A hen’s egg-producing years are short; her life is relatively long.
It wasn’t until a day or two after I moved into my first house in Seattle in 2001 that I noticed that my neighbor had chickens. Cool! I thought. Back then, keeping urban chickens was unusual. Among US cities, Seattle was progressive for allowing it.
But living next door to chickens didn’t turn out as great as I’d hoped. My neighbor took free range so literally that the chickens freely roamed the whole yard all day every day. With big gaps under the fence, it was inevitable that they’d make their way into my yard.
I was enraged as I watched them peck tiny peppers off plants that I had painstakingly nursed to life despite the city’s chilly, gray climate. I was mortified to learn that hosing chicken poo off my patio just before guests arrive for a barbecue is the absolute worst way to get rid of it. (Wet chicken poo reeks.) And I felt like a fool chasing someone else’s chickens around my yard, especially since I wasn’t sure what I’d do if I caught one.
Fortunately, she moved away a couple of years later, ending our arguments about her chickens.
Since then, keeping chickens has become popular in urban areas nationwide. In many cities, chicken owners get together at barter events or online to swap tips and tackle issues facing people who are revitalizing this practice — like keeping neighbors happy.
The latest topic consuming this community is how best to manage the end of life. Like considering any other creature’s aging and eventual death, it was only a matter of time before complications arose for chicken custodians. Traditionally, older chickens, past their egg-laying days, went into the soup pot.
But since many contemporary chicken keepers didn’t grow up on farms, they don’t know how to off a bird. Decapitating a chicken is beyond the repertoire and outside the sensibility (and available equipment) of most urban dwellers, who aren’t used to killing animals much bigger than a spider.
But whether functional farm animal or beloved pet or even member of the family, more people are having end-of-life planning discussions. Many are starting to face their chickens’ ultimate retirement.
Chicken or the egg
Hens only lay lots of eggs for a couple of years. After that, egg production quickly declines. Since the birds can live for 10 years or more, owners are faced with a conundrum: pay to feed and care for chickens for eight years or longer with no egg return, or somehow get rid of them humanely by killing them or giving them to someone who will care for them.
Many people are completely unaware of this. They blithely buy a couple of chicks because they’re cute and it’s the popular thing to do, without being prepared for what comes down the line.
Unwilling to kill their chickens or continue to pay for their feed, these people try to give them away. A recent NBC News article quotes the owner of Chicken Run Rescue, a Minneapolis organization that takes in unwanted chickens, who says that the number of birds brought to the rescue has grown from 50 in 2001 to 500 last year.
Laurel Menoche and her husband, John Fox, took the responsible route to chicken ownership. They spent a couple of years deciding to get chickens, vigorously debating what to do when the hens stopped laying. Today, Menoche has six hens at her Seattle home. The first time she saw a chicken killed, it was pretty grim. “It was shocking for me,” she says. “The reality was I got upset. I was crying and forcing myself to watch.”
In Seattle, an unscientific measure of how many people are unprepared to deal with older hens is the regularity with which people post to the Seattle Farm Co-op newsgroup in search of a home for a hen that’s no longer laying eggs. The Co-op was formed to bulk buy organic chicken feed, and its active newsgroup hosts discussions on everything from raising pygmy goats in the city to how best to keep raccoons at bay.
Charmaine Slaven, one of the founders of the Seattle Farm Co-op, has been on a mission not only to educate potential chicken owners that they need to think about the full life span of their cute, fuzzy chicks but also to teach people how to dispatch chickens humanely. She grew up in Montana eating animals her family raised. “I was one of the people who got to learn these skills from my parents,” she says.
Slaven believes that all chicken-raising classes should devote a portion of the class to the end-of-life issue. In fact, the Co-op sells chicks only once a year and requires buyers to first take a chick-care class in which attendees typically discuss what happens when laying ends. The classes prompt people “to think ahead and have a plan for their flock, whether they are of the ‘chickens-as-pets’ school or the ‘chickens-as-food-animals’ school,” she says. The classes “ensure there’s not as much impulse buying.”
Compounding the issue is that chicken owners often start regarding their brood as pets. Some birds are quite beautiful. When I visited Menoche, her birds came running at the sight of her, perhaps hopeful she’d have a special treat to offer.
Ruling the roost
After Menoche realized that she might grow attached to the birds, she and her husband spent a long time discussing how they would manage the chickens’ lifespans. He wanted to cull and replace hens that stopped laying. She wasn’t sure how she’d feel about killing them.
“I had a hard time agreeing to something that had an unknown emotion element. What if I loved each and every one?” Menoche wrote during one of many discussions of this topic on the Co-op newsgroup.
Eventually, they agreed to keep one or maybe two older hens as pets. Complicating that decision was that at the time, the max number of chickens allowed by law was five, so if two weren’t laying, they’d have only three egg-producing hens. (The City of Seattle has now upped the number to eight but has also banned roosters.)
From early on, Menoche was adamant that she learn to dispatch chickens herself. “If you keep having chickens, you’ll probably run out of friends willing to do it for you,” she says.
Not only that, you might be faced with a situation where you need to end a hen’s life without delay. Urban chickens have plenty of predators, including dogs and raccoons. “If you come across your chicken and it needs to be put down now, you don’t have time for the vet or to look it up on YouTube and botch it and feel guilty for the rest of your life,” she says.
Within a year of getting chickens, Menoche and Fox went to a chicken slaughter class put on by the Seattle Farm Co-op, the one that left Menoche in tears. Less emotional about it, Fox ended up slaughtering a chicken in the class; Menoche didn’t.
A year later, Menoche realized she needed to attend another class. She hadn’t yet had the need to put down a chicken. She wanted more confidence, and she wanted to make sure it was something she could actually do. “I think a lot of women assume their male partners will deal with it,” she says.
