A Dark Cloud in Search of a Silver Lining

I was in a dark mood yesterday. The winter solstice had come and gone, officiating the onset of winter, (even if it was raining) and the start of the days lengthening. The rotation of the seasons. Hope. Spring will, perhaps, arrive and spring brings to (my) mind chicks. A happy thought. Until, when caroling at the farm, I heard a story.

IMG_1953Need I mention that I have a reputation around here regarding all things chicken? When they see me, people tend to ask, “How are the chickens?” Usually with a twinkle of amused pity in their eyes. And one friend, when asked what animal he would want to come back as in another life, said, “one of Tory’s chickens”.

Nick and Nora basking on the heated floor’s of our bathroom in Providence.

Why not Nick and Nora, who are allowed in the house, I don’t know.  He chose the chickens, apparently unaware of what’s been going on lately here at Darwin‘s View. The survival of the fittest land, and natural selection.

Just before we left for Thanksgiving, our six hens took it upon themselves to take a pass on their egg laying business and get on with a solid and most satisfying molt. Feathers everywhere. The result: we had six scrawny, shivering hens pecking around in the negative degree weather.

IMG_2180_2And then Ping (our Dominique) developed a swollen eye. Our vet recommended isolation and antibiotics in her water. If any sneezing developed, call him immediately. Our chicken sitter was duly given noticed of her upgrade in duties.

Upon our return, Daffodil (city girl/Barred Rock) had developed a swollen eye and Ping’s was only slightly improved. When I called the vet, it turned out his original instructions had been more detailed than I was aware of: all the chickens were supposed to be on antibiotics. Eye ointment for the eyes. And call if there is any sneezing.

Ping had been lonely in her isolation run, in sight but not able to socialize. She ran to rejoin the flock and was made welcome by CooLots, our cochin partridge, who gave her a solid peck, and sneezed.

CooLots is always sneezing. Since she was a wee one, she has sneezed. I think she has an allergy to the dust in the pine chips. Every few days, a ca-choo. Thus, I didn’t report it. But then there was another sneeze. I wasn’t sure who. One of the chicks now grown into pullets? I wasn’t sure. And it was only a little sneeze. Or two.

We put them all on antibiotics. We wouldn’t be eating their eggs for the nonce. Too bad, given that was why we had adopted the hens in the first place: happy eggs, and to avoid all the antibiotics in the factory farmed eggs.

And it wasn’t  too tough, not to eat their eggs, given there were none being offered up. Our gals still weren’t laying, though Big Red was back to dancing; the chicks we had adopted this summer—Brownie, Clownie and Downie—had grown into very attractive pullets. And full-feathered, I might add. They had not molted. Coy and flirtatious and curious, the girls had a bounce in their step that the hens had used to have. But at two years old, a more matronly reserve had developed in Ping, Panda, Daffodil, Chickadee, CooLots.

Beatrice? Had swollen feet. Also known as bumblefoot. Not a serious case but then another sneeze from the direction of the girls. This did not bode IMG_2211

My stress level on high, I went on-line. My options? To operate on Beatrice’s foot. (Unlikely.) And to cull the entire flock because obviously they had all contracted a respiratory disease. Which brings me to caroling at the farm, and the story I heard.

Fair warning: I related the following to a friend and she is now debating whether to give up eating chicken. Also, I am minus a fact checker. Are the chickens I write about below broilers, as I depict them, or layers? And were the minks all born males? Are femurs the bones that bow? But to the story.

My friend who told me this tale has a friend with whom he hunts. This friend has a mink farm and lives near a chicken farm. The chicken farm provides “product”, a euphemism for chickens. Broilers for the most part. Processed when they get to be three or so months old, if only because they have been bred to grow fast and so, if left to grow, their femurs bend under the weight of their oversized breasts.

My point not being that. My point is that every day, the chicks hatched at the chicken farm to replace the ones that are culled need to be sexed. And so every morning, the “sexers” arrive to begin their task of sexing the chicks. Squeezing them, something happens—your guess is as good as mine—and the girls go in one direction to become layers, and the boys go into a fifty gallon barrel.

