|Our New Hampshire Red, 7 weeks|
Before I began raising chickens, I could type all of the above without a thought or struggle. Now I sit here on my laptop telling you about dispatching Redbeak some day in the future and my eyes well with tears.
THIS is being connected to your food. THIS is true gratitude for a meal: allowing an animal to live and die with dignity, being thankful for its sacrifice for the sake of your family. And you can be DAMN sure that every SCRAP of usable bird will be used: feathers for pillow stuffing or decor, carcass for chicken stock to make soup, and I will learn to love chicken heart and liver. (I already love chicken liver, what am I saying?) These are MY birds, and I will do my very utmost to make their lives as worthwhile as possible. Even if I have to sacrifice a few beds full of kale and collards.
But there's another side to the story...the side that ensures that my chickens will have lived a full, chicken-y life! Maybe you don't want to know where your food comes from, but I'm gonna tell ya, so buckle up. That Zachy Farms roaster you picked up last week and is now sitting in your freezer? You know, the $4 one that weighs about 3 pounds? Yeah. That's a boy. He was separated from his sisters after hatching and thrown in with all the other boys, then raised until he was, oh, about as old as my chickens are right now, in a miserable little cage where he could not fully spread his wings, or in a room where he tromped knee-deep in his own poo with little ventilation and hardly enough room to circumvent his neighbors. Oh, yours was "free range"? Yup, that means that there was a door at one end of the room that led out to a 10 foot square patio that he never actually made his way onto; the "coop" was all he knew, and he was too scared to go it alone. He's a flocking bird, after all. Which actually answered the prayers of that "free range" chicken "grower"; chickens are notoriously afflicted with respiratory problems, and if he'd strayed outside, he might've gotten ill...and then gotten his compadres ill, and then the grower wouldn't have been able to make his $4 off your bird! So he got to between 6 and 8 weeks old - eating primarily CORN the entire time, and I'm not talking good corn, I'm talking #2 feed corn - and then was slaughtered on an assembly line...as a two month-old chicken.
Chickens can have NINE YEARS LIFESPANS, people.
My chickens? Yes, they will someday be dinner on my plate, and soup in my bowl, and stuffing in my pillow, and I will eat a 1000 eggs from each of them over the course of their laying years...but they will have had a minimum of 4 square feet of living space all to themselves during the not too cold California nights, and 4000 square feet of back yard space (to share) all day every day until they stop laying a few years from now. If each bird has about 1000 eggs to give during its lifetime - fairly accurate with New Hampshire Reds, I hear - and they lay an egg every day after they mature sexually (about 6 - 8 MONTHS of age), that gives them 3 1/2 years to live happily as chickens. If they lay every other day, which is more likely, we're talking more like 7 1/2 years of life. (I'm guessing reality will be somewhere between 4 & 5 years.) This means my chickens will have years upon years to enjoy their chicken-y existence, and before they get too old, too decrepit, and cease to be able to function like normal healthy chickens, they will be dispatched in as humane a way as I know how to kill them.
I can't say I view them as pets - even Redbeak - because I'm a) not a pet person and b) them chickens really is so dumb, but I DO respect them as living creatures, each with its own thoughts, concerns, personality, and genetics. They look different. I can tell them apart in an instant. Their coloring, their feathers, their behaviors...they are individuals. God made them for us, okay, but I also think God made rules for us to follow in taking advantage of His gift of fowl: raise them, care for them, worry over them, tend to them, think about and check on them, protect them, feed them, water them, clean up after them, own only what you yourself and your family can use, and THEN collect their eggs and eventually suffer the sadness of killing your own creature. It will not be easy. It was not meant to be easy. It was meant to breed respect and gratitude: for your food, for your abundance, and for the God-given gift of Life itself.
THIS is how we were meant to live. We were meant to care about the animal that gives its life to fill our bellies. We were meant to eat those animals sparingly. (After all, I'd rather have a thousand eggs over the next few years than a roast chicken tomorrow night.) We were meant to use every bit of that animal once we put it down instead of wasting it like we all tend to do. (Seriously, when was the last time you made stock out of your chicken carcass?) Above all, we were meant to feel gratitude for the sacrifice that provided our sustenance.
We don't have to go out and kill our animals every time we want a burger. We have fridges, freezers, and specific cuts we want on specific occasions. I'm grateful for that, yes, but I have been far too disconnected for far too long from the living creature that becomes my meal, and I have truly begun to feel that if I am not willing to be part of the "what it takes" to put a roast chicken on my table, perhaps I am not worthy to eat that meal. But I want to be worthy. I want to be full of gratitude when I give thanks to God before we have that dinner. I want to appreciate the blessing and the responsibility of animal husbandry.
And I think I'm getting there. I'm just not sure if 4 years from now, when it's time to dispatch my first chicken, it'll be easier...or harder. I'm thinking both. And I'm wiping a tear on my cheek. Buckle up, Jess. These awesome, easy creatures that are chickens are going to provide a bumpy ride.