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Our Natural World

Olivier Richon, Acedia, 2012. Courtesy the artist and Ibid, London.

To Kill and To Eat

Farming chickens takes care and concentration, and a deal with the birds: We give you a life of safety and comfort, and you die for our food. Until a murdering predator arrives and gives lie to the vow.

Yesterday I found all of our chicks dead in their brooder. They were less than a week old, randomly scattered around the sawdust bedding in the wide plastic tub that is their nursery. My girlfriend and I had come into the quiet greenhouse to plant seeds; Lizzy noticed the quiet before I did. “Are they sleeping?” She asked, and I saw all hundred of them, splayed out on the shavings. Some were on their backs, others on their bellies, still others curled up into balls. No, I said; they’re dead, I said.

I bent down to figure out what had happened, and saw trickles of blood near their eyes and ears. Those that were face-down had matted clumps of bloody sawdust stuck to their heads. My first thought was that something in their brains had burst. A week earlier they had been flown from their hatchery on Oahu to our farm on the Big Island; could the pressure have made them hemorrhage out through their ears? Maybe they had a parasite, or had been poisoned—what was in their water bucket? Could a predator have gotten into the brooder? The bamboo-framed lid was still on, the water was dripping, the food was half-eaten, and the hundred tiny birds were already frozen stiff.

We raise several hundred chickens every season, slaughtering and processing the birds ourselves. We also grow vegetables in our garden, have fruit trees in our orchard, and graze cows and sheep on our pasture. There is a conventional way to write about raising animals for food; you are supposed to be ashamed. There is a conventional way to write about killing animals; you are supposed to ask forgiveness.

 

Our birds are meant to spend two weeks in the brooder before they get taken out to the pasture. When they’re big enough, each batch of chickens goes into a wooden pen with feed and water troughs. Every day, we pull the pen one length across the pasture, giving the birds access to fresh grass and forage.

I wouldn’t feel comfortable bringing an animal into existence if it were to have a nasty life and painful death.

I’ll never be able to read the mind of a chicken, but that doesn’t stop me from guessing: It seems as though the chickens enjoy their lives in our pasture. I hope they do. I wouldn’t feel comfortable bringing an animal into existence if it were to have a nasty life and painful death. But everything we do on the farm is an attempt to make the chickens more comfortable. The pens are built to keep predators out and to give the chickens the shade they seek. There is always food and water, and new grass each day. When it’s time to slaughter the chickens, they are held snugly in cones and are killed with one sharp cut through the arteries beneath the jaw.

When our chickens happen to get out from their pens, on purpose or by accident, they desperately try to get back in. They know better than we do what dangers lurk in the guinea grass. If I notice a bird outside its pen, I’ll haul it up by its legs and toss it back inside. If I don’t notice, I can come back hours later and the bird will not have run for the hills—it will have its beak pressed up against the pen’s chicken wire, staring at the feed trough.

Lizzy discovered seven dead chicks piled up outside the greenhouse, two without heads. It must have been a predator attack. You can tell what kind of predator attacked your flock by what gets eaten and what gets left behind. Foxes, like humans, go for the breasts and legs. Raccoons will devour the crop and entrails. Cats eat the entire bird, leaving behind little more than a burst of white feathers and the occasional gnaw-marked bone. Skunks and possums kill one or two birds at a time, while weasels kill everything they can grab. They attack the head, and that’s often all they’ll eat. I haven’t lived in Hawaii long, but I know there are mongooses around, and I suspect they kill like weasels.

The blood patterns on the birds were so regular that at first I thought it couldn’t have been a predator. But the blood had obscured the wounds. To get a better look, I pulled the skin off of a chick’s head pinching the down at the nape of the neck and ripping it toward the skull. It peeled off with the tacky resistance of duct tape. With the down up to its neck and its bald purple skull, the dead bird looked like a baby condor. Puncture marks were scattered all over the bird’s neck and head—more like bite marks than blood bursts. I was relieved that there was no mystery disease wiping out all of our chicks, but now I was tense with anger at the mongoose. For the hundred birds it killed, it ate two heads.

Farmers are constantly figuring feed conversion ratios; this one made me sick. Chickens convert two pounds of feed into one pound of flesh. Pigs are less efficient; they convert feed to flesh at a ratio of four to one—cows at ten to one. This mongoose had a kill to food ratio of 100 to less than one. I wish I could have given the mongoose the one bird it wanted and saved the other 99. It is a deal I wish I could make daily. If the small white butterflies would only listen to me, I would give them a full leaf of every grown cabbage in exchange for their leaving the seedlings alone. They don’t trust me. They would rather eat the thumb-sized seedling they know than wait for the plate-sized leaf I promise. I’ve heard of a farmer in Maine who leaves piles of grain in the corners of his field: The crows get full on the piles and leave his plants alone. I’ve heard of this farmer, but I’ve never met him.

 

Some chickens have escaped from Hawaiian farms and gone feral. Their junglefowl instincts reawaken and they run wild in the tall grass. I see them from time to time, pecking by the side of the roads, waiting for the punchline before crossing. Our birds wouldn’t last a day out there. They are all Cornish Cross broilers: the standard American chicken, the pinnacle of industrial breeding. While a chicken can theoretically live for a dozen years, the Cornish Cross birds are ready to slaughter after seven weeks. In the warm tropical weather, they can grow even faster; after six weeks, they already look too big for most stockpots.

Some chickens have escaped from Hawaiian farms and gone feral. I see them pecking by the side of the roads, waiting for the punchline before crossing.

I think our chickens are happy. I think the feral birds probably are, too, though I don’t get to see them running away from jungle predators. The worst is clearly where tamed meets wild. I try to blame the wild mongoose for killing all the birds, but then I imagine coming across a hundred cheeseburgers trapped in a big blue tub. How could it not have killed them all? And how could I have let that happen? The domesticated fox tells the Little Prince: You become responsible forever for that which you have tamed.

I feel no guilt in raising animals for slaughter, but I feel guilt here. I reneged on my deal with the chickens: Let me give you a life of safety and comfort, and you will die for my food. I do not make the same mistake as other meat-eaters—I know that the chickens don’t get to negotiate this deal. Still, I feel I’ve offered generous terms. This time, I failed to uphold my side of the bargain.

 

I misspoke: Two of the birds were still alive when I came across the massacre. They were barely moving, struggling to breathe, about to die. I held them by their warm, soft bodies (the other chicks were already cold and stiff as bath toys) and swung their heads against a block of wood. One of the skulls burst open and I thought of the ortolan, its head bashed in, the gourmand’s spoon scraping for brains. To kill, and then instantly, to eat. There is a Hindu legend about a monster that devoured itself from toes to chin; Shiva named him Face of Glory.

Working in the garden is no escape. When you watch a plant try to grow, day after day, when you watch it struggle in the heat and sharp soil, when you watch it unfurl a second leaf to compensate for the bug-devoured first, when you then watch it wither up leaf to stem, you stop drawing a bright line between your plants and your animals. Living is eating life: This is my body, which is given for you. Asking for forgiveness is shying away from that truth; giving thanks is the better atonement.

Peter Beck is a writer and farmer on the Big Island of Hawaii. He will be teaching at a high school in Massachusetts this fall. More by Peter Beck