I love fresh eggs from hens that eat a lot of bugs and greens – so much brighter-yolked than storebought. And I also simply like chickens – I find their appearance pleasant and their antics amusing. We throw ours all of our kitchen scraps, and they turn them into eggs for our fridge and guano for our compost.
When I was a little kid living on the border of Oakland and San Leandro, CA, we had chickens in our little backyard. Many of my father’s friends had hen houses. My best friend, who lived in San Francisco, even had two hens in a little house on her back patio. When I was in college, and renting a little house in Davis with a good friend of mine, we built a chicken coop in the backyard.
My little boy, Alex, used to think that chickens were as common as toilets. Since we had them, his closest little girlfriend had them, some good friends of his around the corner had them, and his godmothers have lots of them… I remember when we were at a party at someone’s house, and Alex finished an apple and asked me where their compost bucket was. I told him I thought they didn’t have a compost bucket. His eyes got huge and alarmed, and he said “But what do their chickens eat?!?”
And over the past few years, it seems that keeping laying hens has grown in popularity even more. I walk around town and hear the sounds of hens from at least one yard on each block, if I had to make an estimate. It is even “cool” to have a henhouse now – there is an annual chicken coop tour in Davis (and it happens in other towns, as well) known as the Tour de Cluck.
So, all of those hens… that will lay regularly for three years, sporadically after that, and eventually stop altogether. I guess they will still serve their purpose of turning scraps into fertilizer, but that’s not the main reason people got them. And the interesting thing to me is that almost no one plans to actually eat the hens.
So we’ve got city ordinances that limit the number of hens you can have – in our town, it’s six per household. When your hens stop laying, you can’t just buy more chicks and raise them up to give you eggs, because you’d be over the legal limit and in danger of neighbors complaining. There you are with six non-producing hens, which you are feeding and cleaning up after – and you are back to buying your eggs at the grocery store (or farmer’s market, of course).
People tell me they will find a nice home for their old hens, “somewhere in the country”. Yeah, right. A nice retirement home. Of course. Because farmers just LOVE to have extra non-producing animals hanging around.
So, we eat ours. Spring of 2011, we ate two young Barred Rocks who had turned out to be roosters so we couldn’t keep them in town if we had wanted to. About a month ago, we ate a 2-year-old Buff Orpington because she was waking me up every night at 3 AM alarm calling – I decided her remaining eggs were not worth the trouble. We will be eating a young Jersey Giant very soon, if she doesn’t start behaving (she keeps escaping our chicken pen, so her name has officially become Naughty Girl). We will be eating our 3-year-old Rhode Island Red if she doesn’t start laying again this coming spring. And when all of our young Jersey Giants are laying, we’ll eat the remaining Buff Orpington simply to make more room for the Jerseys. Actually, I know from experience that one-and-a-half year old Jersey Giants are amazingly delicious, so I may keep only that breed from now on – get six new chicks each year, and eat the older hens as soon as the youngsters start laying.
This causes a lot of people to get upset. “How can you eat them when you’ve known them since they were little chicks?” they ask… “How can you kill something that has a NAME?” they wonder… “I couldn’t kill and eat an animal that I had petted and given treats” they say… “They have earned the right to a nice retirement and happy old age” they insist…
Allow me to respond to those arguments here.
“How can you eat them when you’ve known them since they were little chicks?” Well, I have been in charge of them since they arrived from the hatchery as day-old chicks. True, they were cute (they still are cute, as a matter of fact). Would it somehow be different if I had gotten them six months ago as grown up hens? It would not be as good, to me. I love the fact that I know what has happened to these chickens from the moment they arrived on my property as day-old chicks to the moment they get gently maneuvered into my “kill cone”. I know that they have lived pretty much in Chicken Heaven all that time – lots of room, scratching through leaves and weeds for bugs, eating all our kitchen scraps, dust bathing in the sun, stealing low-hanging apples and pomegranates. Their lives are wonderful until the last five minutes or less – which is more than we can say for most people.
