Saturday, September 5, 2009

The Downside of Animal Husbandry

When we brought home our chicks last April, we knew some of them would be roosters, but that only one could stay. Too many testosterone-touting red-combed dude chickens are bad news for the ladies of the house. They argue, and take out their frustrations at not being top dog on the hens, trying to prove who's who. And they all crow, which some feel to be a rather endearing and acceptable trait. But when you live 100 feet away in a tent, and one of them wakes up because the moon is full at 2 AM, let alone when ALL of them wake up at the crack of dawn like they're supposed to, the matter takes on a little extra urgency.

So at last, today, our three "extra" roosters met their maker. Neither of us thought it was a good idea to let Ella witness the actual slaughter (though we could have an interesting discussion another day about whether or not this is so), so I took her out visiting, while Drew stayed home to operate the guillotine. Which brings me to the "downside" of animal husbandry. The remaining chickens are terrified of us.

Many people try to intimate that "lower" beings have no feelings, don't think any advanced thoughts, or grieve, etc. There are many variations on this theme. But the mood in the chicken pen this afternoon is decidedly morbid, as though they are mourning for their lost comrades, even though they were a pain in the rear. When I went out with a bucket of kitchen scraps, they all took cover under their trailer. Ordinarily, the moment they see the silver bowl from a long ways off, they come running to the door, eager to see what goodies I have brought. Not today.

The problem, for me, is my ability to empathize with their grief and discomfort. If someone came and mysteriously removed several members of my family, I probably wouldn't feel comfortable either. I might not have an appetite. And yet, we need to eat. I have dabbled in vegetarianism, for many years, and find that my body cannot adequately do what it needs to do without meat. I have been buying chicken from the store, but I would rather grow it here, on our own land, and treat it right until the moment of its death, than buy the meat from a bird that never saw the open sky, even if it was allowed to "free range" shoulder to shoulder with thousands of other chickens in a barn. The obvious choice is to raise the chickens with integrity and love, and offer them an honorable passing.

I've roasted one of the three for our dinner this evening. For me, it always causes a more measured pace and style of eating, to eat what you have known when it was alive. We will surely honor tonight's rooster, in the many ways it has enriched our life, and the ways in which it will allow us to continue to enrich our own lives. I give thanks for the multiple ways in which the land continues to feed us.

Incidentally, as the photos show, when Ella and I returned home, Drew had finished plucking the chickens, but had not yet gutted and cleaned them. I set to work immediately removing pin feathers, while Drew did the butchering. Ella was not in the least bit disturbed by this part of the process, and we had a very real and hands on kind of anatomy study. She asked about why we were eating these, and were these our roosters? And we explained that too many roosters aren't good for the flock. She wanted to try touching the chickens. She wanted to hold the feet. I guess we'll cover the earlier part of the process when she's older.

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