Bye Bye Birdie
I’d been warned not to name the chickens. It’s never a good idea to name something you might eat one day. Besides, they’re just birds—a flock of birds—it’s not like they have individual identities. Or so the argument went.
The more macho members of the Dutchess County Poultry Fanciers Association, fancying themselves steely poultrymen, are always amused by my misguided attempts at creating a more intimate bond between us humans and the bird world. They like to imagine their own backyard flocks as part of some great commercial enterprise, their interest in them strictly professional. While I like to point out that their names aren’t Tyson or Purdue and the chickens in their backyards are no less pets than my neighbor’s wirehaired dachshunds, they do have a point. I guess we all see what we want to see in our animals.
This intimacy between me and the birds was never intentional though (I bought my first six more or less as lawn ornaments). It’s just what happens when you have twenty souls—twenty points of consciousness—living in close proximity to one another (two humans, two horses, fifteen chickens and a cat). Familiarity is just one of the natural byproducts.
Last week one of those points of consciousness winked off. She’d been ailing for months, some mysterious wasting disease that even the vet was mystified by. When all the medications, all the worming and the antibiotics, clearly hadn’t helped, the doctor said it was time for her to go. She’d grown so emaciated though that he couldn’t find a vein in which to give her the lethal dose of barbituates. So he gave it to her subcutaneously. He said it would take longer that way but, like someone who’s taken an overdose of sleeping pills, she would feel no pain, just the heavy tug of sleep. Then he made his apologies, for he had another appointment to keep, and left me sitting there in the grass with her, watching her slowly wind down.
To many this would seem an awfully elaborate send off for a bird. Especially the kind of nameless creature most of us only see packed in cellophane. But this one had a name. Babette. The french hen who layed what looked like chocolate easter eggs, eggs that, when sprinkled through a carton, would cause people to gasp and say, “Oh, look at that one!”
She was the photogenic one, the one who made the photo spread in the Litchfield Journal, poultry’s answer to Kate Moss. A camera wasn’t about to intimidate Babette. She’d walk straight up to it the way she’d walk straight up to any stranger. She wasn’t going to hang back with the timid ones when there was something new to see, especially if she thought there might be food involved (I suspect she always thought there might be food involved).
And so I don’t buy the macho school of poultry management, the one that says you can’t care about them because they’re just a bunch of birds. Obviously that’s the way it is at the big egg and meat factories, but if you’ve got a flock of twenty or less and spend any amount of time with them pretty soon the individual personalities start to emerge. As with people, there are likable ones and not-so-likable ones (believe me, I wouldn’t be writing this about Lisa, my obnoxious Rhode Island Red). Many have every bit as much personality as a cat or a dog or a horse. And while I can’t say a chicken would be my first choice as seatmate on a transpacific flight, it would certainly be preferable to some humans I know.
So, am I turning vegan? Hardly. Am I against killing animals for food? Of course not. But I will not harden my heart to a creature of any kind that’s able to touch it. There are consequences to that, of course, and I felt them as I watched Babette winding down there in the grass. No, I didn’t blubber. In fact, there was very little saline involved. But I said goodbye and I felt the loss. Under the circumstances I thought it was the least I could do for one who, peering across the species divide with little brown eyes, had made contact.
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