An alert friend recently drew my attention to a nationwide salmonella outbreak that public health officials are blaming on backyard poultry flocks. Not just any flocks, mind you, but those that have been indiscriminately cuddled and kissed by their keepers.
According to the federal Centers for Disease Control, 790 people in 48 states have contracted the potentially fatal illness, which causes diarrhea, fever and abdominal cramps. While most people recover without treatment, some — 174 in the current outbreak — require hospitalization.
Nonetheless, there appears to be little concern in my home state, where the most dire warning I found among the department of agriculture’s news releases was to “enjoy Colorado cherries before they’re gone.” Still, I feel moved to protest the CDC’s recommendations to those of us who keep backyard flocks, which betray a sadly impoverished understanding of the person-poultry bond.
For instance, “Do not let live poultry inside the house … especially in areas where food or drink is prepared, served or stored.” Oh, please. It’s summer, right? And there your chickens are, looking hopefully through the sliding glass door off the kitchen as you slice watermelon or shuck sweet corn, and you’re not supposed to let them in? Or, it’s a bone-chilling winter, you’ve got a cozy wood stove fire burning, and you totally get why the hens — no less than the cats and dogs — want to hang out on the hearth rug.
Related, the CDC advises chicken-keepers not to eat or drink near the birds, even though summer is prime time for pulling up a lawn chair and enjoying a beer while the hens peacefully peck, scratch and dust bathe near by, transporting you from the wearying human world to the simple single-mindedness of chicken life.
The most egregious recommendation from our public health gurus, though, is to not snuggle or kiss the birds. This is especially cruel, because chickens who carry salmonella typically appear not only perfectly healthy but — maybe I misremember this part — especially cute.
Plus, it’s county fair season, prime livestock-kissing time. Just yesterday, the local paper published a photo of a girl planting a big buss on the schnozzola of her goat. But you don’t hear a peep from the CDC about the hazards of goat-kissing. Indeed, while most of us would unsmooch a few people if we could, who among us regrets kissing an animal of any kind?
And the folks at the CDC clearly have no experience at all of the profound huggability of hens. My favorite image from the horrific immediate aftermath of 9/11 is something I never saw. I was visiting an online poultry forum and stumbled across a thread in which people talked about seeking out their flocks in the hours after the attack. One woman wrote of taking a favorite chicken in her arms and simply standing on her front porch that evening, holding that hen as an amulet against the cruelty and craziness of our own kind.
I imagine her still when I think of that time: the awful hush of that night, the literal and figurative darkness, the soft solace that one little chicken offered one bewildered and grieving human being.
So, I’m going to keep cuddling, kissing and otherwise appreciating my hens, who have shored up my sanity more times than they know. If you’re in the neighborhood, stop by (I like Dundee honey brown lager) and sit a spell with me in their world, where peace is the rule rather than the exception, and where the risk of expressing love always — always — pales beside the benefit.