We had to harvest a chicken yesterday because she (a fryer) broke her leg. It was generally uneventful, unpleasant but not traumatic, and not that messy, really.
Well, it sure set me to thinking.

There may be some of you who think I’ve taken on all this farminess due to an overly idyllic view of farm life, because the old ways were harder and dirtier they must be better. While hard and dirty does have it’s benefits to keep us working and humble (and healthier), I didn’t go into this thinking it would be fun and games. I wanted to see if I could do it, especially when it came to animals.

I’ve been carrying around this notion that if I can easily eat animals every day as long as they are neatly refined down to a perfect fillet of protien and wrapped like candy, that I am not being honest with myself. Forget everyone else, for me, I just wanted to look it in the eye and face it and say, “I’m going to eat you.” And, if I couldn’t, then I think I need to seriously consider eating it, even when someone else does the dirty work.

Take fish. I can catch a fish with a hook in it’s face, pull it out of the water, hit it on the head with a pair of pliers, slit it’s belly with a knife, scrape out it’s guts, fry it in a pan, and eat it up right there–no problem. I feel perfectly at peace with my fish eating. Whatever my line in the sand is between people, pets and food, fish are squarely on the tasty side of it.

So now I understand first hand what it’s like to kill a chicken, I know what it is I’m doing when I order an enchilada or a chicken caesar. But it’s likely the chicken in those entrees didn’t have a carefree life in the backyard up until the last second. They were in a body-sized cage and/or debeaked, living in chicken hell right up until they were sent to chicken heaven.

Now, chickens are dumb. I’ve been caring for my chickens for almost three months now, and I will give you that. But they are dumb in a sympathic way for me. And dumb doesn’t mean you deserve mistreatment. If you are a living thing created by God, some respect is due.

But, in some ways, they are not dumb. For instance, I sometimes come out later than I should to shut the door, and the ubiquitous escaped hen or two is asleep outside the fence. The main rooster is not inside asleep with the others, he’s outside in the fenced yard as close as he can get to her, waiting for her to come in so they can go to sleep.
Or, say I pick up a chicken to inspect it. All the other chickens freeze and stare at me, “What’s she going to do?” You may think they’re worried for their personal safety in the moment. No. They’re watching and observing with whatever cataloguing ability those tiny little brains can offer.

Yesterday I went in to get the injured fryer, they all freeze. I take her out of the hen house and around the yard. They all come out then freeze in place, staring at me. I walk away several yards and look back. All staring at me. The crazy telepathic thought comes into my head, “Where’s she going with Betty?” Even worse, maybe they have millenia of genetic memory going on in there and they’re thinking, “Oh-oh, Betty’s got a broken foot, she’s dinner tonight.”

And here’s an interesting observation. Up until yesterday afternoon, they had gotten relatively comfortable with my presence, sometimes escaped hens even letting me pick them up and put them back. Not today. They scattered in a snap when I came in this morning to get as far away as possible. They’re not 100% dumb, just 95%.

Yes, and who cares? So chickens have little chicken feelings. It is our God-given right to eat them. Man has been given “dominion” over the animals, who are to be enjoyed “with prudence and thanksgiving,” albeit “sparingly.” “It is pleasing” to the Lord that they should “not be eaten” but only used “in time of winter or famine,” or to “save your lives.” (Let me just sloppily paraphrase four books of scripture on the topic.) Animals are ours to do with what we will, but it pleases God when we won’t take a life that we don’t need to.

The chicken did not die as fast as we’d hoped. Our knife was not as sharp as we thought. Although it felt like an eternity, it was really only a few extra moments. I held the chicken’s feet with her head down in the cone and could tell when she was cut, when she was not yet dead after being cut, and when she was dead. I could feel the difference in her muscles between the tension of pain and the nervous dead twitching that would propel the running around headless should we have chosen that method.

I instinctively went to not watch when David made the cut, but I reminded myself that this was the point of the experiment. “If I can’t do this, if I can’t take it, I don’t eat chicken.” I won’t be the person who can do as I wish as long as I am not faced with the reality of it. I don’t want to be a person who will happily wear my $5 Wall-mart t-shirt simply because I don’t have to look in the face the starving 7-year-old who sewed it for me.

I had to watch, and realize what a sissy my ancestors would think I am.

I’m not about to go running around judging people on this, because our very way of living in our time and place has wide ramifications and negative impacts on incalculable people past, present and future, and it is frankly an impossible, crazy-making downer to live that way, and immensely hypocritical to look outside oneself on that. But just for me, I needed to know, I want to live consciously as best I can without being incapacitated and alienating everyone I know. If I find out that how I live is at another’s expense, I don’t want to hide from that.

Now, let’s be practical here. That chicken was hurt and in pain and it wouldn’t serve anyone to let it sit there. What, would I take it to the vet? Seriously! David and I both agreed that it was good that we had the one to do by itself before “harvest day,” so we’d know what to expect and what we want to do differently. The chicken had to go down.

This time, I just skinned it and gutted it, rather than the scalding and the plucking and the singeing, so it was faster. Still, as flint-faced as I went into the thing, I found myself rushing to get the chicken into a familiar state–headless, footless, featherless, hollow and ready to roast–then it wouldn’t be the chicken I carried out of the henhouse, it would be just like the pre-wrapped protien products at the store. Then I would feel better.

Then I went to the store later and saw the meat section, but in my head were visions of whole flocks and herds living mostly horrific lives, not enjoying the full amount of their creation, but masses being bred inhumanely to feed insatiable gluttony and waste. I realized then that I may be in for some changes.

The experiment is still inconclusive, but definitely is productive, regardless of the ambiguity. The fact is, at this point, it seems wasteful that I must kill something else to feed myself when I live in a time of plenty with so many other healthy options. And now at least I know I would not be able to stomach harvesting a mammal, even though I read all the chapters on it in my Country Living book and tried to mentally go through it to see if I could deal. That answers that question right there–no.

If it takes denial to do it–if I have to hide myself from the truth of it to make it comfortable to me, then, well–I shouldn’t be doing it, right?

3 replies
  1. brieanne.
    brieanne. says:

    we just had to explain that it was ok to eat eggs to kayla because she was very concerned about eating baby chickens. i’m not gonna lie … reading about your experience with this particular chicken makes me think about the time i found a vein in my chicken and rice when i was 15 and became veggie for a few years .

  2. dcr
    dcr says:

    i was kinda grossed out reading your post—during LUNCH time—but enjoyed it and am ENVIOUS! i STILL want chickens even though brent won’t hear of it!

    miss you ALL! please kiss ben for me.


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