Life, Death and Roosters
On Sunday, we culled a rooster.
This was our big handsome Roo, a beautiful Blue-Laced Red Wyandotte rooster, who has been leader of the backyard flock for the last several months. Roo was an excellent leader; he protected his hens from eagles and ravens and hawks and was always tame and calm around us and all our visitors.
So why did we kill him? Because once Hen went broody, Roo started acting very aggressively toward our second rooster, Percy, who is Hen’s sweetheart. We let it slide for a while; Percy had lots of space to get away, and there were no serious injuries. We suspected that one of the two roos in our small flock would have to go (2 roos to 7 hens is too many, generally speaking), but they had been getting along well for months without issue. While Hen was ensconced in the nest box, Percy was the odd man out, and we actually wondered if he might have to be the one to go.
But when the chicks hatched and started running about happily, Percy became an awesome Papa, and Roo started acting aggressively toward Hen too. The choice became clear.
Why did we kill him? Why not just rehome him, or sell him? Because my views and values around death and eating meat have been transformed by raising livestock, even on this tiny scale.
I grew up in a pretty normal urban North American environment, I think. We had the occasional pet–fish, rabbits, later a small dog. As a child, I found my goldfish periodically belly-up in the fish bowl, and gave up after a few replacements. One of our rabbits disappeared–probably thanks to a raccoon–the second one was (I hate to admit it) released (to become one of the contributors to the urban feral rabbit pestilence!). The dog was found another good home when it no longer fit my parents’ lifestyle.
One of my grandfathers died when I was a child, and I vividly remember everyone crying at the funeral. But that was pretty much the extent of my experience of death. I ate meat until I left home, but being vegetarian was nothing radical in 1980s and 90s Vancouver, meat in-and-of itself had no relationship with death for me, and my reasons for giving it up had only peripherally to do with animal rights.
In other words, I don’t think I had much exposure to or gave much thought to death as I grew up, nor did I feel the kind of regular, close attachment to animals that might make me feel like their deaths were inherently a horrible thing. Death was an abstract, as was food, really, until just a few years ago.
Coming up to 4 years ago now, my father died of cancer at 57. He was diagnosed a few years before that, and he embraced living every day of those few years he had left. Some of the time, as he headed out with friends and family for another round on the golf course, I would forget that he was sick at all. I remember distinctly, though, coming home one Thanksgiving and feeling with great and highly uncomfortable clarity that he and my mom had come to a deep level of understanding that he was, in fact, going to die, and I wasn’t at all there yet.
We all spent a lot of time together, in his final weeks; it was a precious and blessed time that has left me with many legacies thatcontinue to unfold. One of those was a different understanding of death.
You see, Dad was diagnosed with a very rare cancer about which very little is known and about which very little treatment could be offered. Fairly quickly, he was left on his own, outside of the usual cancer treatment industry, and he died at home, peacefully in bed, on his own terms. It was the best of all possible passings, from my point of view.
In his last weeks, we talked about the fact that not so long ago, having a family member close to death and then dying in a bedroom at home would have been a normal part of life. Just like being born at home was the normal way to be born, dying in an upstairs bedroom being cared for by one of your children and their family was the only option. Most traditions even include a time of the family sitting with the dead body in the home while visitors pay their respects. But when we started outsourcing seniors’ care, we also largely outsourced death, and for me, at least, death then became something strange and abstract and foreign, something that existed only in my imagination, and as such, something potentially horrifying and troubling.
Another of my father’s legacies, I now know, was the gift of being open to the mysteries of Life and the universe and the spirit. He was a minister, and I was raised Christian, although I wouldn’t categorise myself that way now. His death shoved me back into spiritual journey, and I have found myself returning to many of the vaguely Buddist beliefs that shaped my worldview in my early 20s, particularly non-dual theology: the belief that God is not an old man on a mountaintop ( ), but instead is the divine life energy present in all things. In my mind, God is simply Life (with a capital L), creativity in its most basic desire to explode into every possible material experience.
Life is clearest to me in the garden. Life is growth and then decay, and death might simply be the point at which life decays so much that it becomes life again. I plant a seed, it grows into a plant which flowers in order to reproduce. As soon as it flowers, however, the process of decay begins until the plant finally dies, at which point the decomposers take over and turn the plant into the food and soil that become another plant’s life.
In the garden, death is so clearly a necessary, transient, beautiful, and enriching phase. There is nothing scary or horrifying about it–without the death which is the harvest of my vegetables, I would have no life.
When we first got chickens, I had no real plan for the roosters. We talked about buying pullets–already sexed females ready to start laying–but decided to raise straight-run (unsexed) chicks to make sure that they would know us and be comfortable and tame around us. From the beginning, the chickens were intended as a kind of pet, though certainly of a more independent kind! I had vague ideas about letting hens live out their natural lives with us when they got too old to keep laying, and even more vague ideas of what roosters might be for; we certainly didn’t intend to keep any of them, at first. Eat fertilized eggs? Gross! I had equally vague understandings of chicken sex and anatomy!
As our chicks grew up, we found ourselves with the unsurprising percentage of 7 boys to our 7 girls. We had to put one rooster down early because it developed physically lame and began to suffer. We had no idea what we were doing, but going to a vet was not an option, and the internet was a fount of information. Nonetheless, that death was not easy or peaceful, precisely because we were such amateurs. The next two roosters we found another home for.
