for the birds
howdy folks! I want to give a mention to some of the other residents of the farm: the chickens.
I’ve been avoiding the subject of farmed animals so far in this blog, as it can be a pretty negative area for me, and I’ve been trying to keep this whole experience as positive as I can. That doesn’t mean knowledge and critique aren’t important though, and since I’ve been sharing a space with these birds and visited some farms with other animal residents, I think it deserves some attention.
We have about a dozen lovely chickens at the farmhouse, who were brought here by one of the other interns. They vary alot in breed and personality; they are here to provide eggs to those who wish to eat them here at the house. We do not generally sell the eggs. I haven’t spent much time with chickens before, and I’ve enjoyed their company alot. It’s interesting for me to watch the chickens interact with each other. I like seeing what animals’ social structures are like, how they communicate and the kinds of relationships they form. There are 2 hens here who are together alot. We’ve named them Florence & Bertha. They sometimes nap next to each other or dustbathe together. The chickens also preen each other. Eartha the red hen liked to clean the face of the rooster we used to have (who we named Chuck). Brown Betty, the other red hen, and Eartha are also very gregarious. They’re always interested in what we’re doing, and tolerate the occasional pet & cuddle. One even fell asleep at my feet one afternoon when I was sitting on the porch.
When the chickens first arrived here I thought about what my reasons were for not consuming eggs, and whether I felt comfortable eating these hens’ eggs. The birds who live here have a much better quality of life than 99.9% of the chickens in this country, most of whom never get to go outside or even open their wings fully. They are not slated for slaughter after a year of egg laying like they would be if they lived on an industrial farm, and they are not kept in battery cages.
Some of the issues are the same, however; all the hens here have had parts of their beaks cut off by the hatcheries they came from, although none of our birds are industrial breeds (who have higher incidence of pecking disorders, and are farmed using industrial systems). We now know that debeaking creates a nerve stump in the soft tissue after the remaining beak heals, causing chronic pain to the hens for the duration of their lives. The nerves in the beak are analogous to those humans have in our fingertips; it is the most sensitive part of a bird and it’s what they use to interact with their surroundings. Some of our hens have had very severe debeakings, resulting in things like crossbites or holes in the beak. As well, male “egg” type chicks are useless to the egg industry, and are usually killed at birth. Birds do not have a sex-determining chromosome like mammals do, so we aren’t able to breed selectively to hatch female chicks alone.
Gertie’s beak is in the worst shape. The top was cut very short and the bottom has a hole burned into it. Her tongue is always exposed.
Another issue for me is health care. One thing I’ve observed on small farms or sustenance farms is that while people generally care about the animals, they can’t or won’t provide proper care if the animals become ill. Farmed animals are cheap to buy and unfortunately are thought of in terms of economics (regardless of farm size), which means that if an individual gets sick, they may not be treated, or they will be sent to slaughter as their life is only considered in terms of production value. In industry, animals who die before they’re killed (due to illness, injury, whatever) are deemed “acceptable losses.” Concern arises when a higher mortality rate is reached in the group, which threatens economic stability; to me any death due to neglect or denial of care is unacceptable, even though it is legal to farm this way.
I also think it’s important not to idealize concepts like organic agriculture; observations and criticisms need to be made. For instance, the organic industry in canada bars the use of antibiotics, which are overused in industrial systems; this sounds like a good thing in terms of residues in animal products, agricultural runoff, etc. but when it comes to the welfare of the animals, this is not always a good thing. I have visited organic farms where animals were visibly suffering from parasites or illness and probably would have fared better had they been given appropriate treatment such as antibiotics. On top of all the physical health concerns there is emotional welfare to consider as well, something I could go on about forever, but I won’t do that here. Critiques of organic plant farming are important too, and will get a mention in future posts!
This is all still a gray area for me. I acknowledge that people are doing what they can to improve conditions for animals raised for food, and some situations are MUCH better than others. I also realize that there is always more that could be done and that this is not always feasible for everyone, and that cost is always a factor when one is relying on animals used for food, even when farmers have the best intentions for the animals. This is still something I struggle with. But the assumption that small/organic/family/etc. farms are always ethical needs to be debunked; there is so much variability between farms, and welfare issues will always exist when someone is using animals for food (and often when they aren’t). What you decide to support and consume will depend on what you’re comfortable with, and the best way to get comfortable is to know what to look for. It’s hard to know what conditions are like unless you visit a farm prepared to ask the right questions. Remember that you are a consumer being sold a product, and you will be shown the best side of any situation unless you do the work yourself to find out about the rest. So far for me, it’s been encouraging to see people refusing to farm using industrial models, but we still have a long way to go before we can call animal operations ethical. And I don’t think I’ll ever be able to eat someone as lovely as Brown Betty hen.
Some of you may also know that I recently visited a sanctuary for farmed animals. I met alot of wonderful people & critters and heard many touching stories of rescue and recovery. Photos from the trip are here as well as the animals’ stories and the sanctuary website. Get in touch if you’d like to talk about anything in this post!