A little before Christmas, my dad, who keeps chickens (as we do) asked me to kill his birds. He had only three, and they’re about that old, so their productive laying days are at an end. Of course, they could live on into their dotage another ten years or so, eating feed, requiring cleaning, and taking up space that could be occupied by young, producing birds. That will not do. So, die they must.
Layer birds of a certain age like this are no good for eating. They are stringy, tough, and gristly. They could be boiled down for stock, but that’s not worth the effort of plucking and cleaning their leathery old carcasses. Therefore, there was no need to kill them via axe or knife, so I did what I know best and euthanized them veterinary style, with a needle full of viscous pink liquid. The first bird was sickly anyway, so no hard feelings there. But the second bird was amply fleshed (obese) and spry. This is always harder. No farmer takes pleasure in killing animals. It’s not tragic, nor is it emotionally scarring, but it is a grim necessity, and one you know will come even as you’re watching the peppy springtime chicks scratching around in their little box. You know that one day, you will have to kill them. Whether for meat, or to make room.
I have never had trouble euthanizing things. It makes me feel useful. When I interviewed for vet school, I said I liked doing euthanasias most about small animal practice. They still let me in. I meant only that it’s generally the merciful thing to do, and it’s a great opportunity for empathy toward animal and owner (if there is one). I have long experience euthanizing wild things, and that is always because they are gravely injured or ill. There are no sobbing owners to contend with either. I have euthanized family pets too, and my feelings toward the animal are similar, though it requires a great deal of mental distraction not to fall in with weeping children and old men, in particular. The chickens are somewhere in the middle. Not wild, but not pets either. We don’t shed a tear over these chickens, but it’s not without some sadness. I had to chase the second bird around a while, and finally caught her, saying “Jeez bird. You act like someone’s trying to kill you,” to lighten the mood a bit. Then it was the needle for her too.
The third bird looked up at me as I reached for her, then she looked down at the coop floor and proceeded to moonwalk its entire length. I burst out in bewildered laughter and my dad told me that’s her signature move. It’s harder to kill a bird with a signature move, but kill her we did.
So now, his coop is empty, awaiting spring and a flock of new girls. My own elderly hens are on a reprieve, mainly because my neighbor is very attached to them and looks at me with horror when I bring up their approaching demise. Strange in some ways that we’re vegans keeping (and occasionally killing) chickens, but the explanation for that is complicated and will have to wait for another post. Until then, take solace, as the chickens certainly did, that Mary, Mother of God, was gazing down, feather dust and manure besmirched, from the sill of a coop window on their last day. And her serene smile is unwavering.