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Am I Exploiting My Chickens?

December 17, 2011

Is this bird exploited?

A blogpost called If I Were Still a Vegetarian moved me to write a long comment, which I’m expanding here.

I’m not going to delve into the vegetarian-versus-omnivore debate, at least not today, but just wanted to address one aspect of the veg@n viewpoint: that eating animal foods necessarily means we’re wrongfully exploiting animals. Volumes can be and have been written on this subject (one of the best is The Vegetarian Myth, by Lierre Keith), and I’m not pretending to address the many facets—historical, cultural, anthropological, biological, nutritional—of this perennial debate in a blogpost. I’m just looking at my particular situation.

I am lucky enough to have room to raise chickens now, and if you asked my boyfriend David whether the chickens are exploited, he would bust a gut laughing. He tells everyone they are the most spoiled chickens, and if he suspects I love my chickens more than him… well, let’s just say it’s an open question. I love being with the chickens, taking care of them, learning about them, and I work hard to provide them an ideal environment, given our limited means.

We don’t have the capacity right now to do Polyface Farm-style mobile chicken houses on lush pasture, as explained so eloquently by Michael Pollan in The Omnivore’s Dilemma. We’re still learning the ropes of pasture management with our goats—there’s more to it than simply building fencing, as if that were even simple—but our chickens do have a very large yard (about 15′ x 20′ or so) that I keep deeply mulched with straw, shredded paper and a bit of wood chip mulch to absorb their poops (balancing the nitrogen with plenty of carbon—you know, composting) and provide good habitat for nutritious insects. (Remember, chickens aren’t vegetarians, they are eager omnivores.) Then, the chickens get let out to the rest of the farm every afternoon, so they get plenty of grass and bugs and chances to engage in normal, happy chicken behavior. They express the essence of chicken, in Joel Salatin’s words.

Bedtime for chooks

In addition to paying extra for soy-free organic layer feed, I also sprout a quart or two of peas and seeds for them daily so they always have nutrient-rich fresh sprouts. (Each batch takes an overnight soaking in warm water, then twice-daily rinsing for 3-4 more days, so I have a new batch going most every night.) I also make sure their water is clean and fresh daily, something many chicken-keepers fail to do, from what I’ve seen.

I also feed some treats, in the form of leftover bits of fruit, salad, vegetable trimmings, yogurt, cottage cheese, tomatoes. I toss seed mixtures out in the mulched yard and give them sunflower seeds, both sprouted and unsprouted. They love both.

Barred Rock pullet

I spent a lot of money that I could ill afford this past summer to shore up our chicken coop against predators, having lost, and mourned, four chickens to a raccoon and one to a skunk. I get up earlier than I’d prefer to let the chickens out each morning, give them fresh feed, fork the deep litter to stir in the new poops so they will be absorbed. I let the rooster out of his cage, where I keep him at night, covered with a blanket, to muffle the sound of his crowing, thus keeping him alive. (David is not a fan of roosters.) I rush home from work to be there before dark to close up the coop. I count the chickens every night to make sure nobody is missing.

I’ll skip discussion of how much money and time I’ve put into chicken books and learning all I can about these amazing creatures. Suffice it to say, I love my chickens. On weekends I love to sit out in their yard and feed them by hand. Even without treats, a couple of extra friendly ones that I raised from day-old chicks will hop up on my lap or shoulder.

The point is, I work hard to give these chickens a good life, and they live better than 99.99 percent of chickens in this country. Don’t get me started on the evils of the factory-farm system. If I’m exploiting the chickens, they’re exploiting me, with no guilt, I assure you. They do not worry about who pays the bills. But I don’t really look at our relationship as one of mutual exploitation. That terminology is offensive to me. I think we’re all part of the same biosphere and we are interdependent. We need chickens, not just for eggs and meat, but to connect us to the Earth and Nature.

So do the hens feel exploited? Well, they RUN towards me when they see me, and they make a lot of happy sounds and are healthy; obviously they are pleased with their treatment here. Is it just because I feed them? That’s surely a large part of it, but since survival is the first task of existence, that makes me a valuable partner.

Do they mind when I take their eggs? Only when they have gone “broody” do they get mad, and they’re mad if you just look like you want to go near the nest. If they’re not hormonally motivated to sit on a clutch of eggs, though, they don’t seem to worry much about the eggs once they’ve laid them. We only recently got a rooster again, and when we didn’t have one, those weren’t fertile eggs anyway, so no matter how long hens sat on them, they wouldn’t hatch (as I kept explaining to them… to no avail!).

Chickens calling

We have harvested a couple of roosters, and that is the hardest part, but it’s the reality. It feels awful to know I have the power to take this creature’s life. I had the same feeling when I worked all day and into the night one Saturday to save a goat, that we ultimately couldn’t save. It didn’t seem right these choices were in our hands. At least, I’m still not used to it.

We have harvested a few animals now, the roosters and a couple of goats (with professional assistance, and I personally was not involved and stayed far away from it; yes, I’m a coward). We do it with tearful gratitude and total respect for the animal. We’ve also killed animals that needed to be put out of their misery.

Consider this: if we (or someone like us) hadn’t acquired these chickens for the chance to eat their eggs, they wouldn’t have had the chance to experience life at all. Vegans need to keep that in mind. There is not enough demand for chickens as pets exclusively without getting eggs or meat out of the deal for humans. It is a partnership that actually works very well for chickens, at least those that are cared for by people like me. The chickens give of themselves to lay eggs, and I give a lot to make it worth their while. It has been ever thus for our species, and until our biological needs change, I don’t see us “outgrowing” the need for meat and eggs.

I can’t eat store-bought eggs anymore. Not just because of the lack of flavor and nutrition, but because I know how awful the factory farming system is and I don’t want any part of supporting it.

For a quick, though reasonably thorough, introduction to keeping chickens, MarksDailyApple has a nice one with lots of links. And MyPetChicken lists 10 great reasons to have chickens.

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