. This is exactly the kind of exchange that Pet Away Worry and Stress, or PAWS, was meant to create at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. It’s not meant to be therapy, Bailey says of the program, though she is a licensed therapist. Her chickens, as well as the dogs, cats, rabbits, and even a miniature horse that sometimes visit the program, are just a way to make it easier to connect. “They’re a bridge for human-to-human interaction,” Bailey says. Students can feel overwhelmed by the thought of going to the campus mental health clinic or feel like their problems aren’t bad enough to talk to anyone about. But it’s easy to pet a chicken.
Bailey remembers one student who came every week throughout her entire four years at the university and cried during every session. “When we have students who are struggling, I’m able to pull them aside and say, ‘Here are some additional resources we have,’” Bailey says. “It helps get them in through the back door.”
And it’s clear that the chickens are a big draw. During the three days that I observe the program, multiple students mention that they’d heard PAWS has chickens and had to see it for themselves. Everyone’s reaction is different. Memorably, one young man just laughs while he puts his fingers in Tilly’s feathers. Another observes the hen closely from all angles as though he’s trying to make a 3D scan with his eyes. Some girls ask a lot of questions but don’t do much petting. One petite student visits two days in a row but hangs silently in the background like she’s hoping for a moment to be with the chicken one-on-one.
Bailey usually rotates her four therapy chickens on a weekly schedule—each coming to a week’s sessions then taking three weeks off—but she brings a different hen every day for my benefit. Unfortunately, I don’t get to meet Henley, who prefers walking on the table to sitting in her basket and will come up to cuddle any student who puts their arms out as if they’re asking for a hug. (She’s feeling broody the week of my visit.)
But after Tilly, I meet Hennifer, who is brown with copper highlights, and then Layla, who has a combination of gold and gray feathers referred to as “blue merle.” They all have slightly different personalities. (Hennifer is the most talkative of the hens and grumbles pleasantly as though having a conversation when people talk to her.)
Unlike the dogs, who happily endure being petted by as many as eight students at a time, rolling onto their sides for better access to belly rubs, there’s only so much real estate on a Silkie. Students linger in the background while someone strokes a hen, and Bailey often has to urge kids to “get in there.” In most cases, each group of students within earshot gets the same spiel.
As soon as Bailey establishes that this is, in fact, a chicken, she instructs students on the right way to pet one of the hens. “She loves her back. Not a huge fan of the top of her head. The more you pet her, the more she’ll do what she’s doing.” After a few pets, the Silkie’s back is nearly flat with the top of the basket. “She’s relaxed because you’re giving her a massage. Thank you for giving my chicken a massage,” she laughs.There’s nothing more Zen than watching chickens in the garden.
Bailey repeats the same quips many times. They’re new to the hundreds of different students who come through to give the hens a quick pet, and Bailey manages to act like she’s never told them before. “They’re called Silkies but should be called fluffies. Just look at them!” Or that to become therapy chickens, “They all have to sit through an exam, just like you do.” In fairness, there’s only so many topics of small talk when you’re petting a chicken, and Bailey has been using chickens as therapy animals for decades.
In 1999, Bailey started a therapeutic farm nonprofit outside the Twin Cities where she’d planned to have horses and sheep and dogs and cats. After talking to fellow social workers about kids’ reactions to different animals and thinking about it more, Bailey realized they should probably have chickens too. Dogs could be scary for some kids. Horses were big. “The chicken is an animal that, if you think about it, they’re part of everybody’s culture,” Bailey says. “They don’t really have a lot of negative connotations.”
Because chickens always came in a flock, the birds brought up some surprising conversations. “It gave me a unique way to talk about human relationships,” Bailey says. “I had two hens that both sat on eggs and raised thirteen chicks together—you have a same-sex marriage there. I had a rooster killed defending the flock—you have a widowed hen and the trauma of losing a father,” she recalls. “You name it and I have had it happen in my flock and had conversations with people about how the flock healed and managed it.” Animals are often referred to as a social lubricant because they provide a safe space for strangers to talk to each other (“Can I pet your dog?”), but they’re also a proxy for topics like loss that can be hard to talk about.
Bailey soon realized that for some people, chickens weren’t just a curiosity—they were the main event. One group of autistic boys was scheduled to come out to the farm twice a week for equine therapy, and on the second week they stopped, transfixed, in front of the chicken coop. At first, Bailey tried to rush them along to the animals they were supposed to be interacting with, but the boys insisted on seeing the chickens. “I knew then, horses were off the table.” She smiles.
“For the next twelve weeks we focused on chickens.” The boys trained the birds, learned about them, and even brought the chickens to school for a final show-and-tell in front of their peers. From that point forward, Bailey decided she would always work with therapy chickens. “The people I worked with weren’t just one type of person,” she says. So why wouldn’t she have a diverse group of animals too?
