A recent post on our city's backyard chicken list has been pinging around in my head for days. I haven't posted back because I wanted to make certain I'd figured out what I wanted to say.
The poster had some aging hens, and she didn't want to keep them because they weren't laying any more. But she had some requirements about what she wanted to do with them -- she didn't want to kill them, nor did she want anyone else to kill them.
Essentially, she was hoping that someone on the list would have a recommendation for some sort of chicken retirement home, where the very tame chickens could be petted and cared for until their lives naturally ended.
This got me thinking about many different things, but of course because I have chickens, I thought of my relationship with mine. Of the two chickens featured above, the black one is still vigorously laying, while the black and white one isn't. She's one of our original chickens, and easily six years old.
Generally, I plan to kill the laying birds once they're past laying age (and for me that is somewhere around 3-4, given my experience so far), so why haven't I killed the "old lady" up there? Well, the first six chickens we got were celebrated by the children. Loved, named, played with, and the kids asked me to promise not to kill the birds. It was a promise freely given and happily kept. These birds were pets. The eggs were secondary for the children.
The black hen? She's from iteration #3, and she doesn't have a name. She's cared for primarily by me, and she's a great layer. The kids (primarily the younger girls) do occasionally "play" with the chickens, but it's a different kind of play. For me, she's primarily an egg layer, and eventually soup.
Let me get this part straight -- I don't enjoy killing animals for its own sake. Anyone who does isn't a homesteader or a farmer, they're just in need of serious help. But I do consider myself a realist. I eat meat, after years -- years -- of vegetarianism, and neither decision was made lightly. When I kill an old hen I do so because I am not running a retirement home for chickens, nor am I treating them as pets. I'm rearing my chickens as my grandmother did on her farm: for use. They are treated pretty well (amazingly well compared to factory farmed chickens; just read Temple Grandin's Animals Make Us Human: Creating the Best life for Animals to see why that is) and then they are killed when their use to me is done.
And this brings me back to the post on the chicken list. What I think got me was the inherent contradictions in this person's stance. They wanted the chickens to be treated as pets (not killed, loved), but they weren't willing to take on that role. They wanted to act as farmers, and be done with the animal when its use was over for them, without being responsible for what that meant either. This "neither fish nor fowl" (please excuse me) stance isn't morally defensible, unless of course they wanted to fund the chicken's retirement, by, say, setting up a fund for their lifetime of care at an animal rescue organization. Maybe they meant to be hard-nosed about it but found that they couldn't stomach it in the long run. And that's okay, but it's something to be very clear about.
And maybe that's what I'll post -- at least the gist of it -- because someone needs to speak up for these kinds of decisions to be made ahead of time. New chicken owners are going to have to think before they pick up the cute little fluffy layers or else people end up doing crazy things like "setting them free" with the obvious problems that entails.
Sometimes it's not a lot of fun being the grownup.