People often ask me why I have chickens. “Is it for the eggs?,” they ask. Now of course, what this question implies is that there is no other value to chickens than the eggs they produce. In fact, I find people far more interested in the fancy colors and sizes of chicken eggs than I do about the birds who lay them. Isn’t that interesting? We’re a culture that is fascinated with objects. And the egg is perhaps the most poignant symbol of fertility in many cultures, including our own. And in a way, this symbol has distracted us from something much more important which I hope to touch on here.
My response to the eggs question is, “No, it’s actually the knowledge I gained, and continue to gain, that has become the most valuable part of my experience in raising adopted chickens.” “Learning what?,” one might rightfully ask. And I respond by explaining how much I’ve learned from these birds, not just about them, but about myself. In fact, raising adopted chickens has been the pathway to becoming a very different kind of person today than I once was.
Knowledge over Eggs
“A different person? In what way?” The experience has forced me to question my most deep-seated assumptions about animals raised as food commodities, like chickens who represent 92% of those animals. And I’ve concluded from my intimate, first-hand experiences with them, that their lives are far richer and more complex than I had ever imagined; that their capacity for inter-species companionship with us far more sophisticated than I had ever imagined; that their awareness of who they are as individuals as well as the roles they play in a group far more evolved than I had imagined; that their emotional capacity far more expressive than I had ever imagined.
And most importantly, by finally letting go of the narrow view I inherited from our culture (that prevented me from seeing them for the individuals that they truly are), I was then finally free to evolve my own thinking. I was able to see how chickens connected with all animals, including the human ones. My mind was freed of the rigid categories that we impose on animals like chickens, freed of the prejudices that we have been taught about food animals, freed of the cultural conditioning that we all grew up with that taught us not to care about this class of animals — that taught us that their value is limited to their utility to us as a food commodity.
Trust and Expectations
As with any relationship based on mutual trust, I also learned that you don’t receive the gift of getting to know the animal’s true nature without two important factors: 1. patience (it can take time to establish mutual trust in any relationship) and 2. the removal of any expectations of getting something from them. It’s really no different than with humans relationships, is it?
Yet it’s hard for people to imagine giving back to these birds since our relationship has been based simply on taking, that is, taking their eggs. Many have described to me how their chickens have pecked at them when they try to take their eggs. And they are offended by this. To understand why, we must try to see thing’s from the animal’s point of view. You’re taking away something that’s hers. And it’s something important to her. She perceives her eggs as her potential offspring. Our adopted hen Doris proves this point.
Doris: a Tenacious Desire for Motherhood
Lovely and elegant Doris pictured here is one of three adopted hens. She had major surgery over a year ago to save her life. The surgery consisted of removing her oviduct and a mass of infected egg material that was blocked in her abdomen. One third of her body weight was removed during the surgery. It was successful. She will never be burdened to lay another egg again. However, she never lost her desire to be a mother.
Just the other day, I saw her turning with her beak the egg just laid by another hen and laying on this egg for close to an hour. And she’s been doing this regularly and with incredible tenacity for well over two years since the surgery. These actions express an expectation that the egg contains an embryo and will eventually hatch into a chick if properly nurtured. Mother hens are known to turn their eggs in precise positions 30 times every day to ensure the healthy birth of a chick.
Breaking the Family Bond
Today, egg-laying hens in commercial facilities do not raise their young, or else they lay infertile eggs since there are no roosters in their lives. Eggs laid by the parent birds, who are kept in gigantic breeding flocks, are taken away as soon as they are laid to be hatched in mechanical incubators. Birds born in these hatcheries are sold to everyone from industrial scale farms to the backyard chicken keeper. As a result, chickens are deprived of the very thing that comes most naturally to them: motherhood. Hens have been mothers for at least the same length of time that the earliest known fossils of the chicken’s ancestor that date to some 50 million years ago! Our domestication of these birds, beginning around 7,000 years ago, is a mere drop in evolutionary time when compared to the length of time they existed in the natural world, free of human interference.
The Ultimate Reward
While some see keeping backyard chickens as an opportunity to have fresh eggs and a more sustainable, self-reliant source of food, I see it as an opportunity to give back to a species whose identity we have destroyed, whose most basic interests and desires we’ve relentlessly denied and whose bodies we have manipulated into egg-laying machines. I say that this is a time for healing the wounds of these birds, not looking for more humane or sustainable ways to continue using them for eggs. It’s a shift, to be sure, away from the spirit of taking and toward the spirit of giving. And the ultimate reward comes in the form of deep companionship that can only be won when we lose our fixation over their eggs.
If you want to keep chickens, please adopt! Shelters and school chick hatching programs are often looking for people to adopt chickens that need homes. Call your local shelter, sanctuary or school.
Learn more at Eggs: What Are You Really Eating?