Last Monday I did my least favorite farm chore, one that I dislike even more than cleaning the chicken house: I took my three oldest layers to be slaughtered.
They hadn't done anything wrong. They'd just grown old--perimenopausal, to be exact. They still laid an egg every once in a while, but not often enough to warrant feeding them through the cold months, at which time their laying would decrease even more. I had anticipated this back in the spring, when I bought eight day-old pullets whom I expected to begin laying in the fall. This has now happened, and these teenage hens are laying like a house on fire.
The perimenopausal hens were only three years old--time passes quickly if you're a chicken. They were Buff Orpingtons, big-boned, blond and plump like Walkyries, with calm dispositions seldom found in the operatic world. Orpingtons are a "heritage" breed. This means that they don't lay as early or as long or as consistently as modern hybrid hens. They also exhibit a strong tendency to become broody, to sit on eggs for weeks at a time in the hopes that something will hatch. They don't care that there's no rooster in sight, and the eggs are therefore infertile. All they care about is sitting with Buddha-like concentration on the nest, keeping all the other hens at bay. This results in broken eggs and in eggs laid in odd corners of the coop by desperate hens. And while a hen is broody, she doesn't lay eggs.
I hope I have convinced you by now that slaughtering the three Buff Orpingtons was the rational and sensible thing to do.
In our many years together, my husband and I have occasionally slaughtered a chicken or two. The slaughtering part we do beautifully, choreographing each step so the chicken is hardly aware of anything (I keep my hand over her eyes the whole time). The plucking and gutting and cleaning, however, are a mess. I know that this is something that our grandmothers did routinely every Sunday, in the interval between church and dinner, but the reason they did it so efficiently is that for them, unlike for us, it was routine. When we did it, it was hard, sweaty, smelly, uncertain work ("What is this thing on the liver? Don't nick it, it might be the gall bladder!").
Slaughtering our chickens at home, I believe, is the humane thing to do. The chicken dies in familiar surroundings, by familiar hands--as happy a death as a chicken can hope for. So in opting to take my hens to be slaughtered elsewhere, I was thinking not of them, but of myself. My comfort and convenience, because I am human, overrode the chicken's quality of death, because she was a bird. This was not a decision I felt good about, though I made it anyway.
The night before the slaughtering, in the dark, I went into the chicken house and plucked the three hens, one by one, from the roost and put them in a roomy, ventilated box without waking them. First thing the next day my husband put the box in the car and we drove a few miles to the farm where they were to be killed.
The friendly chicken-slaughterer offered to do them right away, while we waited, so we handed him the box and went to sit in the car. We listened on Morning Edition to news of other slaughters all over the globe, and eventually the man emerged with our hens in plastic bags, pre-cooled and looking just like supermarket chickens. We handed him $9 and took the hens home and put them in the freezer.
It will be a while before I can look at them again. But one day I will put them in a pot with onions, celery and carrots and simmer them for twenty-four hours. Then I will strain the broth and freeze it, and bone the carcases and save the meat for the dogs. And our three friendly hens will become part of our bodies.
But I'm not there yet. Right now, left to my own devices I would become not just a vegetarian (because milk and eggs imply the slaughter of bull calves and rooster chicks), but a vegan. And I would steer clear of all the writings that prove that plants too are sentient, want to avoid pain, and want to live and prosper.