Two questions I’ve been answering a lot lately. Interestingly, this new venture into avian farming is surprising to many of my friends and acquaintances. However, I have wanted to own chickens for years. In fact, while house hunting, it was a requirement that we find a house with enough room (and appropriate zoning) so that I could raise some chickens. At the next house (some 10 years down the road), I’d like to raise up a cow or two a year as well as a couple goats… or sheep…. or pigs… you get the point. So short story long (as my friend Toman would say), I’ve spent years conditioning the husband to the idea of chickens.
When I was 13 I used all of my saved-up babysitting money to buy a horse. My very own ornery, palomino quarter horse named Sam. In high school, I boarded him at Anna’s house whose mom raised chickens, ducks, turkeys, and a cow from time to time. I spent days and days at this place because it housed both my horse and by best friend! Anna’s mom would sometimes raise chicks from eggs and I remember watching her to delicately help peel back the pieces of shell as the new baby peeped through. Sometimes, she’d order fancy chickens from a catalog and they’d all arrive in one chirping box. Then Anna and I would play with them and name them. One year we coddled two turkeys to such a point that as adults they were ridiculously co-dependent on us and it became a bit of a problem. Another year we tamed a rooster to such an extent that he flirted and attempted to mate with our feet from time to time. Anna’s farm happily existed and the birds wandered the property and were rarely eaten as food. They were mostly for eggs. Of course I have romantic memories of this because I was only there to play – I never did any chicken-related chores.
Well here I am, a 29-year-old adult who squealed with delight when her husband agreed to go to Tractor Supply “just to look” at their new babies. An hour later we arrived home with 7 chicks: 3 for meat and 4 for laying. They were so cute and so tiny. I delicately picked one up, cupped her in my hands, and sat on the couch. In about 30 seconds she rested her tiny beak against my thumb and fell asleep. Adorable. Or stupid? This animal was just plunked into a cardboard box, lugged out into the cold, bumped around in a car, scooped up by the hand of God (for all the bird knows) and it decides to just “sleep it off”? Danger Will Robinson! Do these things have no natural instincts? The more you know about chickens the more you realize that their role in the ecosystem does appear to be that of “prey.” Consider: they have no sense of smell, no sense of taste (and as a result will eat their own poo), spindly little legs disproportionately small in comparison to their body, they can’t really fly, and they are completely blind at night. No wonder they are the victims of sneak attacks by dogs, cats, fox, opossums, weasels, raccoons, hawks, and coyotes!
I guess an animal lover would maintain that they have feelings and personalities and I can’t argue with the personality part. Just this evening, after cleaning their temporary home (a Rubbermaid tub, under a heat lamp) I sat and watched their crazy antics.
The Bantams: Bantams come in all sorts of varieties and these are common laying birds. We have four of them and we refer to these as “the girls.” We will be keeping these ladies until they die of old age so they are safe to name. Thus far we’ve named one Pearl (thanks Virgi!) and one Rosita (after a Sesame Street character). Two of them are dark and have chipmunk markings and the other two are a reddish brown. These four are skittish and often clump in the corner when I’m fishing my hand around in the tub. One of them likes to hang out next to a meat bird and she follows him all around.
The “Meat Birds”: These are Standard Cornish Rocks, which is a traditional meat bird. We call these “the meat birds.” Original, huh? It is possible to have roosters in this group so we just assume they are all boys – mostly because they are fairly aggressive. Not that they are mean, but they charge right in to the food and if you stick your hand in the tub they run right at it. They lay around all the time and LOVE to eat out of your hand, but probably just because they love to eat. They are probably 3 times the size of the Bantams in just two weeks and they all started out the same size!
The Turkeys: oh yeah, we have two turkeys too! These are named Thanks and Giving…hahah. Ok, I’ve considered calling them Burt and Ernie (we have a toddler, are you noticing a trend?). These birds are hilarious. They are by far the most curious and the tallest. They wander around cocking their heads and examining every small speck of everything. They peck at the other birds, they peck the side of the tub, one of them pecked a freckle on my arm! They’re cool to play with.
Now to the real issue here. Several people have looked at me with all but a mouth agape when I informed them that we will be eating 5 of them. “I could never eat something I’ve raised / held / looked in the eye / named/ etc” This is always the response. Well here’s my counterargument…. (read: begin soapbox)
With the exception of my vegan friend (who is allowed to be disgusted by my carnivorous ways) it is hypocritical to say that you are somehow more humane because you’d never eat an animal you named. You are willing to eat an animal raised in cruel and inhumane, overcrowded feed lots. You are willing to eat an animal raised solely on corn, a food that is not naturally part its diet. You are willing to eat an animal that is castrated, de-beaked, de-clawed, tagged, branded, and injected with hormones and antibiotics. You’ll eat an animal that was raised in conditions that cause insanity in the animals. You’ll eat chickens that are “collected” by a large vacuum that often breaks their wings and legs. You’ll eat cows that are over-crowded and full of chemical. You’ll eat turkeys that are bred to have such large breasts that they can’t stand up straight. You’ll eat meat that is processed by humans who are paid an unfair wage to work in rushed, unsafe working conditions with no health insurance. You’ll eat animals that are transported in open air trucks during extreme heat and extreme cold. Because that is exactly what you are doing when you are eating anything, but locally raised meat from a family farm. Grocery store organics? They make you feel better, but very little is different in the animal’s life other than the lack of hormones. And I’m the cruel one because I’ll eat an animal that I named? Yeah right.
I believe that this is how things were meant to be. Meat is not supposed to come from an assembly line. It should be close to home and humans should understand and appreciate the sacrifices we ask of these animals. It should be sad when it is time to butcher the chickens because death is sad. And death should be quick and painless. Perhaps raising our own animals will make us more respectful of how we cook and eat our food. Perhaps it will dictate how we use leftovers and whether or not we waste perfectly good food. I hold my chickens, name them, talk to them, and pamper them and yes… I will eat them. I believe farm animals deserve respect and care because in the end, I am sacrificing this animal’s life for my own needs. I will be sad, but I believe humans are meant to be omnivores and I do not feel guilty for eating meat. I do, however, feel guilty when I make a last minute trip to McDonald’s, or when I buy a meat product at a chain grocery store (which is thankfully becoming more and more rare). I feel guilty when I throw away leftovers of any sort when I know that (1) there are people who have none and (2) animals have died for me to have that food and I am wasting it.
This is my soap box. I believe raising our own animals for food is natural. The hubby is all set on butchering and cleaning them ourselves which would be one thing I could cross off of my bucket list: Participate in the death of an animal you eat. However, we’ll see how the summer goes!
So just to leave on a note a bit happier than death – if you’ve never seen chicks sleep it is adorable. They all smoosh together, burrow into the bedding and tuck their heads down so they look like a little clump of fluffy carpet!