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Illustration by Wenting Li

I recently returned to Calgary after living in Scotland for three years, and was busy looking up the bylaws for keeping chickens in the backyard.

In Scotland, we lived in a beautiful, rural home with four chickens who kept us well provided with fresh eggs for minimal effort. They were also great pets for the children, offering countless opportunities to cuddle, chase and find out which bugs they wouldn’t eat (spoiler alert – they literally eat anything, but we didn’t feed them chicken. On moral grounds).

In Calgary, however, you are not allowed to have livestock, which is the classification for chickens, in the city. There is one possible exemption: Chickens that are classified as emotional-support animals are allowed to be kept. My next thought was, given the pandemic and the ups and downs of the U.S. election, I’d likely need about six chickens to support all of my emotions.

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This is what it’s like to love an old dog

This led me down a wormhole of discovery into the world of emotional disorder and diagnosis, and the role that emotional-support animals can play in improving the lives of people with these conditions. I did not discover an ethical way in which I could get fresh eggs from my garden, but I did have a moment of reflection on the concept of emotional-support chickens amid the current pandemic.

We moved home to Calgary from Scotland, just as the world was starting to emerge into the “new normal.” Our flights were quiet and the airport at Amsterdam, one that is usually a bustling, bursting-at-the-seams hub every other time we’ve transited through, was quiet. We wore our masks the entire time and moved through the new customs and quarantine plan process smoothly.

Like many people, I’m really not sure what to make of all this. At this point, I know enough people who’ve had COVID-19 to not be totally terrified, but I am worried about my parents and other older people we know who fall squarely into the higher mortality bracket. I miss our old freedoms: the simple things such as crowded transit and working in an office, house parties and pubs, and events such as the Calgary Stampede and the Edinburgh Fringe (our favourite festival in our adopted Scottish home). I oscillate between accepting that this is how it is and raging against the uncertainty around how my children will be able to attend school.

I think the emotional-support chickens have helped me regain perspective.

My grandmother grew up in an Italy decimated by Mussolini, with no certainty, no stability, no promises that there would be a tomorrow. World Wars and childhood illness killed her friends and family around her; and that was normal. Everyone had a child die before the age of 18. Everyone knew to shelter at the sound of an air raid siren. Everyone had a ration of food and a garden to help fill it out. That was normal.

I sit at my laptop, with my coffee delivered by the grocery delivery service, on my chair that I ordered off Wayfair with my iPad that I got from Amazon, and I’m upset at my current normal. I’m grumpy that I don’t have all of the other, additional freedoms that I used to take for granted.

My life, our lives, are so much better than they used to be. We have enormous freedom, enormous stability, compared to our grandparents. We expect our children to survive into adulthood. We expect mothers to survive childbirth. We expect to have food, even when we lose our job. We have moved beyond the issues of immediate survival into a world where our problems are infinitely better than the ones of our forbearers. Don’t get me wrong, they’re still problems. I don’t mean to belittle the issues of emotional dysfunction, but they are problems that only emerge once the issues of immediate threat to survival wane. We can only have emotional-support chickens after we’ve stopped eating every chicken that crosses the road.

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The COVID-19 pandemic threw us back to a time when survival was not a given – when threat to life was a real, immediate problem. We’re learning more about it now – how it spreads, who it kills and how we can protect ourselves and others from getting it. I read somewhere that there are only two ends to a pandemic. One is medical, where a cure or vaccine is established or it burns itself out and disappears. The other is social: when the collective population learns to live with the disease as a part of life. We are well on our way with both ends, to my thinking. We have a medical solution in the works, which could take years. We are also starting to learn how to live with COVID as a part of our reality. We are learning to make the small concessions to our own freedoms – such as wearing a mask – to help improve the freedom of those most at risk.

I’m grateful that we are slowly figuring out how to live with the shadow of COVID in our lives. I’m grateful to be home among family after so many years away now that travel has suddenly become so much more complex. And I’m grateful that emotional-support chickens are out there, pecking for bugs, dust bathing and doing that weird foot stomp/back arch thing they do before you pick them up, bringing joy and happiness to so many lives.

Teresa Waddington lives in Calgary.

First Person is a daily personal piece submitted by readers. Have a story to tell? See our guidelines at tgam.ca/essayguide.

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