Four years ago, my wife (then fiancé) and I embarked on a grand experiment in urban homesteading: raising backyard chickens. We entered this venture without even a chicken coop, let alone an exit strategy for what to do with old barren hens. As the chickens grew, so did our stress in not having a coop. That problem was eventually resolved, along with the myriad of other small problems that have cropped up along the way. But the issue of what to do with old birds continued to not raise itself.
Last week I saw an article making the rounds on the inter-webs, reviling the stupidity of raising chickens without thought to the end game. The article was titled something pithy like,“Don’t get chickens!” The author’s main thrust was ‘your chicken, your responsibility;’ don’t get them unless you are prepared to kill and eat them or feed a barren bird for up to decade.
The author went on to disparage those who seek “good homes” for their birds, and even those who pawn their spent hens off on the poor (or unwitting) as food. She boasted that she could eat for free all year on the outcast hens of spineless, wannabe urban farmers, too timid to slaughter their own birds. Though she failed to supply an explanation as to why she does not avail herself of this perennial spring of poultry.
And so it was with this article fresh in my mind, that one of my own cherished hens fell ill. The symptoms were cryptic at first; green poo and weight loss. Googling, “Why does my chicken have green poo?” is like Googling, “Why do I have a headache?” The answer could be you drank too much coffee, and you need to tough it out. Or it could be a brain tumor, and you’ll die before hitting ‘next page.’
Unfortunately from there our chicken declined, as did our hopes of a miraculous recovery. A knowledgeable friend gave her a quick once-over and offered diagnosis: a laying problem. We moved immediately, and fruitlessly, to antibiotics, but the situation worsened.
My wife’s resolve for euthanasia began to steel, mine not so much. I promised her, and myself, that if I saw the chicken lying on the ground panting that I would take definitive action on the matter. That day came last Saturday.
Killing my own chicken was a task I neither relished nor cared to even ponder. We are, as a society, allergic to death. We once lived by death. To early man, it would have been unthinkable to not kill animals. Today we can hardly bear to contemplate it; we can scarcely say the word. A man was fatally injured in the crash. We had to put the dog to sleep. Euphemisms for the harsh reality of a life ended.
Today the idea of killing an animal is complete anathema. Many meat-eaters can’t even bear the thought of the death they have induced. Meat is sterile, packaged in plastic, boneless, formed in unrecognizable shapes. As an avid fisherman I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been asked, “How can you kill an animal?” Or how many times I’ve been self-righteously informed, “I don’t eat anything with a face” or “I can’t stand my food to have eyes.”
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mean to criticize vegetarians. I was one myself for over a decade, and I respect it as a responsible choice. I just want people to be mindful of what they are doing. If you are eating meat you are killing animals; you’ve just outsourced the dirty work. Even if you are vegetarian, or even vegan, you are eventually responsible for animal deaths. You drive a car, you use electricity, and you are a human living on this planet. Somewhere, somehow, something had to die to make room for you. Everything eats and everything dies. The bottom line is, to live is to kill, whether you like to admit it or not.
In spite of all that, I was heartbroken Saturday when I found my poor hen lying on her side. Tears welled up with the realization that I would have to kill her. I have personally, with my own two hands, slaughtered hundreds of fish. But I had never killed a bird or any higher life form. This moment represented what physicists call a potential barrier; a sort of hump that you have to get over.
It occurred to me that after I had my first kill (as it were) I would be better prepared in the future to slaughter animals. I am likely to have another sick hen someday, and I also have vague aspirations for harvesting my own meat. I was instantly horrified at the thought that I would become desensitized to death. But I also realized that I was facing our collective fear. Death is an essential part of life, and I was confronting it once again.
I reminded myself that the reason I keep chickens in the first place is to be connected with my food. Keeping chickens is about creating your own eco-system. You feed the bird, and she provides eggs and manure in return. She fertilizes your garden and gets to eat all the veggie scraps. This relationship is deeper, more fundamental, than any you can have with a dog or a cat (much as we love them). I raised this bird from a chick, fed her, housed her, even loved her; now it was time for me to end her suffering.
My wife held the chicken upside down, petting her gently and speaking to her soothingly. Soon the chicken began to close her eyes and go into a sort of trance, and I applied the hedge trimmers to the thin part of her neck. The blades of the trimmer are spaced such that they snap the spinal cord, without really breaking the skin. She was dead instantly.
Our poor sick hen was gone, and we dutifully, responsibly, performed a simple autopsy on her. Inside we found two very large masses, each about 1 lb and the size of 2 fists, of cooked shell-less eggs. This was, as we suspected, a condition known as internal laying, and in the future we will recognize it almost instantly.
I couldn’t bear the thought of my bird wrapped in plastic, waiting in a trashcan to go to the dump. She had fertilized my garden and been fed from it, so in death she rests there eternally. I am comforted knowing she is no longer anguishing, but I am also haunted by the image of her lifeless body; knowing that her life and her death were given over to me.