Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Pets, Products or something else?

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.


Kristin said...

As an urban chicken farmer for the last 19 years, I concur with your post wholeheartedly. After all, just because Sunset Magazine writes and article romanticizing raising chickens, it doesn't mean it's for the mainstream.

By the way, did you know that many teachers buy baby chicks, ducks and rabbits around spring time for their classrooms, and once the animals are adults and no longer cute, many of them are released outdoors, compromising the native species? The # native Mallard ducks which have literally been screwed by the domesticated ducks is clearly visible in the local lakes.

Curbstone Valley Farm said...

I agree, there's a lot more to chicken keeping than impulse purchasing baby chicks in a feed store. We started out with a half dozen hens. Of those, we still have three 'old girls' in the second coop out in the orchard. We worked out a deal with them, where they get to spend their retirement leisurely pecking at bugs, and aiding in compost production in their old age. However, now we've added a lot more chickens, AND have two roosters, we've been discussing the other side of keeping, and potentially breeding them (to produce our own replacement birds). The fact is, we can't breed them without getting roosters, and we already have one too many of those. If we breed them, the sensible thing is to process our own meat birds. It's not what our original plan had been, and we don't take killing animals lightly. If I'd buy a grocery store chicken though, I'd be a hypocrite if I couldn't cull one of my own. Not to mention, like yours, our chickens are far better cared for, with a much higher quality of life than the cornish mutants in the store. It's not a decision we're taking lightly, and are thinking about in advance. Like you said, perhaps the poster didn't think about what to do with the chickens for the many years remaining after egg production drops...but they should have considered that in advance. I'm not really sure what they're hoping for. Chickens by nature are difficult to re-home. They can be difficult to integrate with birds they don't know, and mixing flocks often leads to trouble. Personally I'd never dream of shunning my responsibility as a chicken owner, and casting off my 'used hens'. I wonder what this person would do if one of their birds were injured or sick?

Jan said...

Hard questions and answers. There's no way that I could kill a chicken... although I'm sure my husband could... but we don't keep them so it's not an issue. The phrase "a dog is not just for Christmas" popped into my mind - similar but not as harsh - keeping any sort of animal needs to be thought through, right through, to the end.

Erin said...

Post it, all of it! I agree completely, well said!

Stefaneener said...

Kristin, I know you know it from all sides. As I said, I don't know this person's situation, but I do know it's not common.

CVS, once you start breeding, you're on the way to lots of difficult choices.

Jan, we just had to put down a beloved pet because we could not in good conscience pay for exploratory surgery. It's not that we loved him less, but there are 1,000s of cats waiting for homes -- over $1k was more than we were up for. Very hard questions.

Erin, thanks for your support. As I said, I'm completely behind the folks who couldn't keep hens unless they treated them like pets, vet care and all. And I get that there are many people who find my approach abhorrent. It's the hybrid approach I can't deal well with.

meemsnyc said...

Chickens lay eggs for food, and are food. It's that simple. Yes, they can be pets, but the majority isn't. I've never had a chicken before, so I don't know how I might feel eating one that I raised from a chick. I might view it as a pet too. But then again, I have no problem picking one up at the supermarket in plastic wrap and being my dinner. No easy answers I guess.

Mr. H. said...

Thank you for posting this as we have been contemplating whether or not to keep our hens another year or make way for new and better egg layers. I understand how the lady on the list feels but like you believe that we all need to take responsibility for our actions in the animal husbandry department and face the sometimes grim reality of it all.

kitsapFG said...

Well said. I think the main thing is to go into it knowing what you intend to do. When we started our flock this spring, we decided to start out with six hens and plan in in three years to add four more, and to do that every third year. We have sufficient room in the coop and run to handle the larger flock and by staggering the ages that way we will have young high producers, middle/late aged low producers, and a couple of oldsters that are just contributing to the compost pile. I grew up in a family that raised chickens for both eggs and meat and remember the kill days and have decided that is just not something I want to do. I think we have a responsible plan though and intend to care for the creatures we acquire until they die.

Lisa said...

