Thursday, December 15, 2011

the price of safety

"They who would give up an essential liberty for temporary security deserve neither." -- Benjamin Franklin

In his latest book, The Sheer Ecstasy of Being a Lunatic Farmer, Joel Salatin explains that one of the criticisms he receives towards his pastured poultry operation is that it isn't safe for the chickens. Salatin says that allowing chickens to run around free outside, pecking at grass and scratching for bugs, is better for their well-being because allows them to "express their chickenness" -- or, as my dad would say, "do chicken stuff." Some unnamed opponent argued that pastured chickens can't possibly be as happy as factory house chickens, because the latter don't have to feel cold or rain or worry about attack from predators.

We've lost about a third of our chickens this year to predators -- hawks, foxes, and a bear. The hawk came after the chicks when they were still relatively small. Most of the chicks ran under a big rock to hide, but two or three didn't -- and of course, they were the ones who got picked off. (Although one was heroically rescued by the puppy -- a story for another time.) Let me be clear that I didn't mourn the loss of those chicks. Half-grown pullets who are not smart enough to hide under a rock when the hawk comes don't have genetics I really want to pass along in my flock. The chickens lost to the bear, in my opinion, represent inevitable circumstance. There's not a lot you can do, short of locking them up inside a concrete fortress, that will keep your chickens safe from a bear. My dogs went out and chased it off after it had claimed just one grown hen, ripping a giant hole in the side of the coop in the process, which I consider an acceptable level of loss. The fox is more complicated. It came in the early morning, when it was still dark enough that I probably should not have let the chickens out of their coop to wander around anyway. And I shot her. She was a red fox, which is considered an invasive species around here as it's pushing out the native mountain swift fox. That alone could be enough justification to shoot her on sight. But I can't help but feel we're on the edge of her territory, and had I just waited longer to let the chickens out, the conflict might not have happened, and she might have lived another year to have little fox pups somewhere else. I don't regret shooting her, but she does remind me that it's much easier to reduce predator interactions before they happen than to deal with predators that have learned your homestead is a source of easy food.

What I have right now in my backyard are a half-dozen beautiful, alert, predator-savy chickens who come to the kitchen window to beg for table scraps. While I haven't named them, I can tell each apart individually, and sometimes can even tell which egg came from which hen by subtle variations in the coloring. I like to think that nature does a better job of weeding out the least fit than I could ever hope to, biased as I am by things like pretty tail feathers or friendliness to children. I can't imagine the logic that goes through the mind of someone who argues that factory house chickens are more happy, more nutritious, or in any way better for anyone than chickens raised like mine. I really don't even buy the argument that they are "safer," since an electrical outage in a heatwave translates to thousands of dead chickens in just 45 minutes due to the malfunction of their sophisticated house ventilation system.

But happier? More content? More able to express their chickenness?

I worry for a society where people conclude living in a temperature-controlled environment with a thousand of your siblings, not having to worry about pecking and fighting because you've all had half your beak cut off, is somehow ethically superior to running around on grass dealing with all of what nature intended. Isn't that the same logic that brought us such wonderful things as the Patriot Act?


  1. They will always have an argument to defend what they do. Nature taking its course is much healthier than a controlled manipulated environment.

  2. I'm with you all the way on this one!

  3. I absolutely MUST get this book. This post reminds me of my friends who would rather eat a store bought chicken than one I process for them because somehow not knowing how it died is more palpable for them. Either they don't KNOW how those poor pirds live or they don't care. Both options scare me a little.

  4. Very well-said, Zev, and I couldn't agree more!

  5. Haven't stopped by in a while, but almost every time I do, all I can think is "yes!" when I read your thoughts. One thing I would add to the factory chickens is looking at what they are fed, the complete lack of exercise and the measures they must take against disease prevention. None of these sound palatable to me. In my mind animals raised as close to their natural way as possible would likely be the most healthy for human consumption, plus the most ethically raised. But then again, I'm biased because I've been a huge fan of Joel's since I met him at a friend's house years ago.

  6. Children who are allowed to run around outside can't possibly be happier than children who are forced to stay indoors, I guess. Kids who play outdoors might (gasp) fall down! We can convince ourselves of anything if it makes things more convenient for us. May all chickens scratch in the dirt before they die!