Sweet Pea looked a bit dizzy, wobbly on her feet that morning.
Maybe she has an infection, Ayla Abbassi thought. The Abbassi family has a menagerie of barnyard animals around their suburban home in Ballwin, Missouri. They share a four-acre, wooded lot with two dogs, two cats, three ducks and 12 chickens -- including Sweet Pea, a 4-month-old silkie bantam.
Ayla moved Sweet Pea indoors once she got sick. By the third day, the chick's back wings were splitting and her legs were buckling under her weight. Abbassi, who works as an IT project manager, called around to find a vet who treated chickens.
She took her to the nearby Family Pet Hospital. Dr. Hallie Feagans called her later that day and said that the chicken likely had Marek's disease, a common viral disease affecting poultry.
Backyard chickens have become increasingly popular pets. Feagans raises 30 chickens herself, and sees about one or two a week at the hospital. They can be difficult to diagnose and treat. While there's no cure for Marek's disease, which causes paralysis, Feagans said Sweet Pea could still possibly pull through after three or four weeks. Some chickens survive the illness.
"It depends how much work you want to put into it," Feagans told Ayla. "She still has a chance."
That was enough for Ayla. She picked up Sweet Pea and took her home to her three daughters.
"I wanted my girls to feel and see compassion," she said. She told them that one day it could be their parents who were really dependent and helpless. "You need to practice being compassionate whenever the situation presents itself -- no matter how small."
For the next two and a half weeks, Ayla or her daughters massaged Sweet Pea's legs twice a day. Ayla did water therapy daily in the bathroom sink with the chicken, trying to help her build strength in her legs. She fashioned a chicken diaper out of a sock and sanitary napkin Sweet Pea could wear while she scooted around the house. They made a sling out of a plastic grocery bag to help her "walk" upright with some assistance. Her 6-year-old daughter, Zayna, read stories to Sweet Pea nightly and carted her around in a pink-trimmed baby-doll stroller.
Sweet Pea got playtime with her fowl friends every evening.
The chicken basked in the attention.
Ayla felt a little overwhelmed by the amount of care the sick chick needed, in addition to her life as a busy working parent. Her co-workers inquired about the status of her ailing chicken daily.
People go to extraordinary lengths regularly to care for their pets and possibly extend their lives. Not many would go to such trouble for an animal you can buy for $1.50 a pound at the grocery store and serve for dinner. But when raised as pets, chickens can have distinct personalities, and the Abbassis described Sweet Pea as small but mighty.
Despite the nurturing care, Sweet Pea wasn't improving. In fact, she was getting worse and her breathing had become labored. Ayla took her back to the vet. In her heart, she knew she was not going to see Sweet Pea again.
"I remember holding her in the office and saying, 'Goodbye, my darling. I'm sorry I failed you,'" she said.
The assistant at the vet's office told her not to say that -- "You worked so hard," she told her.
Ayla cried the entire way home and waited for news.
Feagans called her later that afternoon. The chicken was showing signs of respiratory struggles. She was on oxygen at the hospital.
"What would you do if you were in my shoes?" Ayla asked the vet.
There was a long pause.
"Ayla, I would let her go. I don't think she will get better."
Sweet Pea died on Aug. 18. She had lived for about a month after she got sick.
The vet didn't charge for the medicine, the last appointment or Sweet Pea's cremation, even though Abbassi insisted that she wanted to pay. Feagans refused to charge her.
"I know she worked really, really hard to save that little thing," Feagans said.
A few days later, instead of a bill, a handwritten card arrived in the mail. Feagans wrote a note thanking the Abbassis for the love and compassion they had provided Sweet Pea.
"She was very lucky to be part of a such a loving family," she wrote. "I wish every pet was treated as well and given as many chances as Sweet Pea was."
Ayla said Feagans made her feel that Sweet Pea was a lot more important than "just a chicken."
And, to them, she was.