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Moral Puzzles in the Backyard

The following article was first published in the February/March 2010 issue of Backyard Poultry Magazine.

With thanks to my “chicken buddy” Mike Focazio, who served as philosophical collaborator for the following meditation.

Let’s Go to the Video

Recently an animal advocacy group, Mercy for Animals, circulated on the Net a video made secretly by one of its members at a Hy-Line hatchery—the world’s largest for layer chicks for industrial egg production. Since every male chick hatched in this facility is by definition surplus, and since the number of males generated is so enormous (150,000 per day), dealing with the male chicks is a serious management challenge. The solution shown in the Hy-Line video: dumping the sexed male chicks off the end of a high-speed conveyor belt, into an auger grinder (of the sort used to grind sausage), where the chicks are ground alive. (The video is available at many online sites including Mercy for Animals and Huffington Post.)

Watching the video of chicks being ground alive is appalling. Like most of my readers, I expect, I find the practice a deeply repugnant breaching of the covenant between Homo sapiens and the fellow creatures in our care. Doubtless my indignation triggers endorphins in my brain, and I ride an emotional high on the crest of my moral outrage. I congratulate myself, smug in the knowledge that management of my own homestead flock is free of such horrors.

But then I remember what somebody once said: “Be careful, friend, not to get obsessed with the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye—when you have a two-by-four in your own.” That startling image reminds me that the most useful reflections on moral issues arise when I focus not on the shocking outrages perpetrated by “them,” but the implications of my own practices when considered more broadly, perhaps even how they are complicit in the outrages I so righteously deplore.

Thus watching the video, however numbing initially, grew into a meditation on moral issues we encounter as we manage our feathered partners in our own back yards.

Rabbit and Wolf

Probably most readers of an article on moral issues inherent in poultry husbandry would think I’m going to talk about slaughtering for the table, so, okay, let’s start with that. I doubt any of us would argue that it is immoral for the wolf to hunt and eat the rabbit. Vegetarian alternatives are not an option for the wolf—the race between the two is as much a matter of life and death for the wolf as for the rabbit.

This is not the place to engage my vegan friends in a debate about fundamental dietary questions. But, based on a great deal of study about diet and health, I believe unequivocally that animal proteins, and especially high quality fats (and the fat-soluble vitamins they either contain or enhance), are essential for optimal human health. In that sense the necessity to “kill and eat” is as imperative for me as for the wolf. I do not cede the moral high ground to any assertion that I am cruelly and unnecessarily causing suffering to living beings, when doing so is necessary to sustain my own life.

It is unfortunate that my vegan friends focus so exclusively (and morbidly? ) on the death of the animals in my care. For me, the life those animals live is the crux of the moral issue. Thus I do not shoe-horn my laying hens eight per cage the size of a pet crate, stacked by thousands in multiple tiers; nor do I raise my broilers from hatch to slaughter shoulder to shoulder with tens of thousands of their fellows, never seeing the direct light of the sun, nor eating a grasshopper or fresh blade of grass. And yes, these are moral issues for me.

Slitting the throat of a bird selected for the table is a life necessity for me, but I do so within the context of partnership, gratitude, and respect—as profound, meaningful, and essential as my relationship with the microbes that create soil fertility in my garden, the bees that pollinate my crops, the decomposer organisms that keep my world clean and sweet, rather than a wasteland of putrid corpses. As long as my partnership with my birds is one of mutual support for a life of contentment and natural fulfilment, their nourishment of me is in balance with my nourishment of them.

Shades of Gray

It is not my intention to preach to anybody. I will caution, though, that we should be careful of a tendency to see all moral questions as black or white, absolute right or absolute wrong. Most moral reflections only get really interesting (and useful) when we wander through shades of gray. There are many such areas the flockster might reflect on, with each free to come to a conclusion equally deeply felt and compassionately committed, even if it differs from my own. Here are a few that come to mind:

Cockfighting

I have seen cocks in my own flock fight to the death, and cannot imagine taking pleasure in such mayhem as a sport. But before getting too judgmental of those who breed for the fighting pit, I remind myself that there may be few who are doing more to preserve deep genetics in Gallus gallus domesticus than those old “cockers”—not Tyson and Perdue and Hy-Line with their cookie-cutter birds bred for production in the industrial model to the exclusion of all other traits; not those among the competitive show crowd who emphasize fine points of comb and carriage and feather, but not the sturdy robustness that is the genetic birthright of Gallus; and not me, and most homestead flocksters, who shun the hard work of serious breed improvement.

