Chicken Troupe for the Soul

Gardening in the backyard one day, Debra Knox needed to get one of her 40 chickens out from underfoot, so she handed it to her mother-in-law. Her mother-in-law suffered from dementia and made little sense when she spoke, but something changed as she stroked the bird. “Her face lit up and she started talking about growing up on a farm—conversations we’d never had,” says Knox. “It gives me goosebumps thinking about it.”

Up until then, Knox had raised chickens for eggs, competitions and sheer entertainment value. “They’re like ‘Chicken TV’ in the backyard,” she says with a laugh. But now her fowl friends have a new sideline—as therapists. Technically, Knox is the therapist, certified through an online course, but it’s the chickens that do the heavy lifting. Andy, Lola, Gidget and others in the friendly flock seem to be able to win over even the hardest of eggs with their fancy plumage and tolerant dispositions. One paralyzed man at the nursing home Knox visits with her fowl hadn’t spoken for months until he asked for a bantam in his lap. 

As therapy animals, chickens have a big advantage over dogs and cats in one key way: Hardly anybody is allergic to them. And so long as Knox pays attention to when they’re getting stressed—and when they need to poop—the nine chickens she entrusts to the job can spread a lot of joy during a visit. “Sometimes people want to hold them and sometimes they just want to look at their feet and feathers,” says Knox. “You can see the change. It’s like when you bite into a wonderful piece of chocolate and everything melts away. There’s a smile and a sparkle in the eye.”

Knox works her chicken magic strictly as a volunteer, but she’s always evangelizing about the power of poultry. She’s brought her brood to her day job (“When everyone’s having a stressed day, it helps.”) as well as to schools, libraries and Brownie troop meetings. “My whole goal is to get chickens out there and have people see them as more than Colonel Sanders and all the negativity that you hear,” says Knox. “If I can work a chicken into a conversation, I do.”

By Steve Wilson • Photography by Andy Sams

For more information, call Debra Knox at 512-497-8829.