After that, though, we had to suck it up. We started to understand what “flock management” meant. We were the flock keepers and we had to do what was best for the health and well-being of the whole group, which at the time included younger chickens that were being hurt by rooster #4. It was time to get comfortable with “processing”. The Skipper fashioned a “killing cone” (the chicken is placed upside down through a cone so that the head pokes through–death throes are contained, the jugular is easily accessible, and upside down, the bird is comfortable and relaxed), took a deep breath, and we said goodbye. The Skipper, who once worked as a commercial fisher, commented that this shouldn’t be any different than killing the thousands of fish that had crossed his path over the years…but of course it was.
That roo was packed up into the freezer, but it was a few months before we felt prepared to eat him–to bridge that gap between individual animal and food. I had started eating small amounts of meat by this time, and I had small pieces of that roast bird as well. I was starting to get comfortable with the idea of eating meat, although I still was (and am) uncomfortable with leaving the category of vegetarian.
Our big red Roo on Sunday was our 4th culling in about 6 months, and the process is starting to feel familiar; we are gaining confidence. A friend–another vegetarian turned farmer–has asked us to come up to her place and show her how it’s done, and I think we were glad to go through the process ourselves one more time before sharing what we’ve learned. This time round, we got orgainzed in advance; we knew what to expect and had learned from previous experience how to prepare. As I helped gather materials and scrubbed the kitchen clean, I felt like I was going through another set of rituals that would have been commonplace not so very long ago (and which probably still are in many homes). The cleaning and gathering felt appropriate to the weight and significance of the death to come and to the gratitude and humility I feel for the life-sustaining food that the death provides.
The preparations went smoothly, and I felt confident and sure. Until it was my turn to go and collect Roo. I got the birds into their run and put out their evening scratch, knowing that when their attention is on the ground, I can easily pick them up. When I got everyone settled and went to pick up Roo, though, all my breath left me and the world tilted a little. It is a powerful and uncomfortable feeling, that knowledge that you are leading an animal to death. And so it should be! Like saying grace before a special family gathering, saying a blessing and a prayer for forgiveness and gratitude seems the only appropriate thing to do–regardless of religious affiliation or lack thereof. I took a deep breath to steady myself, and from then on, the rest of the process was straightforward.
What I’ve taken away from these cullings most of all, I realize, is that although death is the part of the process that we dread, the part we have to mentally and emotionally prepare ourselves for, the part so culturally loaded, death is in fact not the biggest part of culling. Death, in our backyard circumstances, is extremely quick and painless: there is only a split second between alive and dead. And now that we’re more sure of what we’re doing, there was probaly no longer than a minute between Roo blissfully eating his favorite food with his harem, and no longer being alive. We should all be so lucky! Compared to the hour of getting all the equipment assembled and the kitchen ready, then the hour of plucking, butchering, and disposing of the intestines, feathers, blood, etc (which I bury in the garden for lucky plants and micro-organisms to convert into more food), the actual death is the easy part!
Perhaps the biggest shift for me over these years since my father passed away and in the months of being so intimately tied to death on our wee homestead, is that I now understand in a visceral way that death is not just not an end–whether you believe in spirit or not–but that death is also not necessarily a tragedy. When there is suffering, death is a gift. Death was welcomed by my father; he was ready to go. When we kill an aggressive rooster, it is a gift to our remaining flock.
For the first time in my life, I can also say with deep honesty that I am not scared of death, whether of a loved one or of my own. Skipper and I were talking not long ago about cancer, heart disease and other dreadful ways that people we know have died over the past year or so. He asked, as we have contemplated over the years, about how I would cope with him getting sick, how could we prevent one disease or another. I realised in that conversation, that it no longer mattered. Death WILL happen. No matter when or how I or the Skipper go, it will be too soon in our life together. The remaining partner will grieve deeply, then have to find a way to carry on, if one of us has been left behind. Those are the truths of life; the details don’t seem that important anymore, and I’ve realized that there’s no need to live my life in fear of them.
So why did we kill big, beautiful Roo–such a proud and handsome creature?
Because he was starting to harm the flock and needed to be removed. Because he had the best of all possible Roo lives here, and although we may have been able to find another place for him to live out his days, it’s more than likely that place would not have been as nice as this, and that’s not good enough. Because if we had left things as they are, the two roosters would have eventually fought each other to death–Nature’s way of sorting out excess males is often brutal, painful, prolonged, and humiliating. Because, although selling him is technically another option, roosters are not economically valuable–even high-quality heritage birds go for as little as $10. A breeder might have taken him, but it’s more likely that he would have become food for some other family. The 4 lbs free-range, pastured chickens that we buy from local farms around here periodically cost $14 +. Roo dressed out at over 6 lbs.
Most importantly, though, we processed him ourselves because doing so meant his stress-free life continued right up until the moment of death; because we know his death was quick and painless; because the meals that he will provide for us are as sacred–unique and not commodified with a price tag–to us as his life was; because his body will feed us and the garden, generating new life on the homestead. And because, for me, this has become the ultimate definition of ethical eating.