Warning: Images may be upsetting to some readers
As a fairly frequent meat-eater, I had always hoped to someday try my hand at humanely slaughtering and processing my own chicken. When I started raising egg-laying hens in my backyard in Brooklyn, I considered the possibility that these birds might come to meet the sharpened edge of my knife after their first year of laying. Two years later, sentimental attachment to my backyard flock keeps me from culling them. Fortunately for me, they still all lay almost an egg a day which allows me to justify the dodging of a grisly task.
The opportunity to finally take a more hands-on approach to meat eating came when I was notified by the staff at a nearby high school that a Cornish Cross hen was taken onto the premises as a practical joke and left there. No one wanted to handle the matter so eventually I took the bird into my care. Cornish Crosses are a very common commercial hybrid chicken, bred specifically for meat production. They grow to full size in about 6-8 weeks for speedy harvest but with such rapid growth comes many ailments such as organ failure and bone breakage. Chickens of this kind don't typically live very long for this reason.
This hen came from a poultry slaughterhouse in the neighborhood. If any reasonable person had seen the condition she was in, they certainly would think twice before ordering a bucket of cheap fried chicken from a fast food joint. She had mites in her feathers, was grungy and her digestive tract was fairly rancid. I kept her quarantined in a large crate with straw, organic feed and water. I gave her a much-needed bath and brought her crate outside daily for fresh air and sunshine. After a few days of this treatment, she began to look much healthier. Her feathers, comb and wattles all got a little brighter, her eyes more clear, her digestion normalized. A couple extra days of this and she would be a chicken I'd be happy to eat.
I had moments where I wondered if there could be another fate for this critter; I could take her to a shelter where she'd likely be euthanized or she would succumb to a multitude of ailments that her breed often suffers from. I could take her to a farm where she'd likely get picked at badly by other chickens and possibly killed by them. The more I thought about it, the more apparent it became to me that giving her a bit of comfort and then swiftly dispatching her really was the most sensible thing I could do. Besides, I EAT chicken. I should be comfortable killing something if I am going to eat it, right?
Monday was set to be the day. I set her up outside in a shady part of the garden that morning for the last time. I gave her some clover, fresh corn and spent grain for her last meal, which she seemed to enjoy. I sharpened the new #9 Opinel I had bought for the job. Per recommendations given to me by experienced butcher friends, I set up a scalding/defeathering station, a processing station, and fashioned a killing cone from a traffic cone purchased at a nearby hardware store. Once everything was in it's place, I walked over to the cage, opened it and allowed her to come out on her own, which she did with no apprehension. I gently picked her up and caressed her until she fell asleep. Once she was relaxed I inverted her into the cone, stretched out her neck and cut her throat.
Killing a chicken was easy but hard. The feeling of her blood spilling over my hands will never leave me. The act of plucking off her feathers, eviscerating her carcass and the moment when a living thing became food, in my hands, right before my eyes, were tremendously profound. A series of a-HA moments, for sure. As a backyard homesteader, I doubt this will be the last chicken that dies by my hand directly, but I do hope that I can give every animal in my care the sort of life it was intended to live before harvesting it's body for nourishment. A life taken is owed some sort of compensation. A life of quality is a small price to pay, I believe.
Tonight we are cooking poached chicken with wild thyme and fiddleheads for dinner. With the bones I will be making stock with herbs grown at the farm I work at part-time. This is the moment of truth. I did my best to honor a life while it was lived, and it will likely inform my dietary decision-making for a long time. I don't think I'll eat meat as often as I did before. How is it possible to truly appreciate what another being has sacrificed for us if it is commonplace?