Friday, June 20, 2014

Reflections on the Slaughter of a Favorite Hen

Yesterday we said goodbye to Ruby, our Rhode Island Red hen. She's an old bird with a lot of personality and has always been our favorite hen: independent, feisty, plucky, the boss lady of the flock. From the moment we got our first chickens about two and a half years ago, we knew this day would come. Chickens don't consistently lay forever; once they hit a certain age they go through a kind of menopause and don't produce eggs as regularly. We were able to sell our younger hens, but Ruby is a year older than them and no one wanted to purchase her. We knew what that meant we had to do.

Josh handled the processing while I puttered around the kitchen trying to avoid an emotional breakdown by not thinking about what was about to happen, but I glanced out the window just as Josh walked through the backyard, gently carrying Ruby in his arms to the slaughter location. I know death is quick with a sharp scalpel, over in a matter of seconds, almost painless to the chicken, but I dissolved into tears when I saw our perky feisty bird going quietly to her death.

Possibly the hardest part of farming with livestock is getting to know the creatures you will eventually be eating. Maybe it's easier on a large commercial farm, but here we've got so few animals and interact with each so regularly that we get to see personalities and quirks of each animal. There is no emotional distance when you feed, hold, and care for an animal daily. Your heart becomes entangled with theirs as their wellbeing is so important to your own. When our animals suffer, we suffer. When they are content and healthy, we are happy. We laugh at their antics and rejoice in their good health. We are privileged to care for them and live side by side with them.

I am grateful for the life we've given Ruby and all our hens, a natural life filled with roaming the pasture foraging for clover and insects, taking dust baths, resting in the shade during the heat of the day, and coming back to roost in the coop at dusk. Yet as I rejoice in the life we're blessed to give our livestock, I am also reminded that it is a privilege for us to be able to give our animals a last parting gift in the slaughter process. When we intentionally end the life of one of our animals we do all we can to ensure that death comes swiftly, quietly, painlessly, and without fear or stress. This is more than can be said for death in commercial slaughterhouses, places filled with the smell of blood, an undercurrent of fear, loud noises, terrified animals. Whether in a commercial slaughterhouse or here on our small farm, death is never easy or pretty, yet I do believe it can be handled with dignity and in a way that honors the animal that is being killed.

I've been eating more meat outside our home since getting pregnant, excusing my choice by telling myself I need more protein. That excuse seems flimsy when I think of all I know about factory farming and the processing that occurs in commercial slaughterhouses. I feel there is an emotional toll taken every time I consume meat that has not been raised with the animal's wellbeing in mind. I can never eat that meat with a clear conscience; it is always haunting me even as I attempt to smother my moral qualms.

I've written impassioned views on wanting all of mankind to see the suffering of factory farmed animals and rise up in arms about it, but what I'm seeing so clearly now is how much it harms me personally to be complicit in the factory farming system. The only time my passion wavers is when I crave a specific food item and choose to ignore my morals in order to satiate my craving. Every time I do that I am indulging in my senses rather than in my morals and it chips away at something in my soul.

When I consume factory-raised farm animals I purposefully ignore their suffering and it makes it that much easier to ignore, justify, or turn away from any kind of suffering in the world. I don't want my soul to become calloused in that way. The life of a chicken may seem insignificant in the face of all the human suffering that is in the world, but if my heart is calloused rather than tender than I cannot respond appropriately when I see human suffering.

It is said that sociopathic individuals first show their lack of empathy through cruelty towards animals, which often later progresses into harming humans. Engaging in cruelty, whether explicit or complicit, has its consequences on the heart and soul.

As I wrestle with the issue of us slaughtering our livestock and what that means to me emotionally and morally, I see that my grief over the loss of a hen is both healthy and morally necessary, a vital reminder of the importance of each life. It will never be easy to slaughter an animal we have cared for and I believe that is how it should be.  Life, whether human or animal, is not meant to be meaningless. Life is precious no matter what creature it inhabits. It is a force to be honored and respected.

Sometimes in this farm business I find myself wishing I could be more numb, to care less about my animals. Yet Jonathan Safran Foer writes, "You cannot protect yourself from sadness without protecting yourself from happiness." And it is true, the sadness of animal slaughter is tempered with a great sense of fulfillment and even joy. Caring for livestock is a wonderful privilege and one we take pride in.

Today as I mourn the death of a hen that I loved, I'm reminded of how I want to live and eat. I want to consume food with my emotions fully engaged and my brain active and aware. I want to be able to truly enjoy what I eat and that means eating knowledgeably rather than in chosen ignorance. I've found there is something different about eating food that is produced here on our farm. All my emotions and senses are fully engaged when I eat a hearty meal of lamb chops from our own lambs, when I eat chicken and dumplings from our own chickens, when I eat mashed potatoes and sautéed green beans from our own garden. I feel a joy and pleasure that goes deeper than my tastebuds. I'm satiated both sensorily and soulfully. I can rejoice in the sweat and tears that has gone into the meal.

I want my soul to be enriched when I eat, to be made larger rather than depleted by my culinary choices. I am grateful to Ruby for the life-force she has given for us and for the privilege of getting to care for her. I am grateful to be reminded that life is precious and meant to be honored and that I have the great privilege to do so every time I choose what I will eat.


  1. This post really resonated with me. I so admire your way of life, your perspective, and your writing! Keep going!

    1. Thank you so much for your kind words! :)