“How can you kill something that has a NAME?” Seriously? This is hardly worth an answer. I’ve got to have some way to tell them apart, don’t I? Would it be better if they were identified by numbers instead of names… or maybe colored leg bands? If I called a hen “three” or “green” for a couple of years, wouldn’t that become her “name” anyway? I guess my sarcastic response in the future will be to name my chickens things like Curry, Soup, Jerky, Stew, Tikka Masala, Vindaloo, or Cacciatore.
“I couldn’t kill and eat an animal that I had petted and given treats.” So if you knew in advance that you were going to eat an animal, would you never pet it or give it treats? Should an animal be ignored because it is destined for a stew pot? As I mentioned earlier, my chickens live a very good life. Part of that “good life” is getting attention if attention is what they like. Some of my chickens like being petted, so I pet those ones. They ALL like getting treats, so I give them all treats. I want them all to be comfortable enough with people that they are not scared when we work in their coop or have to catch them for some reason, so that means socializing them from a young age to like people. I suppose people who express this particular concern may be anthropomorphizing from how betrayed they would feel if someone befriended them and then tried to kill them. While I believe that birds feel some of the same emotions that we do – primarily fear, anger, and lust – I definitely do not think they experience the feeling of “betrayal”.
Which brings me to “They have earned the right to a nice retirement and happy old age”. Meh. If you have hens and you want to keep them around until they are old, go right ahead. I don’t have much use for them after they stop laying, and I want to use the space for productive chickens. Most other people do, too, so they start looking for someone in the country to take in their hens. Do you really think all these people with hens to give away are going to find other people who want to keep them, feed them, clean up after them, give them veterinary care when they start having “old hen problems”, and then the hens will slip gently into death in their sleep or maybe be taken to the vet and euthanized? Really? If you who had them from chicks and named them and supposedly care so much for them are not willing to do all of that for them, why do you think someone else will? Yes, there are some “farm animal sanctuaries” out there, but not on a scale to adopt all these hens when they hit retirement. If you do find someone who will take in a hen or two for you, they will likely be thrown into a big coop with a lot of other hens to live out their lives, get old and stiff and picked on, and eventually die in the shavings with bald spots and poopy feathers and then get partially eaten by their coopmates by the time the landowner sees them. Or maybe they roam free on the land with other chickens, until they get old and slow and stiff, and get killed by a fox or coyote or raccoon. I feel much better about seeing my hens end their lives under my care – a quiet and quick goodby.
My son Alex, five years old a few months ago, understands these things quite well. Last year, as soon as I realized that a couple of our chicks were little roosters, I told him that we would eat them when they started crowing, because we can’t have roosters in town. I wanted him to have time to think about it, and know as they were growing up that they were destined to die as soon as they got big. I wasn’t sure if he would be upset about that or not. Turns out he wasn’t upset at all – as a matter of fact, whenever he’d come out to help me feed and clean the coop, he’d ask “Are we going to eat them now?” That year, I got up really early in the morning and killed the roosters before he woke up, but this year he really wanted to see how chickens are killed, so he “helped me” process our Buff Orpington hen. He petted her and said goodbye to her, and saw how calm and unafraid she was right through the process. I had explained beforehand about the twitching and kicking that all animals do when they are slaughtered, so he found it more interesting than scary. He got to see her esophagus and her intestines, which he loved because he is really interested in anatomy and we had just finished reading a book about the human digestive system. And then we had some really good soup and dumplings.
My boy is being raised to be kind to animals. He is gentle with both our true pets (cats and dogs) and our livestock (the chickens). He already understands death to some extent – he came to the vet with me to put our old cat to sleep earlier this year, as well as seeing the chicken killed. I am pleased to see that he understands why we kill them and also understands why we treat them “nicely” until we kill them.
interestingly, he did not ask if we were going to eat the cat.