It has taken me over a week to try and write a tribute to darling Bella. Our hearts are broken and watching Hettie struggle each day, grieving for the only friend she has ever had, is only compounding our sadness. Bella was a very, very special girl and no words I write can truly capture the gentle spirit that was Bella, but I hope I can try to do our special girl justice with this tribute…
1st February 2011 saw the arrival of four little hens; my B girls. I had planned to collect three Amberlink girls, so naturally came home with two Amberlinks (Brigit and Bertha) and two ginger girls (Bunty Goodchicken and Bella). Of course at that point Bunty Goodchicken was just Bunty and Bella was Psychochicken. Only my second batch of girls, I was unprepared for the feisty little scrap that was to become Bella. She attacked me and Gary, she attacked the other hens, she attacked her reflection and she attacked her coop. I didn’t know what to do with her. Now of course I know I was dealing with a very frightened little hen, who had had to fight for every thing in her caged life. No-one had thought to tell her it was now all going to be OK – at that point I hadn’t learnt how to speak ‘chicken.’ So, on advice of fellow chicken keepers, I separated her whilst the other three girls went to bed. Pyschochicken was put to bed in the cat carrier. Once everyone was asleep I went to take her out of the carrier. I will never forget the look in her eyes. It was one of total resignation and defeat. She was back in a cage. That moment with Bella taught me more than any book could ever have done. The true suffering of caged hens, the depth of emotion they feel and the effects our human idiocy can have on them. From then on, I truly understood her.
My friend, Sarah, decided that to make her feel special and loved, she needed a special name and she called her Bella, meaning beautiful. So Bella she became. And over the next (almost) three years as a free range girl and top hen in our flock, beautiful she proved to be. In every way.
Diminutive in stature, Bella was always my smallest hen, but was the girl with the biggest character. Hers were the first wings I ever clipped! Three months after she came to live with us, Bella suddenly became intent on using the logpile as a launchpad for her escape efforts. Despite my attempts at containing her, one morning I looked out of the dining room window to see the little scamp running gleefully up and down the Cornish hedge. Never having clipped wings before I raced round to a work colleague, with Bella tucked tightly under my arm, to show me what to do. Bella came home suitably clipped and proceeded to lay an Egg of Protest in the greenhouse. Her escape attempts were brought on by her pre-eggy frenzy, something I have now realised many hens do just before their first egg after a lull.
You see Bella was a teacher. She knew I had much to learn and consequently took it upon herself to educate me in the ways of All Things Hen. We were good friends Bella and I. Each evening as I sat chatting with the girls, she came and climbed onto my lap and told me about her day. Every time I cleaned out the coop, she came up to make sure I had done it properly, tactfully rearranging my humble human efforts. She even tolerated me cuddling her and occasionally allowed me to hold her long enough for a photograph – her beautiful face has featured in many magazines and websites promoting the plight of her ex-commercial sisters.
But I was not Bella’s only pupil. She had greater plans – she wanted to educate as many humans as possible.
She came to college with me and transformed the views of all the students she met. Previously they had thought of hens as ‘just a chicken’ and were not interested in my futile exbatt witterings. But Bella knew how to change their minds. She breezed into their classroom, preened, bwarked and looked resplendent and then stood obligingly on a piece of A4 paper to show them the space she would have had in her battery cage. She had given a face to factory farming. Suddenly these previously uncaring students understood. Bella had made them see. Then they were feeding her and stroking her as she ate corn of their hands. Bella had performed her role magnificently. To this day they still ask after her.
Spreading the word became Bella’s mission. She was one of the lucky ones and she was going to do all she could for her less fortunate sisters. She came with me and Clara to Pets at Home and met the public whilst promoting a hen rehoming for Fresh Start. She was picked up and cuddled and went around the store meeting customers, enchanting them with her beauty. People who had never even touched a hen in their lives were delighted with her, wanting to hold her and asking all sorts of questions about hens and battery farming. Children, especially, were enamoured by her. Because of her efforts, many loving homes were found for more ex-commercial hens.
Bella had many, many wonderful characteristics; she was clever and funny, dignified and brave, but most of all she was a kind and fair top hen. She ruled her flock with a firm but gentle wing. No hen was allowed to be left out or picked on. She kept neighbourhood thugs Eliza and Grace Kelly in check. When Flavia arrived, dumped at the vets after being attacked, it was Bella who welcomed her into the flock. When Flavia was afraid to go to bed as Eliza lurked menacingly by the coop door, it was Bella who would escort her safely into the coop every night. When terrified little Hettie arrived, Bella understood her fears and immediately extended the wing of friendship to her. Bella had recently lost her beloved Bunty Goodchicken and Clara in close succession and this new friendship helped both hens heal their emotional scars. Every evening Hettie went to bed early to get her favourite nestbox and every evening Gracie Thug came in and turfed her out. So every evening Bella offered Hettie the prime Top Hen nestbox and slept by her side. A true leader, she knew she had to care for the weakest in the flock.
Apart from two soft egg incidents (cured by a warm bath and a very lovely cuddle) Bella had never had an ill day in her free range life. She breezed through her first moult and was the picture of good health. However, about a month ago, at the start of October, Bella started to slow down. She was having a small moult and struggling to regrow her new feathers. I found her looking a little unwell at times, occasionally her comb was slightly tinged with blue. Fearing her intensive laying life was finally catching up with her and suspecting a tumour, and with Uncle Jason’s advice, we treated her as best we could and each time she rallied. But both Bella and I knew her days were now numbered.
Bella took her Top Hen responsibilities very seriously and I know she struggled with the thought of leaving her girls, so she fought her illness with all the stoicism of a true Maggie Smithesque grande dame…….Bella was always a proud and dignified girl and I knew without her having to tell me that she would not want to be seen to be weak in front of her girls. She needed not to suffer and she needed to have her dignity to the end. Sometimes words are not needed between friends, they understand implicitly what is needed, and one bleak morning, she told me that she had had enough. It was time. Her best friend Hettie had been by her side the whole time she had been ill and on Bella’s last day Hettie stayed with her all day, never venturing from her guardian angel’s side. Darling Bella knew it was time but I don’t think poor Hettie understood.
After a very weak Bella had seen her girls safely to bed for the final time, we visited Uncle Jason. Bella and I sat together in a quiet room, she was cradled in my arms and, as she passed on, I told her that I loved her, that she was a good chicken and I promised her that I would look after her girls, especially Hettie, and that she could now rest in peace. Once I had told her this, she passed very quickly and peacefully. Her final gift to me was one of her moulting feathers that fluttered away from her beautiful, precious body. A treasure.
Bella needed dignity in death and I hope I was able to give her that; the last wish of my most special girl.
She was cremated on Saturday, a golden marigold for my golden girl tucked under her wing for her final journey. Her spirit is now flying forever free at the Rainbow Bridge with her beloved Bunty Goodchicken and Clara by her side, as my darling Bella takes gentle charge of her heavenly flock.
Us mere mortals left behind will uphold our final promise to her. Hettie will be cared for, loved and protected and Bella’s flock will slowly adjust to the loss of their beloved leader. For a while they will have a human Top Hen who will muddle through until a new gentle chicken leader emerges. She will however have very big claws to fill – in fact she probably never will. There will only ever be one Bella Top Chicken.
After almost three years as a free girl, our hens and our hearts are mourning the loss of Bella. Nothing will ever be the same again.
RIP my darling, beautiful, brave, big-hearted, generous Bella. Fly high my precious Top Hen xxx