Stunning knives

I visited a farm that is approved for humane certification, where I was assured in no uncertain terms that use of an electric stunning knife is essential if you are to kill a chicken in a humane (moral) manner. Setting aside the fact that there is disagreement on whether a bird feels pain after (or while) being stunned with electric shock, I am myself stunned by this extraordinary implication: My grandmother’s method of killing a chicken (popping off its head) was inherently inhumane, whereas I may now, in contrast, kill my birds morally using a miracle of modern technology. If, that is, I can pony up the $2150 or so to buy an electric stunning system (only $1200 or so used). Most readers of this magazine have small flocks, and many will not have to cull more than half a dozen old hens or excess males per year. Shall we conclude they are moral fiends because they don’t shell out the bucks for such moral purity?

Frankly, I wonder if the appeal of the stunning knife is the illusion that we are neutralizing the bird’s suffering (when as a matter of fact we know no such thing with certainty), to escape confronting head-on what we are doing: killing a beautiful animal for food. No technological trick is going to relieve us of the anguish of that tragic dilemma.

Caponizing

Surgically castrating cockerels (for grow-out as larger, plumper roasting fowl) is unquestionably stressful on them, and for that reason is strictly prohibited by the Animal Welfare Institute’s humane standards. But which is the better choice for the excess male who is to be culled—being slaughtered at an early age, or enduring the temporary stress of caponization for the sake of getting to live a nice life for a much longer time? (One of my capons lived a full year and a half before gracing the dinner table.) Has anybody asked the bird?

Debeaking

The Animal Welfare Approved standard is unambiguous on the subject: Debeaking (chopping off half the upper beak in order to prevent cannibalism and feather picking) is never permitted in any poultry operation considered humane. I have corresponded with a few producers for local markets who keep debeaked layer flocks, either because that is the only option from their source of supply, or for management reasons of their own. Since I am not meeting the same bottom line they are, I will not presume to judge their decisions. It does seem to me, however, that debeaking is an admission upfront that the birds in our care are going to be under a high level of stress, with the implied claim that the alteration is necessary to prevent their injuring each other despite that stress. But isn’t our duty to give our birds as stress-free a life as we can? In all my years of poultry husbandry, all episodes of stress sufficient to cause the birds to start pecking each other viciously have been subject to amelioration through management changes on my part. I see no need for beak-clipping in the well cared for backyard flock.

The learning curve

We all make mistakes, and sometimes our birds pay the price. Early in the management of my flock on pasture, I failed to anticipate the necessity for shade. In an unseasonal temperature spike, the poor stressed birds began pecking a couple of flock members apart, alive. We all lose birds to predators from time to time. Such calamities are not moral failings. Should we fail to make preventive changes following such crises, however, then we do indeed come up short in the moral equation between us and our birds.

Back to the Grinder

Maybe that warm-up gets us ready to consider at greater depth the question of chick-grinding. Please do watch the video. There were elements that caught my attention at least as much as seeing living animals treated like so much compactible garbage. Note the complexity and especially the speed of this highly mechanized system. The obvious context is the typical modern factory, caught in the iron jaws of an economy that demands big profits from razor-thin margins. In that context, I cannot think of any alternative, more humane way of killing those chicks that would fit the demands of the production environment. Whizzing the hapless cockerel chicks into a meat grinder is unquestionably the most rational solution in the context—and I have no doubt that, if I were Hy-Line’s CEO, I would make exactly the same decision.

So we’re back to context as a key component of moral dilemmas. It seems to me that—in an increasingly complex, centralized, anonymous food production system—we are more and more forced into choices we find morally repugnant, but which are in fact the only rational solutions in their contexts. How else would a supposedly sane society pollute its groundwaters with feedlot runoff to the level that its own government issues stern warnings to mothers against giving the family’s tapwater to their babies? Or create dead zones in the sea the size of New Jersey? Every one of such horrors of modern life were created one “rational,” economically “necessary” decision at a time.

