"United we bargain, divided we beg."

Monday, December 27, 2010

Accepting Responsibility (Farm Economics)

Last week, when I went out to feed the animals, I came upon a hen dangling from the cast-iron hay feeder by one leg. She had roosted on the rim for the night and had somehow slipped and wedged her leg into the V formed by two iron bars. I have no idea how long she had been hanging, but when I freed her and set her down, she could not support her weight and flopped around most miserably.

Perhaps I should have dispatched her on the spot. She is one of the older hens - at least three years old - and there is no way she is an economically viable animal. Most probably, she didn't earn her keep even before she was hurt, but I don't really keep track of who is laying well and who isn't, and as long as all chickens can fend for themselves and the flock as a whole is maintaining an average age of under 36 months, I'm happy. However, as anyone familiar with chickens knows, they are ruthless animals and will heartlessly attack any individual among them incapable of defending herself. When I set this hen down on the ground, she was instantly attacked by three or four others.

Being unwilling - or, ok, unable - to wring her neck immediately, I closed her in the Mama Barn and gave her food and water apart. She hid herself down among the bales of hay and disappeared for a week or so. Day before yesterday, she reappeared and started asserting herself, apparently wanting to get outside. So I grabbed her and put her outside, but the same thing happened. She still can't walk and the other hens attacked her mercilessly. At this point, I was ready to turn her over to Homero to be killed. She was no good as food - her injury and confinement had left her skinny as a rail fence, and she is old and tough as a boot. She'd be a total waste; the only reason to kill her would be to put her out of her pain.

But then my sister-in-law, Temy, asked to see her. Temy is a doctor. She isn't a vet. But nonetheless, she is perfectly competent to examine the animal and say - as she did - that the leg isn't broken and that she should heal, given time.

Dammit. What to do now? I really wanted to say "Oh what the hell. She'll never be the same; she'll always be lame and weak, probably the other chickens will always pester and torment her, and she's old and hasn't got many eggs left in her. Just kill her already, and throw her to the dogs." But of course I didn't. I took her and put her in the rabbit hutch near the house. I am feeding her specially and separately every day. I am bringing her clean straw and changing her water. I am doing this, I fully admit, only in order not to seem like a monster to my Mexican relatives. That's really weird, because in most respects, they are far less sentimental and far more practical than we Americans when it comes to animals.

Here's what I wrote about that a while ago: Mexicans don't have farm animals as pets. In fact, they barely have pets at all. Seriously. I know there are a few here and there, but I feel totally confident in saying that in general, dogs are guard animals; cats are rat-catchers; burros are pack animals; and everything else is food. ( Question for People Who Kill Their Own Meat)

Now all of a sudden I find myself on the other side of that equation: I'm the soulless bad guy who has dollar signs in her eyes, and they are the ones arguing for compassion and mercy. Okay, that's projection. I know if I had actually said "I just don't think there's any point in keeping this hen alive" they would have said "Sure, you're right" and no-one would have given it a second thought. It's all me. It's I who have to get used to the idea that I have taken on responsibility for the life and death of some thirty other beings - chickens, goats, horses, dogs and cats. I'm still wrestling with this, apparently, after four years.

It's not about money. It's not about food. It's not about necessity - not yet, anyway. It's about this - me being the deciding force for the lives of my animals. If I'm hungry, they die. If I decide they aren't "worth it" they die. If I want what they have - meat, skin, feathers, milk, eggs, offspring - I take it and they lose. I am the power. I am the MAN. I take and they give.

Yeah yeah yeah, I also give and they also take. I give shelter, food, medicine, protection from predators, et cetera. In fact they wouldn't even exist if I hadn't decided they be born. Blah blah blah. That all smacks of rationalization. Here's the fact: I am a peak predator and I reap where I choose. I like meat, and I like milk and I like eggs.

Given that fact (given: wow, that's a big given, isn't it? Let's just sweep right over that) where is my responsibility? What do I actually owe this hen? Life or death? What is the more moral course; to kill her when she begins to suffer and salvage what I can from her existence (she would feed the dogs, after all), or to expend a modicum of extra energy keeping her alive, albeit in a cage, at a reduced level of existence? What for, if she can't integrate back into the flock? I'm making an assumption here that a chicken can even tell the difference between a "natural" life as a member of a flock and as a solitary being in a cage. I do assume that a chicken CAN tell the difference and that she "prefers" a more natural, free range life. Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe I just want an excuse to kill a chicken that causes me trouble and time.

I don't think so though. I'm pretty sure a chicken does experience some sort of reduced existence separated from the flock and confined to a cage. I see chickens interacting with each other every day. Okay, it's getting late and I'm getting tired and I haven't come to any conclusions. Part of me says why are you even wasting so much time trying to be fair to a chicken? Do what makes your life easier, as long as it doesn't involve increased cruelty. Damn, what is the BFD here?

Part of me says puzzle it out, make sure that whatever you decide to do you are doing because you feel it is right, not because it is easy. At the end of the day, that's what matters, right? What matters is not the life of an individual chicken, but that I have lived according to my principles. Goddamn it, that strikes me as a problematic statement. I don't like the way that statement feels. But I think I'm going to have to leave it for another day.