Fox offered to attend the second class. “I said, ‘No, I’ll just hide behind you,’” she says. “So I did it without him and actually dispatched a chicken. It was a big step for me.”
Despite all her thoughtfulness around keeping chickens, Menoche, surely like others in her shoes, hasn’t always followed the plan. “I did what I said I never would do and [brought] a chicken to the vet,” she says. “But she was special.”
Their favorite, the one they’d decided they’d keep past her prime laying years, developed a condition that prevented her from digesting many foods. The vet sent them home with antibiotics and suggested they not have high hopes. If the antibiotics didn’t help, there wouldn’t be much that could be done, he told them.1
Two weeks later Menoche came home from work and the hen “was in a horrible state.” This, though, was just the scenario she’d planned for when she took the chicken slaughtering class twice; her husband was out of town. “I knew what to do, and I instantly left her alone and went in the house and started getting prepared,” she says.
Just a few things have changed in the art of chicken slaughtering. These days, the pros recommend that instead of using a hatchet, with which you might cut off a finger accidentally, you use a very sharp knife to slice the bird’s jugular.2
Menoche thinks that one other aspect may have changed too. “I might say that we’ve learned a lot over the years about animal suffering,” she says. “What we teach in the Co-op class is to hold and support them in a way that keeps them calm. We use a very sharp knife. If you can recall ever being cut with a really sharp knife, it takes some time to actually feel pain.
“My hope is that the chickens are close, if not already in death before there is much discomfort. If you only have a few chickens, you can take the time to do it with empathy and respect.”
Fowl way to die
There are other options besides killing your chickens when they stop laying eggs. For instance, some farms, and organizations like Minneapolis’s Chicken Run Rescue, will take older hens. But it turns out that retiring to a rescue ranch may not be a great life for the chickens that the urban farmer cares so much about.
“Anybody who has integrated chickens [into a flock] knows it ain’t pretty,” says Menoche. It’s even worse moving a chicken from a back yard where it lives with a handful of other birds to a farm, where the chicken will likely have to forage for food, competing with many more birds. “It’s like taking a Chihuahua and bringing it into an established pack of pit bulls,” she says.
Erica Strauss, who runs the popular blog Northwest Edible Life, offers another reason people shouldn’t consider such farms, in a post where she argues passionately about why all chicken owners should know how to cull their own birds. “You do not get to embrace the idea of a more intimate relationship with your food chain and then make that food chain — the food chain you specifically set up — someone else’s problem when shit gets real,” she writes.
Giving the hens away to anybody, whether to keep or kill, shouldn’t be an option, she says. “There is a local urban farming message board that is filled — filled — with people trying to give away their three-year-old chicken to a ‘good home.’ Are you kidding me? You own the chicken. Your home is a good home. And once it’s not, your soup pot is a good soup pot,” she writes.
Instead of killing a bird after it’s not producing many eggs, owners can keep them as pets, paying to feed and care for them. That expense might be fine for people who want to keep the bird just like any other pet that doesn’t return much but a bit of beauty and love. But in fact it might not be more humane than killing it.
“Most of our laying hens don’t die peacefully from ‘old age’,” Slaven writes in a discussion on the newsgroup. These days, they are bred for egg production and are more likely to develop “various cancers and other wasting diseases before crossing the rainbow bridge,” she writes. “This is why I think culling the flock is more humane. Chickens can live for a very long time in an unhealthy, suffering state.”
Crossing the road
Slaven has taken it upon herself to teach people how to dispatch their chickens, often by teaching classes through the Co-op. At first, she tried to convince another large popular gardening organization in town, Seattle Tilth, to add classes about chicken slaughter. After all, that group offers a number of other classes designed to help urban dwellers start keeping chickens.
But so far, Tilth hasn’t added slaughtering to its class roster. “It came down to them [being] scared of liability and people losing interest in chickens,” Slaven says.
Tilth hasn’t had much demand for slaughter classes, says Liza Burke, communications director at Seattle Tilth. If people ask about slaughtering their chickens, the organization refers people to the Co-op as well as to Farmstead Meatsmith, a butcher in the Puget Sound region that also offers classes.
Slaven says it’s true that Tilth sends people to the Co-op. But some of those referrals show how unprepared some chicken owners are for dispatching their birds. Tilth is “often sending troubled chicken owners to us after they are in a pinch with their old hens, not realizing that this was going to be a part of their chicken ownership path,” Slaven wrote recently on the newsgroup, in response to a discussion about Strauss’s blog post.
For her part, Menoche said she and her husband feel good about spending the amount of time they did considering how to handle the end of life for her chickens before they got them. “My husband probably had this fear that we’d end up with this big petting zoo, with 20 chickens and none of them laying,” she says. Instead, they’re happy with their flock of six.
They also know that beyond simply and literally putting the hens out to pasture, when the time comes, they’re prepared to help their chickens cross the final road to get to the other side.
Photos by Joe Ray.3
- Susan Orlean, the author of The Orchid Thief and an animal lover, wrote about the revived trend of owning chickens in 2009, and the loss of one of her beloved brooders. ↩
- That link takes you to a Seattle magazine article written by regular Magazine contributor Joe Ray, who also provided the photos for this article — which were taken when he attended the class he discusses in that story. ↩
- Award-winning food and travel writer and photographer Joe Ray’s work has been featured in the New York Times, Agence France Presse, the Guardian and elsewhere. He’s just moved to Lummi Island, Washington, to write a cookbook with James Beard-nominated chef Blaine Wetzel. ↩
Nancy Gohring’s work has appeared in Wired, the New York Times, the Economist Babbage blog, MIT Technology Review, Computerworld, CITEworld, ITworld, and many other publications. She started writing about cell phones when they were huge and expensive, and now covers a wide range of technology and science topics.