Ruffled Feathers

There's been a bit of a dustup lately about hipsters and their abandoned backyard chickens. The idea being that these kids these days, they get chickens and then don't want to take care of them.

It's a chick!

Then NPR came in and gave them an excuse: The Truth Behind Abandoned Backyard Chickens. TLDR: when you buy chicks you never know if you're going to get roosters instead and what are you supposed to do about that?

As you guys know, we have chickens, and we bought all of them from various commercial hatcheries. We took the risk that we might get some boys, but we never have. That's in raising 15 chicks over the years (not all for ourselves; we've also raised chicks for our neighbors). The risk is about 5-10%; it's not the most common thing in the world, unless you get up there in numbers. And if you have no tolerance for it you can get sex-linked chicks where the guesswork is gone and you know what you're getting. I was willing to take the risk that we'd get a rooster.

The common response I hear is to say, "Oh, just adopt chickens from a battery farm. They're all girls! You're saving them from death!" I don't buy eggs from battery farms, and I don't buy chicken meat from that kind of place. Why on earth would I adopt "rescued" chickens from there? All I'd be doing is saving the farm money. I would not be changing how they do business, in fact I might make running that kind of farm more profitable, which is exactly the opposite of what I want. As for giving a better life to a chicken, I wonder how well a chicken raised in those circumstances would fit into my little flock. And if it were sick and weakened from the abuse, I'd be the one to have to euthanize it.

We have had to euthanize chickens. That's part of the deal: in exchange for imprisoning them and forcing them to work in your compost factory, you have to be the one to make some of those decisions. I am very grateful to my father for teaching me about the responsibilities of an animal keeper when I was young enough to really learn it.

None of the chickens we've euthanized has been well enough to be eaten. Which is why I call it euthanasia rather than slaughter. But the "homesteading" community has their own answer to the rooster problem: Homeless Chickens: An Old-Fashioned Solution. Which is duh, eat them.

The ladies

I think eating certain birds is not a bad idea. I threaten Carole with that when she is naughty (she's five now and hardly laying, so not too much of a loss, except in yellow fluffy indignation). But the truth is that we have just been letting our chickens die naturally and Carole can keep fluffing up angrily at us as long as she wants. We are not running a meat production operation in our garden. The chickens are pets, not livestock.

Tangentially, I have been thinking about getting a batch of chicks to raise up for meat and taking them to a place in Sacramento to be processed to avoid the whole dogs plus livestock slaughter logistical nightmare. This will require me psyching myself up for a two hour drive in a car full of chickens before I attempt it, but maybe next spring. I've now said that two years running.

Also slightly tangentially, I am not into "homesteading." Here's my tiny rant: it's mostly the word. I'm afraid that despite having grown up on a steady diet of Laura Ingalls Wilder, I still find the racist and treaty-breaking origins of the original offensive, and I can't seem to make myself hear it as anything else. I get what the kids are saying these days when they refer to themselves as homesteaders, but I also suspect that few of them have ever been on a reservation. Homesteading to me means pushing the owners of a piece of land onto the least desirable parts of it and stealing the rest, then getting down to the nasty bit. Because you think they are hardly better than animals and have no right to own good land. Anyway. That's my thing with that word. I hate it. I won't use it to describe myself or anybody I respect.

I'll get back on topic in a second, but don't think that I want to pretend to be looking for self-sufficiency, either, mostly because I associate that with those neo-Nazi survivalists, and also because I think that we evolved as a social animal for a reason, and one thing that is very important to me is building a community and living in it. My community takes care of me and I take care of them. I'm not crazy about living alone out on the land, because I know just how tough that life can be.

I consider myself a very very very small-scale urban farmer at most. Or a fruitier, to be honest, since what I grow is now largely fruit thanks to two four-legged vegetable predators eating the entire vegetable garden. (Rosie ate an entire fava bean plant down TO THE ROOTS this spring. Seriously.) Or even just a gardener.

All the food preserving and cooking and so forth, that's just how you get good food. I don't know why some people think that planting a garden and cooking from scratch is so hardcore, but it's really not. Lots of people used to do it all the time to get fresh veg, before there was canning or refrigerated transport. With a little planning you can have decent food to eat that you just can't buy in stores, or at least not at a price that I'm willing to pay (the day I buy a $9 jar of jam is the day somebody needs to get me to a hospital RIGHT AWAY). I don't like the flavour of packaged food and I don't eat it. That's not some big political statement, it is called being a fussy eater.

Anyway. Now that that is off my chest.

In our setup, the chickens are really pets. I mean, they have little jobs (turning compost, eating bugs, cleaning up weeds and kitchen waste), and they make eggs, but they are friends more than anything else. Pets, to me, are not the kind of animal you turn in for somebody else to take care of when you don't want them any more, or when they turn out to not work so well in your situation. I'm sad that people are just giving up on the responsibility they took on, for any reason. I know there are a lot of reasons why people have to give up pets that are not always about them being irresponsible poopooheads, but when that animal is also by design edible, it seems like passing the buck on the problem is kind of dickish.

I don't like to pick on hipsters or the kids these days. For one thing, I'm a Gen-Xer, and I seem to recall that right about the time my generation was building the entire fricking world wide web from scratch we were also being accused of being slacker do-nothings over and over, so screw the generational blame and enmity. Also, hipster kids brought me Homeroom. QED.

On the other hand, I think there is something about generations of people growing up with no idea where their food comes from. I was lucky to grow up with two parents who were not that far removed from the source of their food, but in my experience many of my neighbors here grew up without ever seeing meat outside of those little styrofoam packages at the grocery store. Or even -- and this is sad -- without ever picking an apple ripe off a tree and eating it, warm and tart in the sunlight. Did you know Red Delicious can actually taste good? Just never, ever store them.

We've been trying to revamp the animal ordinance in Alameda, and it's turned into this crazy racist thing where people like me who grew up closer to our food (many of whom are, not coincidentally, not white) are being demonized for traumatizing the children by murdering animals in front of them. Like somehow all humans before now grew up in extreme states of trauma from having to slaughter chickens as children, or from fishing and cleaning that for food, or from killing a lamb for meat. People who don't grow up being taught that slaughter is terrifying do not think it is terrifying on its own merit (how it is done in this country as a matter of course is another thing).

I think that's where the chickens in shelters thing comes in. OK, you got chicks, one turned out to be a rooster. Now what do you do? If you grew up with packaged meat, you are used to making the death of your food somebody else's problem. Shelters take unwanted pets. And there you have it. Now, if only those shelters would get the roosters processed and handed over to food banks, this could actually work for the better good.

posted by ayse on 08/10/13