Monday, 5 December 2016

The end of our chickens

I killed our last chickens last weekend, as they were getting old and no longer laying. I’d been meaning to for days, but we are now deep into the long darkness of the Irish winter – it’s dark when I take the bus to work in the morning , and dark when I get back, and it’s no good wielding a hatchet by lantern. Thus, I did it at first light, still in my bathrobe; I grabbed each one in turn, said a prayer, thanked them for their years of entertainment and food, and told them we worked to keep them fed, clean, healthy and happy for as long as their biology allowed. Then the hatchet came down.

It was the first time I’ve killed one of our own animals for food – we kept the birds for eggs, killed the rooster when he took sick, and I killed a couple of wild rabbits. Yet it’s something I wanted to learn, and wanted The Girl to know how to do. Killing animals for food, skinning them, dressing them, knowing what parts to eat and discard, and how to cook them to make them edible has been something most generations would have known.

From hairy ape-men on the Serengeti to boys in rural Ireland or Missouri hunting rabbits, slaughtering animals has been one of our defining acts of being human. As I wrote before, we now remember Neanderthals or Clovis people by their spear-tips and arrow-heads, their meat-getting technologies. It was the main reason we domesticated animals, and that spurred empires and conquests –the Tain Bo Cuailnge involves a nationwide war over a single breeding bull. The very word “meat” meant “food” in Old English, so inextricable were the two.

Such concentrated nutrition brings risks; most of our diseases come from the animals that shared our homes and fields – influenza from birds and anthrax from horses. Our modern industrial-scale ranching and slaughtering makes meat cheap and plentiful, allowing us to eat large amounts of meat but without ever breaking a neck or smelling blood. Our raising of meat has transformed the landscape, changing woodland into grazing land and grassland into desert. It is the one of the reasons the rainforest is disappearing, and is helping load the atmosphere with greenhouse gases. Meat in such plentiful supply has spread obesity-related diseases across the Western World.  

Some people respond to these trends by going vegetarian, of course, Of course, some people’s solution is to go vegetarian, and that’s a respectable solution. The human body does often need B12 and other materials found in meat, and of course rows of crops can kill animals as surely as any hatchet, by eliminating the land on which the animals would graze. If we are to continue eating meat, we need to be able to eat less of it, and create more of it ourselves, to care for animals in their life and not waste them in death. Meat needs to again become difficult to obtain and precious to receive.

I don’t find it easy to kill an animal, far less one that I’ve known for years and cared for. We took care of our chickens when they were sick, bought them back-covers to protect them from the rooster, treated them for mites, built and painted their home and rescued them from a fox. Most mornings, they were the first living beings I saw, and the last before I went to bed, and while most of my life was filled with the burning minutiae of jobs, bills and raising a child, my mind flitted back to them occasionally, wondering if they were warm and fed.

I don’t know what it’s like to be a chicken, but I like to think ours had a happy life and a painless death, more than any raised in cages or even in the wild. For them, their lives were as good as it gets, and their deaths meant something.

I asked The Girl, now 12-going-on-jaded-teenager, if their deaths would bother her. She had named them, after all.

“Not at all,” she said. “I was seven then, and that was a long time ago,” To you, I thought.

“I’m happy to help, if you like. I watched you kill the rooster, after all.” It was true; we killed it about six months ago when it took sick, and she took the whole thing in stride.

“I don’t prefer it when their headless body gets up like a zombie and starts running around,” she said. “but other than that, I’m relaxed about it. They had a good life.”

That night we did our home-schooling lessons in the shed, and I quizzed her on Greek mythology while she skinned the bird. It was, she observed cheerfully, like peeling a damp and feathered banana.

I went to Mass last Sunday, but never made it past the parking lot; a older lady, just moved to the area, fell and injured herself in the car park. Right away, though, people from the congregation gathered around and helped, calling the ambulance, getting a cushion for her head, and talking to her until the ambulance arrived. Afterwards I talked with a couple of the ladies who helped.   

“We were just visiting town,” they said – they lived in a nearby village about ten kilometres away – “and we saw your woman on the ground.” Irish people say your woman to mean the or that woman. “We just had to help, even if it meant missing Mass.” I think this is what Mass is all about, I said.

I’ll stop by later this week to see how she’s doing, so I knew where to go – to the shop in the village, where Tom the postman was sipping his tea. Sure enough, he knew where they lived, how long they had been there, and could let me know as soon as she was back from hospital. There’s a reason people never had house numbers here, or road names, or zip codes – the postman knows everybody.

Top photo: My daughter feeding the chickens a few years ago. 
Bottom photo: You see a house number, or address on this door? You don't. 


Juliana said...

I'm mostly a lurker on your blog, but I wanted to say how much I enjoy your posts, and this one in particular.

Steve Carrow said...

Should you envision much more chicken butchering, you might look in to making or buying a killing cone, and look in to severing the head, or just the carotid artery with a stout sharp knife- a more controlled method, with less risk of a miss aimed chop or sudden move on the part of the chicken. In the artery cutting method, the chicken loses consciousness from loss of blood, and some consider it a more humane way ( who knows?) than instant decapitation. Less chance for bruising, and less spreading of the mess. I did it this way on our last batch, and there did not appear to be agitation or distress.

To your more general point, industrial CAFO manufactured meat is hardly defensible, but respectful husbandry and direct involvement with the dispatching process would go a long way toward connecting people with and gaining more respect for nature. (And really appreciating meat!)

Brian Kaller said...

Juliana, thank you!

Steve, thanks for the furnace information -- that's interesting. I appreciate the advice about slaughtering too -- I'll take all I can get. I'm curious though -- wouldn't the bird feel more distress if you're trying to get it into the cone? I will check it out, though.

I completely agree about meat -- I made coq au vin with one of our chickens and will make soup from the other tomorrow, and learned what a different experience it is to cook and eat an animal that has spent its life living.

Donna OShaughnessy said...

We also use the cone method and generally as they are lowered in and their wings are tucked close to their bodies it calms them. We've butchered our own chickens for decades, raised hogs and beef for meat as well and there is not one meal where I have taken their lives and sacrifices for granted. An excellent post Brian.