Every day, 100,000 chicks are sexed. At this one farm. Given the ratio of boys to girls at Darwin’s View last year—remember Beatrice and her three brothers? But a quick on-line search suggests that the norm is closer to sixty percent boys and forty percent girls. So that means, every day, sixty thousand boy chicks end up chucked into fifty gallon barrels, and then are dumped into a chopper. I have no further details on that. Suffice it to say: chick mash. My friend’s friend took the chick mash home to his mink farm and feed it to his minks. Ingenious! Talk about repurposing and no waste.

The problem came the following spring. His mink birthrate changed dramatically. Most of the births were male and the girls were dying. This was a problem, if only because female minks have nicer coats than male. Baffling! Why was this happening?

My friend suggested to his friend it was the chick mash. Because of the numbers of animals known as hens laying eggs-one hundred thousand eggs hatching a day, at this one farm-there is a danger of sickness and so all of them are on antibiotics. And the antibiotics are in the eggs, too. And in all those sixty-thousand-a -day-male-chicks-going-into-the-chopper: it brings to mind the food chain. All the tiny brine shrimp eaten by small fish eaten by bigger fish and by the time you get to the sharks and tuna, you have a lot more mercury built up in the flesh.

Does it matter? Chicks. Cows. Pigs. Turkeys. And we with our great, big brains and free will. We could do better if we chose to. If we recognize the true cost. If we loved enough.

For pete’s sake, what does love have to do with it? We are talking about chickens.

That’s the gist of the story. Now, one might ask why I sat through hearing this story given my current “vegetarian” status. I did so because I was trying to stick to my theory that what I eat is my business. I am trying not to judge others and so smile gamely as I am told about the 230 pound buck caught on our property that dove into the pond to get away, and the hunter borrowed our canoe to go catch it. C’est la fracking Vie.

But I do find it sad. A lamb shank in our sink bought by Carl from a local farmer. It was a happy lamb until it wasn’t and so I should be fine with it, right? But I’m not. I anthropomorphize. Yet, the fact is, it goes on every day. Billions of chickens world wide. If it’s so common, it must be okay, right?

In Asia, people eat cats and dogs.

In India, people honor and respect cows.

Extrapolate it to humans. Too many people starving. Somehow surviving in crowded conditions, their children un/der-educated. They have nothing. Not even their land because it’s been taken over by multinational corporations who have more money and rights than the People. And what baffles me is that those corporations are made up of people. Who are those people? Whose actions have such effects. Do they think it doesn’t matter? Do they not care?

In fact, they are, perhaps, little different from my friends. My husband. My self. We are omnivores, making choices every day and only vaguely aware of the consequences.

All to say, the days are lengthening. February 12th is right around the corner. Not just Lincoln’s and Darwin’s birthdays but the anniversary of our culling Beatrice’s brothers: Pong, Cornelius and Clayton. We take Beatrice to the vet today and I hope he can help her. And we will stop the antibiotics because they might have a purpose but, after four weeks, enough is enough, and I wonder: will our chickens end up dying? Is it best to save them the discomfort and cull them now? And whatever happened to that pure and innocent time when we first adopted our wee chicks, when they first laid their perfect eggs. Big Red’s first crow.

Thus, I was in a dark mood yesterday, and it’s foggy today, again, here at Darwin’s View. Another day of no sun and so the generator is on. And we are in that happy season of Ho, Ho, Ho. Last year at this time I was posting my wild ride to the end of the year, seeking the secret, the answer to how we might save the world. I fear today, I am no closer to the answer. Rather, the answer is so unlikely.

On the other hand, ’tis the season and maybe, if we all stick to the true point, to love and gratitude, not a greedy grasping for more stuff and nothing is enough, maybe that would make the difference. If we could only bring more love and compassion to our daily life, to our politics and interactions, to our society, we might be able to save the world.

What a beautiful thought, to save the world. Why do I still feel so sad?

IMG_1928Post Vet Visit: Beatrice’s foot has been given a thumb’s up. No operation was necessary. Just some Ichthammol ointment and a bandage. Fresh water to all the girls and we’re giving up on deep litter bedding and going with a scattering of hay on the floor. It’s all an experiment up here. And feeling much brighter. It’s time to assess the holiday situation. And be terribly grateful for the wonderful people in my heart, the beautiful places, and the awesome-in-the-old-sense beauty of Nature and her creatures. All sentient. All deserving compassion. And love.

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