So I'm in a quandary this week about my four laying hens. Since early summer I've been mentally preparing myself for their slaughter. I've never slaughtered an animal before, though I have done some butchering. There are lots of reasons I'd made the decision not to keep them through the winter, none of which would have made sense had I put the decision to the hens.
These girls are more than two and a half years old; well past "retirement age" for the average layer. That means they produce fewer eggs and will only grow less productive as time goes on. I don't have a way of keeping the hens warm through the winter. The shorter hours of daylight over the winter will also mean less and less productivity from the hens. These animals are not pets, though I consider their care and well being a solemn duty.
But the most important reasons I have for making the decision to slaughter these hens will sound nonsensical to some people. I planned to slaughter them because it's a sort of moral reckoning for me, a life-long meat eater. As Michael Pollan pointed out in his excellent Omnivore's Dilemma, too many meat eaters "look away" from the realities behind the meat they consume. While I'm aware of many of the issues and I now source my meat locally from sustainable and humane farms, there is still a difference between slaughtering the animal myself and purchasing a dressed and packaged piece of meat. I won't say that I was eager to kill the girls, but I was, in a way, looking forward to taking that final piece of responsibility for what I eat and how I live. I expected to feel a sense of honesty and respect towards the hens, even as I was killing and eating them. It was to be a way of facing the relationship I have with animals directly, instead of turning away.
And then there's the whole competence issue which Sharon discussed yesterday. I feel very strongly that I don't want to be a helpless dependent of my food system - local, and sustainable, and humane as it may be. I want to have the knowledge and the skill it takes to slaughter a chicken and put it on the table. I want to know, intimately and directly, that the animals I eat had good lives and humane deaths.
So, to my quandary. A real farmer friend of mine asked how my hens were doing. When I told her that they were still laying pretty well, but that I planned to slaughter them before Thanksgiving, she asked the obvious question: Why are you slaughtering them if they're still laying well? I then explained their ages and that I had no winter setup for them. Her reply was "I'll keep them for you over the winter. You can have them back in the spring if you want them."
This produced a cascade of thoughts and feelings that really surprised me. I wasn't initially at all pleased by this un-looked-for offer. I've been preparing myself for the slaughter for so long, that I felt disappointment about not getting to do it. I've been looking forward to seeing whether a three-year-old hen can be turned into a decent coq au vin. I've been looking forward to developing those new skills, and to being able to say, "yes, I did it; I can do it." The strength of my own reactions surprised me. And then there followed the more rational side that talked me down from my emotional response: they can have a few more months of a good life. I can still slaughter them in the spring. Not having to slaughter them now frees up the better part of a day later in this busy month.
Still, I wonder about my initial reaction, which was a strong disappointment. I haven't yet given her an answer, but I guess I'm going to agree to it. I'm glad that the girls will live a little longer, and that their continued potential as egg producers will not be wasted. I just wish that there were a way to have my hens, and my moral reckoning too.
Update: The girls were finally dispatched in late July, 2009.