Notes on the urban chicken movement.

What to eat. What not to eat.
June 4 2008 12:58 PM

There Will Be Chicken Blood

The gritty truth about urban farming.

Chickens. Click image to expand.
So many chickens

My chickens, I like to think, are the most highly entertained chickens in the world. I sunbathe with them, hang out in the bushes with them, and sing to them. When they hear me sing my one cover, "St. Louis Blues," they know to be nervous. "I hate to see ... that evening sun go down," I croon. And they get goose bumps. They seem to know that when that evening sun does go down, one of them will lose her head.

I'm a sweet girl, I swear! Every time, I cry like crazy. It's not easy to swing the ax, but I do; then I kneel in the dirt, holding the body still while it flutters, and hyperventilate. It doesn't take that long. There's never as much blood as I think there's going to be, either, which is vaguely disappointing. If I'm going to kill what I love, I want as much as possible to show for it, including ruined clothing.

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I can't stop singing about, or writing about, chickens. I also can't stop reading about them, because whenever people come across anything in the media relating to my feathery friends, they e-mail it to me. There's been a lot of ink spilled lately (in the New York Times, among other publications) on city chickens and the urban farming movement. Yes, movement. Whether they're screw-you-ing the chicken or the egg industries (or, of course, both), next-gen farmers seem to have read Michael Pollan very carefully. They are hip, young, smart, liberal-arts-college graduates, green in many senses of the word, wearing stiff new overalls and chewing on only organic, free-range, locally grown straw, racing outside to move their tractors for street-sweeping. They are locavores, homesteaders, part of a revolution. They are saving the environment, making a statement. And if they eat their own, they tend to see the killing as an unpleasant downside—a tradeoff for the clear conscience that comes with cage-free, hormone-free, factory-free gumbo.

Manny Howard, who chronicled his experience subsistence farming in Brooklyn for New York magazine, described his poultry harvest as "tedious and grotesque work." Afterward, he "laid down on the driveway with three bottles of beer." Even Herrick Kimball, author of the great How To Butcher a Chicken blog, admits to being "grossed out by the whole thing" at first. "That is the typical modern reaction," he writes. Many of the other Web pages devoted to urban chicken farming say nothing at all about butchering. At sites like thecitychicken.com, you can learn about coop construction, hatching eggs, feeding, protecting, and diagnosing chickens. Everything, in short, except what is for me the most satisfying part: the bloodying.

In some cities you can take classes in chicken farming—proof that these next-geners are most enthusiastic about the theoretical aspects of agriculture. Peat Willicutt teaches such a course in Minneapolis. How to lop off heads is not a part of the curriculum, per se, he told me, although students do ask. And if they ask, he tells them. In some cases, he shows them. But not in the classroom. Blood and guts are extracurricular activities. The students in Willicutt's urban chicken farming course, which fills to capacity every time it's offered, run the gamut from what he calls "pet-oriented" to what I call pot-oriented. It is in deference to the former that Willicutt doesn't draw blood in the classroom.

But I wonder whether pet farmers know that chickens get sick and hurt, and that sometimes killing can be an act of mercy. Even in cities, chickens have predators. On 29th Street in San Francisco, hungry, street-smart raccoons used to line up on my roof, staring at the hens I kept under my deck, waiting for me to slip one night and leave their door open. In the woods, where I live now, I have monkey-wrenched the dinner plans of foxes and bobcats, and I can't honestly say that my farmerly instinct for intervention was ever in the chickens' best interest. It was in my best interest, because I don't want predators thinking of my coop as a three-star restaurant. Once word gets around the animal kingdom that you're serving chicken, your life becomes a Saturday morning cartoon, and then forget about ever getting anything done.

Worst-case scenario: I talked a fox out of a hen recently, and as far as I could tell, the hen was not hurt. No blood, nothing broken, hardly even any feathers missing. She seemed as if she was in shock, so I waited for her to snap out of it. For hours she wouldn't eat or drink or move. She just stood there, like me. I can't say what was going through her little mind, but mine was wondering whether Jack Kevorkian ever kept chickens. Meanwhile, very, very slowly, she died. I should have helped her along, saved her some suffering. I should have Dr. Deathed her.

"It behooves everyone to once in their life take part in the killing of their meat," Willicutt told me. "I don't really have mixed feelings. I've made my peace with it. It's an essential evil of omnivores."

I can vouch for "essential." I can vouch for "omnivore." My brain and my body crave meat with my salad. In fact, I think I might die without it. For sure I'd go crazy. But, personally, I don't know about "evil." I'll own it: There's a part of me that likes to kill. When I do what I do with a hatchet and a chicken, I feel like crap, and I feel like God. I feel alive and in love and closer than ever to death. So I guess that is, for me, mixed feelings, yes. And the mix itself is welcome and intensely gratifying. In fact, it's almost too much. Too swirly, too soupy. I can tell you that the part of this swirl which seems "good," as opposed to "evil," has absolutely nothing to do with foiling the chicken industry or saving the environment or taking personal responsibility for my role in the food chain. It has to do with getting a little bit bloody and gross, like the complicated, hungry animal that I am.

L.E. Leone writes the "Cheap Eats" column for the San Francisco Bay Guardian. She is the author of Big Bend, a collection of stories, which will be published this fall.

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