The Chicken Dilemma
The Ethics of Killing
Four years ago I began a new chapter in my life. I had already begun hunting and two years prior I had decided that I would not eat meat unless I knew where it came from and approved its origins. I was looking for ways to live more deliberately and diligently according to my values and reduce my negative impact on the world. I focused on food because it was a system to which we are all inescapably complicit on a daily basis. It was a system that seemed more broken, cruel, and wasteful the more I learned about it. I saw it as a chance to vote for the kind of world I wanted 3 times a day. I had filled my freezer with deer and elk meat since I began exploring the idea of becoming more self reliant on my food but I wanted to supplement that and provide as much for myself as possible. I decided that raising chickens for eggs was the next most productive way I could extricate myself, in some small degree, from the larger industrial food system.
I started researching. I built a coop from scratch. I found 4 birds that met my requirements and began the learning process of raising animals for food. I knew from the beginning that the day would come that I’d need to make a decision. Chickens only lay eggs for about 4 years of their 12+ year lifespan. After 4 years, if you have laying birds, you can choose to keep your birds as pets for the next decade or so, kill them for food, or give them away, all of which have their downsides.
4 Years later, after living with my girls on a near daily basis, feeding them, caring for them, learning about them and basking in their soothing movements, the idea of personally killing them is a more immediate and visceral moral question than I had imagined.
I’ve already decided, for the time being at least, that I am not broadly against the idea of killing animals for food. I feel that we are inherently a part of an ecosystem of life that necessitates death. I don’t believe there is any conceivable way to eliminate yourself wholesale from the cycle of life and death (even strict vegans sustain off the direct death of plants and the indirect death of insects, rodents, and often deer or other “pest” animals killed to protect crops. This is not to mention death caused by loss of habitat etc.) and so questions of which death and how much death becomes a much more murky subjective sliding scale than most people imagine.
Does the closeness to an act matter when making a moral judgement? Does my familiarity with the animals make it more or less moral to kill them? If you found out that your grandfather flew bombing flights over Dresden you would feel differently than if you learned that he killed a woman and a child with a shovel, yet the actual damage inflicted is certainly far greater in the former circumstance. In the famous “trolley car problem” thought experiment, most people would readily flip a switch to divert a train onto a track that will kill one person instead of five, however, studies show that most people would hesitate if the action was direct instead of indirect (the “fat man variation” requires the thinker to push a man in front of the train to stop it from killing the five people instead of flipping a switch to divert it onto a track with a single person instead of five).
My chicken dilemma feels like the fat man variation. I’m coming to terms with what I think needs to be done but it’s certainly not an easy decision. An appointment has been made with a farm that will allow me to be a hands on participant in the process and learn each step for next time… if I choose for there to be a next time. I’ll keep everyone up to date on my first experience of killing an animal that I raised and lived with and if it still feels like the right moral decision after the fact.
The Day Of.
[These are my first notes from my journal as I process the experience and what it means. This was scribbled in haste so please forgive embarrassing typos etc.]
As I proceed though the rest of my day, surrounded by those that have no idea, I’m reminded vaguely of the feeling the day after my grandmother died. I feel a separation from the people on the street and in the restaurant. They don’t know. They don’t care. They’re lives have nothing to do with the heaviness that weighs on my heart. My connection to the world. I’m a bystander. An extra with the briefest amount of screen time in their own personal hero’s journey. My grandmother, my chickens, my sadness or connection factors not into their narrative arc. I think that’s an important feeling to keep close at all times. We all effect each other but no matter who you are, how moral or beautiful or successful you are in your life, your existence will be but the briefest of footnotes for the vast majority of conscious beings on the planet. Even the minuscule minority that enjoy (or suffer) the honor of being a household name to anyone beyond their own community, will become little more than one more sad bit of news in the endless stream of tragedy that overwhelms us every day. Where does your loss stack up to a stranger against a million of Syrian refugees or a Genocide across the world? Each of our lives is much smaller than we would like to imagine. Our joy, our pain, our victories and tragedies are each a grain of sand on a distant mandala hidden from nearly everyone that is, was or ever will be.
Come like the dew, vanish like the dew.
This needn’t be a tragedy. Though it is certainly sobering, it can also be immensely liberating. It is the myth of American personal celebrity brought to its knees. It makes valuable the most seemingly insignificant life. Each perspective is just as valuable as the next. None is special but to the few that stand close. And that is ok. It is beautiful and simple. But to live under an illusion that obscures this truth is truly tragic and will only lead to a life of frustration, disappointment, and unsatisfactoriness.
These are the thoughts that bubble to the surface hours after cutting the throats of 4 beautiful birds that were a part of my daily life for 4 years. After watching the life drain from their tiny necks and the spark of consciousness fade from their eyes. Tears streamed down the beautiful freckled cheeks of the love of my life. She imagined a look of betrayal in their eyes. We, their trusted protectors, were leading them to the slaughter. I tried to convince her that these birds didn’t have the faculties to understand their imminent non-existence. They didn’t feel dread because they didn’t comprehend what was happening or that the world would continue without them. To ascribe to them human emotions about death, too complex for ourselves to fully grasp, was to create tragedy where there was none. We were both half convinced.
The chickens didn’t struggle as hard as they might if I was picking them up to coddle them. They had no understanding of their situation even as the knife went through their arteries and their life drained into the dirt. They seemed to feel little more than a momentary discomfort barely distinguishable from when we’d move them to clean their coup or change their food. After a few moments of what looked like a mild confusion more than alarm, their eyes closed and whatever it was to be a chicken ceased to be.
It’s difficult to square how quickly they transformed from our beloved companions into inanimate objects. It did not feel wrong to grab all four by their feet and walk to the boiler. It felt like an honorable duty to dunk them in boiling water, to pluck their feathers and clean their carcasses. Though the tears continue, we are both excited to honor them with the cooking process. To share their bodies in the form of food and celebrate their lives and sacrifice with thoughtful friends.
Do I feel like it was the right thing to do? Longer question than I’m going to answer right now but I’m not nagged with regret or remorse. I think we played our part in an ancient dance and played it honorably and respectably.
[The short of it: I know we gave them a good life; a happy life as measured by a chicken’s priorities. We ate their eggs instead of supporting worse practices (store bought food of any kind). In the end, I think we have a tenuous claim to a net positive and an alleviation of some tiny incalculable amount of suffering the world. We learned a ton and have a far greater and deeper connection to the inescapable cycle of life and death and of killing animals for food. I’d love to hear anyone’s thoughts on the matter. I’m sure there are not shortage of opinions.]