We don't have any plans to eat these chickens. We took them in for eggs and though we briefly discussed the possibility of using them for stock, ultimately I had to be realistic about the likelihood that I would be capable of killing them.
We've only had the ladies for a week, but already I can see that they require very few inputs from us. They mostly feed themselves. So when they stop laying, I'm not sure if there's a rationale for killing them since they aren't costing us much of anything – except space, of course. Then again, chickens can live for a long time after their reproductive days have ended, and as they get older they'll be more prone to disease and injury. It might be seriously impractical to keep them around alongside younger hens. I have no idea.
These hens are living the good life. They have tons of space, security from predators, loving caretakers, a warm home, good food, and the freedom to behave normally. But it's inevitable that I will love them. This issue is especially pressing because we have children who will inevitably love the hens, as well - and I absolutely refuse to put an end to that.
It seems unethical to eat meat and yet refuse to take responsibility for the taking of those lives. I don't think it would be right to ship off our hens to be killed by a professional, accepting them back as neatly-wrapped packages of anonymous flesh. I can imagine passing off our ladies to a friend when the time comes – maybe they'll even go back to the family from whence they came. But in this, I am still responsible for their death – I have as good as killed them, though I haven't bloodied my hands. And it seems disrespectful to pass the buck. If I am to eat meat, I feel I must fully acknowledge and experience that process, those consequences.
Of course, that's all good and well from an academic perspective of morality, but I crumbled when we had to euthanize our dog, and that was a totally clinical and medically detached needle in the leg followed by a swift sleep. And he was very sick and it was the kindest thing. Though I respect the choice, and certainly the need, to raise an animal for food, I just can't conceive of taking a hatchet myself to a beloved family friend.
I've become more aware and, I hope, respectful of the thousands of tiny deaths that accompany the basic act of eating. I'm no longer under any illusions that a block of tofu or head of cabbage absolve me of responsibility – in fact, under some conditions these foods might be a worse choice in terms of ethics and sustainability. I realize that animals raised on pasture and slaughtered quickly on-site are a preferable alternative to any form of industrial agriculture, which is responsible for the greatest massacre of animal life, biodiversity, and soil health the world has ever seen. I get that. From a philosophical perspective, I think it's preferable to be vegan than to eat factory-farmed meat, eggs, and dairy products, but I think it's better to eat a variety of seasonal foods from local, small-scale farmers than to be a vegan who is dependent on an industrial and globalized food supply.
Yet I still can't grapple with deliberately killing someone.
I want to be clear that I'm not squeamish about death or dying. I intended to work in forensics, and the biology of death still holds an intense fascination for me. My children and I discuss death quite a bit. I don't want them to have a fear of it that leads to dependence on superstitious dogma as a distracting reassurance that death isn't real. Death is to be honored, not foolishly rejected – I do consider it a disrespectful and childish waste to believe that death is not final. I teach my kids to slavishly love life precisely because death is inevitable. We needn't fear it - we just need to realize that we won't get another chance.
So it's not the physical reality of dying that gets to me. I'm concerned about killing. The distinction is important to me. I'm concerned about the relationship, and my instinctive sense – which I've felt as far back as I can remember – that it's the deepest violation to deliberately, unnecessarily destroy a life. Life ends, yes. But to kill as conscious beings who don't require that death to survive is to steal a life.
It's all very complicated and obviously I am seriously conflicted. I know that these questions will only become more confrontational over time. I just can't figure it out. For now I'm just loving these hens, however unwise it may seem.