Right now, friends and neighbors, I am leaving questions of morality and ethics behind, in favor of another beer and a little time with my husband before I fall asleep. Let that stand as my final expression of my personal ethics.


-Heidi said...

I started to leave a comment in favor of dispatching the hen... then I left to google the average lifespan of a chicken (7 years).

I guess this is what we all have to face when we're responsible for another creature. I guess I'd urge you to do what feels right for you... nobody can give you the answer, but I think you may be being a little hard on yourself. Whatever you decide, I think it shows so much about you (that you have given this so much thought).

One more idea: if you don't want to get rid of the hen and you can't put her back with the others... maybe you could give her to someone who keep chickens as pets (e.g. there is a yahoo group called "house Chickens":
Maybe they could help with ideas... or maybe a farm animal rescue group. There are "petting farms" too.

I'm just trying to help with ideas... I don't want you to think I wouldn't just go with dispatching. The choice is yours.

Melinda Cool said...

I know! Let her wander into your duck hunting neighbor's yard...maybe he'll take care of the rest for you. Just kiddin'.

The Idiot said...

I think you have to consider the way things would play out in the natural world. The injured hen would be pecked to death by the flock. If you want to let the natural order have its way, you need to let her stand her ground, and either fall or rise as a result.

Of course, maybe you owe the hen something more than that. It wants to be in the flock, as it always has. The flock will kill it with little mercy. A swift end might be what you owe, rather than a lingering lonely existence.

If you really want to give it a chance, then establish a deadline, and if its not fit enough to integrate with the flock, then despatch her swiftly.

Nature is red in tooth and claw!

Dr24Hours said...

I propose a time machine. Go back and snap its neck when it was dangling from the fence.

Personally, I think you need to dispatch the bird. Quick snap of the neck, it's like breaking a toothpick. No pain.

It is not a useful animal anymore, either to you or to itself. It is losing weight, it is beset by vicious chickens, for God's sake!

Seriously, if I am ever in real danger of being pecked to death by a flock of chickens, snap my neck. Remorselessly.

Aimee said...

Bro, have you ever actually done that? We can't snap it like a toothpick. It took homero ten minutes to kill the rooster with his bare hands. Yuck. If I kill her, I do with a sharp knife to the neck. Takes her about thirty seconds to bleed out.
Anyway, I think I lean with the consensus here. I'm giving her another week in the cage and if she still can't walk well, that's that.

Anonymous said...

I had the same conflict a few weeks ago with an older hen of mine. She had a prolapsed vent and it kept prolaspsing. The flock turned on her and it was pretty painful to watch. She wanted to be with the flock, they wanted her dead. I kept her seperate until we were able to cull her.

I'm with Anyedge, put me out of my misery quickly rather than letting me be pecked to death!

Desert Lean-to said...

We hemmed and hawed over our sick chicken. She really didn't seem to want to stay with the flock so we kept her in an enclosure in our house for over a month where she died a (seemingly) peaceful death. In some ways I wished we had dispatched her earlier as she was not of any economic use and I'm not a fan of chickens in the house.

The remaining girls are past their egg-laying prime. Rather than cull them now, we have an arrangement with the feed shop to trade them for chicks in the spring. Sounds like a reasonable arrangement for us-we don't have to kill them and we get new egg-layers. Any chance you could do something along those lines?

Aimee said...

I am shocked that you can trade old hens for new chicks. I'd take that trade any day of the week. I wonder what they do with the old hens? Have you asked? Maybe they are worth something as dogfood.
I have in the past advertised older hens as free on Craigslist. I have always had takers, even when I explicitly said "This hen is old, she will never lay another egg." That's probably what I'll do with this one as well.

Dr24Hours said...


I've snapped the neck of an injured Robin. A chicken would surely be harder, but it can't be much. Twist and pull.

Anonymous said...

She'll still make great broth even if there's no meat on her. Then dog food.

Have you asked your relatives what they would do in this situation?

Jerry said...

I suspect that living according to your principles includes taking a conscientious role in stewarding the individual lives in your care. As such, as hard as it might be, I can't help but think it is better to retain the kind of concerns and efforts that you describe, than to coldly view our flocks or herds or what have you, as mere commodities. I cannot help but feel that to do so is to give up at least a piece of our souls.

There are times when we farmers must take lives, for various reasons. But these reasons should never be shallow, such as our own ease, or with lack of respect for the other life.

Basically, I'm saying what you already know. Do what you can for the bird until you know its time has to be up, if that comes to be. And should that time comes, make the kill as fast and merciful as possible, as you already plan. And as always, offer thanks to its spirit for having given over its energy.

We have a hen separated for the very same reason. Luckily I had built a cordoned off area at the entrance end of the new chicken shed, so she can still be with her flock, but safe from them. I had to kill one of the hens just before Christmas though, as her rear end was all ruined. She will have nourished a local coyote or two, after nourishing us for two years.