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.
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.
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.
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.