Did hatcheries in our great-grandparents’ time grind live chicks as a routine part of their operations? They did not. Hatcheries were smaller, more distributed, more human scale. Vastly more families kept backyard flocks as a part of the domestic economy, and “cockerel specials” were welcome money-savers for producing dressed poultry for the table. Could it be that finding our way back to more local production of poultry stock, and greater participation of the average citizen in the backyard production of meat and eggs, are not only “greenie,” feel-good ways of being more “environmentally responsible,” but have a deep moral thrust as well?

For my own part, I’m back to thinking about the sawdust speck and the two-by-four. I am not implicated in what I see as a moral outrage when Hy-Line grinds 150,000 live chicks per day—both because I don’t order layer chicks from them, and because I do not eat supermarket eggs, ever. But I do order some of my replacement stock from elsewhere; and I now know as well that the big hatcheries who supply us backyarders with our chicks also routinely kill excess cockerel chicks, a reality few of us can feel comfortable with. For example, one of the regional hatcheries in a state near me, for whom I’ve always had great respect, reported that they simply dump the excess male chicks into a barrel and leave them to suffocate. Doubtless they are as appalled to be doing so as we are to learn of the practice, but the math is relentless: If we flocksters, for our own convenience, write enough pullets-only orders, there is no way the hatcheries can sell all the resulting excess males as cockerel specials to bargain-hunters—large numbers of the excess males must be killed out of hand as a matter of routine, to serve our convenience.

I interviewed the owners of two of the biggest hatcheries in the country. I found that they actually have a commitment to doing as much as they can to treat the chicks they’ve helped “bring into the world” with care and respect, and to minimize euthanizing chicks. They pass on surplus chicks as cockerel specials, as “box warmers” added free to orders to help keep body warmth up during transit through the mails, to feed stores who feature “free chick day” as a way of promoting feed sales, and to zoos and other feeders of snakes and raptorial birds.

Both agreed that they would love to sell straight-run orders only, but don’t feel they can refuse to fill sexed orders and remain competitive. Inevitably, therefore, their hatcheries routinely end up with cockerel chicks that must be killed. One owner refused to specify how her hatchery euthanizes such chicks (other than “according to applicable law”), but the other said their method is “controlled atmosphere killing,” using carbon dioxide. A major reason for that choice is that purchasers of these chicks (which are frozen in large quantities for feeding to captive raptors) require this method in order to retain edibility of the chick carcasses for their birds.

Changing the Chick Order

Recognizing that my pullet-only orders lead to euthnaizing excess cockerel chicks at hatcheries, I plan to order straight-run exclusively in the future. That is an option available to other backyard flocksters as well. Indeed, I have just completed an order for new layer stock next spring from Glenn Drowns’s Sand Hill Preservation Center. Glenn never kills excess chicks. The key to avoiding that necessity is shipping straight run orders only, no exceptions.

The choice I’ve made may not be a viable option for many small producers of eggs for local markets, already operating on a razor’s edge financially, since a straight run order doubles the chick cost of each layer pullet that remains after the males are culled at butchering age. However, in a recent discussion of this issue on the listserve for American Pastured Poultry Producers Association, two small producers said they plan to start ordering straight run for replacement layer stock, and find good uses for the surplus cockerels as culls. One made the observation that, while an egg breed cockerel won’t make a carcass acceptable in his broiler market, he plans to turn the cull cockerels into chicken pot pies for sale in his farmers market. What an interesting idea: A change in strategy for reasons of virtue turns out to make good economic sense as well (since a producer typically makes more profit “adding value” than selling basic-ingredient products).

Expanding Ripples

This meditation has not been about expanding anyone’s load of guilt, but about expanding our vision, about seeing our practices with our backyard flocks in the larger picture.

The image of the pebble in the pool comes to mind: When the pebble splashes into the pool, the ripples expand outward, all the way to the edge. A butterfly flutters its wings in China, and a thunderstorm kicks up in Kansas. We order our twenty-five sexed pullet chicks, and a harried hatchery worker tosses twenty-five cockerel chicks into a barrel to die.

Antidotes to deeply entrenched problems are not easy to put in place. But we start with a willingness to see our own part in the larger picture. And, I believe, to return to smaller, more distributed, more human scale agricultural enterprises.

It may be that some will find my rippling pool metaphor oppressive—seen from a broad enough perspective, we can never get it right. I choose to see the expanding ripples instead as an ever-renewed invitation to learn, to meet new challenges, to help define new pathways for healing and sustainability. A lifetime should suffice.