Olivia and Elizabeth
Reading Time: 4 minutes
By Stephanie Bouchard
Sixteen-year-old Olivia Morello of New Boston, New Hampshire was a little nervous about leaving her beloved ducks outside their duck house when it was only 18 degrees F outside, but she and her family were just going out for a quick dinner and wouldn’t be gone long.
But when they returned home and she went to hustle the ducks into their house, she immediately saw that something was wrong with one of her favorite ducks, Elizabeth, a Saxony duck Olivia had raised from ducklinghood.
Elizabeth was sitting motionless on the ground near a large water dish Olivia left out for the 15 ducks that live on her family’s farm. The ducks often jumped in and splashed around, even in the winter, causing shallow puddles to form on the ground.
On closer inspection, Olivia saw that Elizabeth’s feathers and one of her legs was stuck to a skim of ice. Olivia got some warm water and poured it over Elizabeth’s feathers and leg. This freed her, but Olivia saw with alarm that Elizabeth was hobbling and trying to wing-walk back to the duck house.
She took her inside the family home to try to get a better look at her leg. There was a lot of swelling and Elizabeth quacked loudly whenever someone tried to touch her injured leg. A couple of days went by, and while the swelling reduced some, things weren’t really better.
Olivia and her mother took Elizabeth to a local vet, who x-rayed Elizabeth’s leg. The news was not good. The tendon in her leg had slipped out of place. The veterinarian recommended some physical therapy exercises and giving it a few more days but cautioned that euthanasia may be the ultimate option because Elizabeth would not have a good quality of life if she was unable to use her leg.
“Every time I thought about it (euthanizing Elizabeth), I started bawling my eyes out,” Olivia said. She struggled with what she should do for her duck. She had just started working a part-time job as a cashier at Whole Foods Market and was willing to put all the money she earned into doing whatever it took to help Elizabeth because she wanted to “do right” by her duck, but she also didn’t want to be selfish.
“If she wasn’t going to be happy and she was going to get depressed or if she was in pain, I would euthanize her because I wouldn’t want her to live that way,” she said. “I feel like I’m responsible as her owner to make sure that she’s living a good life.”
Olivia is not alone in feeling so bonded to her duck that she is willing to put money and effort into giving her animal friend the best life possible. Americans increasingly see pets — whether those are dogs and cats or chickens, lizards, or ducks — as part of their families, says Steve Feldman, executive director of the Human Animal Bond Research Institute (HABRI), and because they’re seen as family members, people will do whatever needs to be done to care for them.
“This feeling of family and going the extra mile is something that’s becoming more and more common,” he said.
In an effort to “do right” by Elizabeth, Olivia hit the internet and came across the story of a duck named Merlin with a leg defect that left the bird immobile who got a custom wheelchair from Walkin’ Pets by HandicappedPets.com.
Olivia and her family discussed trying to create a wheelchair or some other solution on their own, but then discovered that Walkin’ Pets’ office was 20 minutes away. After checking with another veterinarian that Elizabeth wouldn’t be in pain in a wheelchair, Olivia decided to buy one for Elizabeth. “I put my first few paychecks right toward her,” she said, but her “baby” was worth it.
Elizabeth’s wheelchair is a mini size, meant for smaller animals, said Jennifer Pratt, Walkin’ Pets’ marketing manager. The company’s wheelchairs, made with aluminum frames and support slings, are available for animals between two pounds and 180 pounds and range in price from $199 to $500.
While the New Hampshire-based company sells a lot of wheelchairs for dogs, since it has become more acceptable to provide the same level of care to animals not traditionally seen as pets, it has also made custom wheelchairs for a wide range of animals, including goats, chickens, and sheep, said Pratt. Since opening in 2001, the company has sold over 75,000 wheelchairs.
Elizabeth took to the wheelchair immediately. As of spring, she was still unable to walk, so the wheelchair serves more as a support than a mobility device. Olivia and her family are taking a wait-and-see approach for a few months as to next steps. They’ve been looking into surgery for Olivia, and possibly a prosthetic, but for now, being in the wheelchair allows her to get her feet into a standing position, Olivia said. “She’s a lot happier in it.”
Although Elizabeth spends most of her time now in the house with her human family, Olivia does take her outside. She’ll take her out of the wheelchair and sit her on the grass so she can spend time outdoors and be with the other ducks.
Elizabeth does get defensive when the other ducks try to home in on her wheelchair, though. “Her sister went toward it and she started nibbling at her sister, like, back off!” Olivia said. “I was really surprised that she got mad like that.”
Because Elizabeth can’t walk even with the wheelchair, Olivia’s care responsibilities toward her are greater, but she doesn’t consider them a burden. “She’s worth it to me,” she said.
See Olivia and Elizabeth in this video:
Stephanie Bouchard is a freelance writer based in Maine who walks her cat on a leash when she isn’t writing about pets. Find her at stephaniebouchard.net.
Photos used with permission by Walkin’ Pets.
Originally published in the December 2019/January 2020 issue of Backyard Poultry and regularly vetted for accuracy.