So many people get animals without having a plan for that animal's future.

I've spent more time than I care to think about chasing former pet animals (or urban livestock) that someone dumped in a park or on the side of the road. These events rarely end happily.

I am a vegetarian, and find *some* urban homesteading blog writers' apparent relish for slaughter a bit disconcerting. What is it about those writers? Do they really dig the blood and guts? It seems that *certain* bloggers get a lot of bad-assed pleasure out of the slaughter. (This creeps me out, just the way the current "shooting the heads off of skunks, so that they look like Pez-dispensers" discussion on one of the beekeeping forums does. Pleasure in killing freaks me out.)

Did any (all?) of you read the "Little House" books? Remember how much fun Laura had when her parents slaughtered the hogs? And how unpleasant it was, the first time she did it by herself? That detail stays with me, for some reason.

esperanza said...

Great post Stefani! With the rise of urban homesteading, it is an important message. Livestock are not pets.

Heiko said...

If and when we ever have a plot of lamd closer to our home or a home closer to our land, I plan on keeping chickens and maybe the odd few goats and a sow. The one thing I'm not looking forward to is the killing part, but I realise that that is exactly what I will need to do. It's that or turn not just vegetarian. but vegan. Because what else will you do with the male chickens and goats and cows surplus to requirements? We'd have to have an awful lot of animal rescue centres.

Stefaneener said...

Meemsnyc, yes, if you're going to eat what other people have killed, it's a stretch to condemn those that do any killing, right?

Lisa, I'm actually pretty squeamish, but sometimes I have found it necessary to kill birds. Not fun, but part of the way I choose to run my urban farm.

Mr. H., taking responsibility was in fact my point. Thanks for noticing it.

kitsapFG, through natural attrition and a couple of eager raccoons, we have had a self-culling flock so far. Your plan sounds as though it will suit your operation very nicely. Good luck integrating new birds.

Lisa, I completely respect your position. I don't remember that Little House scene, but I can completely understand it! It's not fun, by any stretch. Fortunately, I think I've missed the cheerful killing bloggers in the main.

Esperanza, at least people ought to think and take a clear position, rather than hoping that the Universe is going to manifest a way out of fuzzy thinking!

Heiko, yes, if you're going to eat animal products, you have to do the figuring. I hope you do get your livestock land.

Rachel said...

Bravo! People have been so far removed from their food that when they try to come back the lose so much knowledge in regards to what livestock really is. This reminds me of the lacto-ovo vegetarian that was horrified when I told her what happens to layers (even at organic CSAs) when they get older.

We have hens ourselves (on reiteration #4 currently with meat chickens this time). Our oldest hens will be slaughtered with our broilers in a month and a half. Ours have never been pets and of the 23 birds only one will let you handle her. Our very first two have names, but the rest don't.

I posted a few weeks back about meeting the animals you eat and how you shouldn't eat an animal if you aren't willing to first meet it. I was surprised by the support I got even from vegetarians.

Jackie said...

I agree wholeheartedly! Urban chicken farming is a commitment. Personally, I'm committed to getting my family off of "factory eggs" even if they say "free range" on the carton (yea right).

I don't want to be all "high and mighty" here, but what this really comes down to is of the human raising the chickens and respect for the animals. Because keeping chickens has become a growing hobby, it's possible that some people will jump right in before thinking.

People should take a class (or at least read a book) about chickens before bringing some home.

Before recently taking the plunge as a chicken farmer, my husband and I thought thru all the possible scenarios. We don't think that either of us will be able to kill one of our hens, so we are committed to keeping them until they die of natural causes. BTW, there is nothing wrong with keeping chickens as pets IMHO, as long as they are treated with respect.

Our hens are wonderful pets and my husband says they are the luckiest chickens around. (He's right...think about the other 99% of their species.) I'm starting to think that my chickens are "keeping" me, instead of the other way around :)

Jackie said... second paragraph is missing a word. It should read:

I don't want to be all "high and mighty" here, but what this really comes down to is character of the human raising the chickens and respect for the animals.