I’ve had many different pets in my life—rabbits, sheep, fish, small parrots, dogs, cats, and even a peacock—but there’s something special about chickens. Some of it comes from the fact that (though I rarely admit it) they don’t really need me. Of course, they rely on me for food and shelter and are better off thanks to a few necessary trips to the vet, but chickens aren’t dogs. I’ve never gotten the sense that they miss me when I go out of town. They don’t get sad if I don’t play with them.
As long as someone is giving them treats and cleaning the coop, I could be any two-legged creature in the world. I can’t even excuse it by saying they don’t know who I am. Chickens can distinguish between familiar and unfamiliar faces of their own and other species. They hardly blink when my dogs are nearby, but when we had a strange dog come to visit, they fluttered in alarm when the Golden Retriever politely sniffed the coop.
That doesn’t mean they aren’t curious about me. When we’re out in the yard, they walk up to me and peck my jeans or shoes. I assume they’re either checking to see if my clothing is food or hoping I’ll dispense treats at the push of a beak. It’s freeing. While I love the deep connection I have with my dogs, sometimes it’s nice to spend time with an animal that can take you or leave you. I only spend time with the chickens when I want to. And I find that I want to be around them often.
There’s nothing more Zen than watching chickens in the garden. It’s a bit like sitting on the beach as the waves come in—nothing is happening and yet there’s so much going on. Whatever the girls are doing, they’re utterly focused on it. People often say animals live in the moment, but my dogs wistfully lay on the floor while looking at the door, hoping I’ll get the hint and let them out. When I had sheep, they liked to come bounding down the hill at the sight of me and nudge my shoulder until I scratched their foreheads. Even the peacock had plans—displaying his feathers whenever my mother was nearby, hoping for romance. The chickens just are.
Watching them, my brain is lulled into the kind of state that I imagine other people find from meditation. The girls talk to each other with chirps and grumbles, rumbling sounds that give my ears a pleasant tickle to listen to. Sometimes they stop to preen, grabbing oil from the pimple-like gland at the base of their tails and spreading it carefully over each feather until they gleam. The girls peck and scratch in the grass and leaves, grabbing up worms or other morsels too small for me to see them. I’ve lost count of the number of times Emmylou’s large, feathered feet have kicked dirt onto me.
On wet days, which come often in the Pacific Northwest, the smell of damp earth follows the chickens around like a perfume trail in a hallway. They rustle the fall leaves. Sometimes they stop what they’re doing because they’ve found a patch of sun they like and fall slowly onto their sides, fanning out a wing. I sit in the sun next to them and watch as their eyes close, then open, then close again as another chicken decides to join them.I only spend time with the chickens when I want to. And I find that I want to be around them often.
On occasion I’ve seen the entire flock sunning themselves next to each other, and I suppose I should include myself in the group too. It’s hard to watch the chickens for long without wanting to join in whatever they’re doing. When they peck in the grass, I get out my garden tools to weed and they run to join me. Sometimes they’re so enthusiastic that they get underfoot, rushing to examine whatever holes I’ve opened in the dirt. I don’t mind. Hours pass this way. Time spent with the flock seems to move differently than it does in the rest of my life.
Since I was a teenager, I’ve struggled against depression and anxiety. I have to manage my mental health in the same way that, now that I’m getting older, I have to stretch every day or risk discovering aches and pains popping up like Whac-A-Mole throughout my body. I take medication and drink herbal tea and exercise and take breaks from work to deal with frequent burnout. But it still seems like either things are going well or my brain is telling me that nothing will ever be good again. Spending time with the chickens, which, yes, means going outside into the fresh air and sunlight too, puts me in a rare middle ground. Everything gets quiet. When I’m with the chickens, I can just be, too.
I don’t talk to the chickens other than to coo at them for a cute thing they’ve done or call them to come to me for treats, but it would be hard to find a therapist as immediately effective. Over the past few years, I’ve found myself using the phrase “it is what it is” a lot, and I think it started creeping into my vocabulary in the months after I got the chickens. Some things aren’t changeable and it’s easier to accept that and move forward than get stuck in a losing battle.
During the first year of the pandemic, chicken watching became my main hobby. (Not that there were many other options.) When the news got to be too overwhelming, watching the chickens was how I reset. Obviously, I’m not the first one to discover the therapeutic power of chickens. Once I talked to a veteran who told me that the army wanted to give him a service dog for his PTSD, but he didn’t have time for a pet that needed so much from him. So he got service chickens instead. I’ve heard from people who said their chickens helped them get through cancer treatment or the loss of a loved one. For other people, sitting with the ladies is the only way they can relax after a stressful day at work. Some people pour themselves a glass of wine; others stare at chickens.
Excerpted from Under the Henfluence: Inside the World of Backyard Chickens and the People Who Love Them by Tove Danovich. Copyright © 2023. Available from Agate Publishing. Reprinted with permission.