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Pets vs. Livestock: The Paradoxes of Farm Animal Ownership

For the past few weeks on our property we’ve had a chicken with a phlegmy, body-wracking cough and a chronically limping dog.

Poor Wendell has been on three different vet visits and undergone multiple x-rays of his stiff leg. Some were taken while he was unconscious from heavy-duty (and costly) anesthetics, all to see if he was a candidate for an eye-wateringly expensive reconstructive surgery to remove cartilage from his shoulder.

The chicken? She’s in the compost pile.

Did we even consider seeking out medical treatment for her? Not for a second. It was easier to simply prevent her from infecting the rest of our flock than go in search of a medical professional willing to look her over, so out she went.

Going through both of these events felt completely natural to me. It was only while reflecting later that I thought to ask myself a very important question. Are we monsters?

How is it so easy to spend hundreds of dollars on medical care for one of our animals while tossing another aside without a second thought?

Is it because of financial investments? Hardly. Wendell cost us about $100 when we adopted him because he was fixed, but Aldo came to us in his natural form and cost less than $10. In contrast, last year we paid $5 a chicken and $15 for each of our guinea fowl…hardly a significant difference in start-up costs between the puppies and poultry.

Also, while our chickens provide the useful service of a daily protein-filled breakfast, the only thing our two dogs seem to be good for is scaring the local deer population away from our property. And, from the looks of the tracks we find almost every morning around the pond, they’re doing a terrible job at even that.

These two may be cute, but they're fairly worthless
These two may be cute, but they’re fairly worthless

It’s not even that we lopsidedly prefer one species over another. Throughout my childhood I LOVED birds. For many years I  raised three parakeets and I still look back fondly at the special school break when I got to take care of my science teacher’s cockatiel. Getting our own chickens last year was a long-held dream I was thrilled to turn into a reality.

No, the rigid distinctions we’ve put on our animals is more complex than any simple rational I try to give it. Yet it affects a good part of our lives out here. People are forever asking us if we’ve named any of our barnyard animals, and I always answer, almost embarassedly, that we haven’t.

We never named our baby chicks and I don’t play with the baby bunnies. And I’m ready to stop feeling guilty about that.

……….

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Our first chick!

Speaking of those baby chicks, they long ago grew past the cute fluffy stage that I documented many months ago. Watching that first chick hatch out of the silkie egg remains one of the most incredible things I have experienced in my life. Without us intervening in the slightest way, life had been created on our property. We didn’t even know that Mrs. Silkie’s eggs were fertilized, so seeing a wet, chirping chick emerge from the tiny shell was enough to make me run back and forth squealing for far longer than it actually took to get Ian’s attention.

For many months, we watched those chicks grow into gangling silkie-orpington hybrids. The silkie genes ran strong in their feathered feet and downy appearance, but there was no denying the contributions of their stately father in the richly ornamented, almost iridescent tail feathers of the young cocks.

And, as young men surrounded by eligible chicks often do, the three roosters began to fight, father against sons, for claim to the territory of their tiny world and the harem of hens within. Eventually it came to be too much testosterone for our coop to handle, so after perusing the wealth of chicken-butchering resources available on the internet, Ian and I ventured outside to cull the flock.

Now those two silkie roosters are in our freezer. Well, one is. (The other was delicious).

From the life we had been gifted we produced death, just a few feet away from where I first watched them hatch.

………

We’ve gone through a full year of animal husbandry on our homestead, and the routines of temporarily caring for young animals is becoming routine. Our second litter of meat rabbits is just about ready to be culled and we’re already making plans to get a new pig this spring.

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You’re looking a little porky, pig!

It’s a strange efficiency, almost detachment that we are learning to feel for these animals. I love Wendell to almost embarrassing levels. If it came to it, I’d probably write a thousand articles to pay for his surgery. Yet, the effort of driving forty-five minutes for our sick chicken didn’t seem worth it. In the same way, I can appreciate the ways our pig plays and begs for treats just like the dogs, with the complete understanding that his contribution to our lives in the upcoming weeks will culminate in becoming the holiday ham.

Vegans and hard-core animal lovers might get angry with me about this post. That’s okay. I’ve been through that already. They might think that Ian and I are horrible hypocrites for loving some of our creatures with almost boundless enthusiasm while deciding the fate of others with such coldness.

But you know what? That’s the way that human-animal relationships have worked since the beginning. All our domesticated animals are equally dependent on us for every aspect of their lives, and we do our best to give them the highest quality existence that we can, with full acknowledgement that contradictory fates await many of them.

We aren’t pretending to be anything we aren’t. I am allowing myself to love our baby chicks one month and the chicken curry Ian prepares for me another. Supermarket meat can blind us to the realities of our eating choices, but here on our little Appalachian homestead, we are facing the full truth of our diet with eyes wide open.

Despite the apparent inconsistencies, I wouldn’t have in any other way.

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My beautiful chicks just a few short months ago
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Two of those same chicks, now appreciated for an entirely different reason.
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It’s not just our own animals we have used for meat. Ian also (successfully) tried his hand at squirrel hunting this fall.
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Despite living almost a mile away from each other, Sister Kathy’s pony Star still comes over to our property to spend time with our pig.
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Meanwhile, our two puppies our continuing to indulge in plenty of naughtiness, like chewing up my bras.

 

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5 thoughts on “Pets vs. Livestock: The Paradoxes of Farm Animal Ownership

  1. This post really, really resonates with me. Last week, I had to put one of my Bengal kitties down that I loved probably as much as you love Wendell. He stopped eating and lost 3lbs in a month, and X-rays showed he had a blockage in his stomach so I opted to do an expensive surgery ($1,000) to have it removed to give him another shot at life. When they were in his stomach, they discovered that he had lymphoma and the blockage was actually a tumor the size of his stomach preventing digestion, and that it was completely inoperable. I chose to put him down (after entertaining the other option which was to let him die a slow, painful death) and then bawled my eyes out for two days, but two weeks prior I killed a rooster with my bare hands and didn’t shed a single tear. I then cooked it up as broth and took photos because I was proud of my self sufficiency. It’s funny how we can be totally okay with all aspects of life on the homestead except when it comes to our domestic furbabies, and we’ll go through seemingly extreme, unnatural measures to keep them alive, and then grieve their losses. I love your posts because you always bring up such great talking and thinking points!

  2. There is something primal about the relationship between humans and dogs. We have been together during the beginning.

    Chickens are food dogs are family.

  3. I have a confession of my own to make. When I first started following your blog some time ago, I had serious doubts about your ability to actually farm it successfully without ending up with a rather large menagerie of pets. Reading this blog entry makes me feel so happy for both of you! That you can separate your emotions between livestock and pets is a huge leap that defeats many a would-be farmer. It’s okay to love your food-animals, especially your breeding stock! When you love them, you take tender care of them, which in turn, helps them be more productive. As you’ve no doubt discovered, the packed meat in the freezer little resembles the animal that walked around the barnyard before you had meat in the freezer! Congratulations!

  4. I am a vegan and I am not mad. I am happy that your animals are having a good life before they meet their end. What you are doing is real. It is the people who support the factory farms and all that goes with it. Keep up the good work.

  5. We’ve had plentry of animals on our farmette [sp?\] and we have butchered the animals even as we named them. You can not yell at an animal in the middle of the street at 11 pm if it has no name. That name just makes the rounding up easier and it feels more satisfying. Our cows loved my husband with a passion I still cannot believe. They came looking for him across the street from the barn. We could tell how far they went by the offerings they left us. Lydia, you and Ian, are doing the same thing we did. Trial and error. You’ll do fine.

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