Wednesday, May 01, 2013

Respect for Chickens Day

To Know Them
Is To Love Them

             Saturday, May 4, is International Respect for Chickens Day. United Poultry Concerns, an advocacy organization centered in Machipongo on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, originated the annual observance in 2005 and this year is calling for a demonstration at the White House from noon to 3 p.m. to petition the government for legislation authorizing the compassionate and respectful treatment of chickens.
            The organization also advocates a vegan diet, which excludes all meat and animal products, including dairy.
Proud and Free
            I grew up in Pennsylvania farm country. I’ve never killed a chicken but I saw a neighbor lay one’s head across a stump and whack it off with a hatchet. People laughed as the headless chicken ran to and fro about the yard until it fell dead. To me, about nine years old at the time, it was a distressing, sickening sight.
            Still, chicken is such a major part of the American protein diet there seems little hope people would willingly give it up. They consume it mindlessly, as I once did, never seriously considering that they’re eating the flesh of an individualized creature who lived and died in pain and terror, just to satisfy human appetite.
            (Though I gave up eating chicken long ago, I confess I eat eggs, hoping the “free-roaming, grain-fed” claim on the carton is the truth.)
             It was the conventional wisdom in my early environment that chickens are about as dumb as they come. Maybe even as dumb as turkeys. That justified raising them en masse in what we used to call hen houses. In the 1950s these were long, narrow, poorly ventilated barns, usually single story but sometimes two, in which ten or fifteen chickens lived together in 10-by-10 feet enclosures separated from each other by makeshift slats or chicken wire. They had straw covering the floor and someone shoveled out the shit every so often. Rarely if ever did they see the world outside the hen house until they were packed into crates and hauled to slaughter on open-air trucks.
            And those were humane conditions compared to the factory farms where chickens are raised today. 
Factory Farm Chickens Today
            My first real job, the summer I turned 17, was for a chicken service. It ended all childhood innocence. I had to adapt to a class of men who were not like my parents, relatives, or teachers. They had foul mouths and regarded chickens as insentient objects, as I was also expected to do or be dismissed as too soft for the job.
            And so I went with the program, quickly catching on and participating in the various tortures these birds are put through on their way to our plates. They scream like terrified human beings. I can still hear it in my head.
            Eventually—years later—I came to my right senses. The way that happened is told in the brief memoir that follows. I wrote this piece many years ago, but it was never published until now, here in The Thinking Dog’s Journal.
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 The Little Flock
            In the summer of 1973, a friend, thinking to help us out, brought us a mini-flock of five chickens—two roosters and three hens. We welcomed the additions. At that time we were an impoverished rural commune of hippies with no idea how we would get through the next winter. We accepted the chickens as future food.
            I set to work patching up the window and securing the door of the old shed we had out back. I built nesting boxes, spread around a bale of hay, and fenced in a section of yard for the newcomers. I enjoyed the work.
            The first morning after they came they flew over my fence. We tried to catch them, but they escaped into the trees. In the evening, though, they flew back over the fence and returned to their nesting boxes. That became their daily routine on our little two-acre homestead and surrounding woodlands. A sack of feed came with them, but when that was gone we fed them field corn we pinched from a neighboring agribusiness. For the rest, we let them forage.
            It might have been an ideal life, except that, from the beginning, we intended to eat the hens’ eggs and kill the roosters for meat. None of us had ever killed a chicken before, but one young brother, determined to try, found a library book with instructions, and so execution day arrived for the first rooster. I’ll spare the details, except to say the affair was like a lynching, and our brother, after several botched tries at cutting the poor bird’s throat, finally ended the ordeal by blowing his head off with a shotgun.
            Not long after, he moved out because of love problems. None of us left had the stomach for killing the second rooster, so our little flock, though shaken to the core—for they’d seen what we were capable of—went free from further harm.
            But the surviving rooster, especially, was a paranoid wreck, peering around wildly and ducking as he walked, a sharp eye always out for danger. The hens surrounded him like body guards, and the four—Nina, Shirley, Linda, and Jack—went everywhere together as a module.
            When they wanted fed, they’d come in a delegation to the house. Nina, the boldest, would hop up on the porch and peck on the kitchen door while Linda and Shirley waited down on the patio, covering Jack, who peeped out from behind them. I’d come out, sit with them, and shell them some corn. That’s how I got to know them—Nina first, then Shirley, Linda, and even Jack, a little bit.
            I discovered they were sweet-natured individuals whose company became precious to me. I mourned what we’d done on the day we’d botched the execution of that first rooster. Even now, thinking of it fills me with horror.
            Later in the fall, the commune was falling apart. Some nights I fled the discord, finding refuge curled up in my blankets in the hay of the chicken shed, where the sighing and cooing of my friends’ soft night song brought me peace. I’ll never forget that. Back in the house, where the humans lived, there was no peace.
            After the commune finally broke up, a friend adopted our flock on his farm, where they lived out their lives in freedom. No one deserved it more. Though I was temporarily homeless, it was a relief to me that at least they were okay. It was about the only thing that came out right back then.
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            For more information on International Respect for Chickens Day and United Poultry Concerns, go to www.upc-online.org.

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