Let’s get the hard part over with first. I hug the hefty white rooster close to my chest to keep him calm on the way to the killing station. With one smooth move, I turn him upside down and place him snuggly in the cone. My left hand continues downward to gently extend his neck. I grab the knife with my right hand and swipe off his head. While he bleeds out, I dry my eyes. That’s how a chicken lover has to do it.
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Strangely, it’s only because I have life-long affection for chickens that I can kill them at all. If I didn’t care about them, I would just eat store-bought chicken. I only eat meat once or twice a week — but it’s important to me that the animal lived well and died humanely, with barely a blink between life and death. I nurture them in exchange for their nurturing me.
Even though I have raised chickens for years, I never expected to raise them for food. After they provide delicious eggs, I retire my layers to the barnyard, where they help manage manure, turn compost and fill my woodlot with industrious melody. But Barbara Kingsolver’s book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle convinced me that I could raise my own meat birds. So in 2008 I raised and processed two small flocks of the Cornish and white rock cross, usually referred to as Cornish crosses. They are the fast-growing birds raised in confinement operations to supply restaurants and supermarkets with everything from nuggets to whole birds.
In April 2008, I shared an order of Cornish cross chicks with my friend Jim. Of my 10 chicks, one died the first day. The other nine spent their first couple of weeks on my porch in a borrowed brooder that kept them thermostatically correct day and night. The brooder was supposed to be their home until they feathered out — about three weeks or so — but I wanted them to enjoy green grass and sunshine as long as possible, so I started transferring them outside to the floorless A-frame coop on sunny days when they were a week old. I’d bring them back to the brooder at night. I had read that Cornish cross birds were not robust enough to handle outdoor living, but mine didn’t seem to know that.
In just a few days, they were so heavy I could carry only half the flock at a time or risk breaking the bottom out of the pet carrier. After another couple of days, I could only carry three at a time.
Genetically programmed for less than a two-month lifespan, my flock began to look elderly as they approached their eighth week. When they spied me coming with their feed bucket, they would waddle at full speed on bowed legs, their short wings flapping for an extra boost. The roosters’ rumps were conspicuously dirty from resting so often in the holes they had dug in the soft garden soil. They still sprinted to the compost pile to compete for earthworms, but the effort made them wheeze.