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.
Monday, December 27, 2010
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.