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Moral Puzzles in the Backyard

Let’s Go to the Video

Recently an animal advocacy group, Mercy for Animals, circulated on the Net a video made secretly by one of its members at a Hy-Line hatchery—the world’s largest for layer chicks for industrial egg production. Since every male chick hatched in this facility is by definition surplus, and since the number of males generated is so enormous (150,000 per day), dealing with the male chicks is a serious management challenge. The solution shown in the Hy-Line video: dumping the sexed male chicks off the end of a high-speed conveyor belt, into an auger grinder (of the sort used to grind sausage), where the chicks are ground alive. (The video is available at many online sites including Mercy for Animals and Huffington Post.)

Watching the video of chicks being ground alive is appalling. Like most of my readers, I expect, I find the practice a deeply repugnant breaching of the covenant between Homo sapiens and the fellow creatures in our care. Doubtless my indignation triggers endorphins in my brain, and I ride an emotional high on the crest of my moral outrage. I congratulate myself, smug in the knowledge that management of my own homestead flock is free of such horrors.

But then I remember what somebody once said: “Be careful, friend, not to get obsessed with the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye—when you have a two-by-four in your own.” That startling image reminds me that the most useful reflections on moral issues arise when I focus not on the shocking outrages perpetrated by “them,” but the implications of my own practices when considered more broadly, perhaps even how they are complicit in the outrages I so righteously deplore.

Thus watching the video, however numbing initially, grew into a meditation on moral issues we encounter as we manage our feathered partners in our own back yards.

Rabbit and Wolf

Probably most readers of an article on moral issues inherent in poultry husbandry would think I’m going to talk about slaughtering for the table, so, okay, let’s start with that. I doubt any of us would argue that it is immoral for the wolf to hunt and eat the rabbit. Vegetarian alternatives are not an option for the wolf—the race between the two is as much a matter of life and death for the wolf as for the rabbit.

This is not the place to engage my vegan friends in a debate about fundamental dietary questions. But, based on a great deal of study about diet and health, I believe unequivocally that animal proteins, and especially high quality fats (and the fat-soluble vitamins they either contain or enhance), are essential for optimal human health. In that sense the necessity to “kill and eat” is as imperative for me as for the wolf. I do not cede the moral high ground to any assertion that I am cruelly and unnecessarily causing suffering to living beings, when doing so is necessary to sustain my own life.

It is unfortunate that my vegan friends focus so exclusively (and morbidly? ) on the death of the animals in my care. For me, the life those animals live is the crux of the moral issue. Thus I do not shoe-horn my laying hens eight per cage the size of a pet crate, stacked by thousands in multiple tiers; nor do I raise my broilers from hatch to slaughter shoulder to shoulder with tens of thousands of their fellows, never seeing the direct light of the sun, nor eating a grasshopper or fresh blade of grass. And yes, these are moral issues for me.

Slitting the throat of a bird selected for the table is a life necessity for me, but I do so within the context of partnership, gratitude, and respect—as profound, meaningful, and essential as my relationship with the microbes that create soil fertility in my garden, the bees that pollinate my crops, the decomposer organisms that keep my world clean and sweet, rather than a wasteland of putrid corpses. As long as my partnership with my birds is one of mutual support for a life of contentment and natural fulfilment, their nourishment of me is in balance with my nourishment of them.

Shades of Gray

It is not my intention to preach to anybody. I will caution, though, that we should be careful of a tendency to see all moral questions as black or white, absolute right or absolute wrong. Most moral reflections only get really interesting (and useful) when we wander through shades of gray. There are many such areas the flockster might reflect on, with each free to come to a conclusion equally deeply felt and compassionately committed, even if it differs from my own. Here are a few that come to mind:


I have seen cocks in my own flock fight to the death, and cannot imagine taking pleasure in such mayhem as a sport. But before getting too judgmental of those who breed for the fighting pit, I remind myself that there may be few who are doing more to preserve deep genetics in Gallus gallus domesticus than those old “cockers”—not Tyson and Perdue and Hy-Line with their cookie-cutter birds bred for production in the industrial model to the exclusion of all other traits; not those among the competitive show crowd who emphasize fine points of comb and carriage and feather, but not the sturdy robustness that is the genetic birthright of Gallus; and not me, and most homestead flocksters, who shun the hard work of serious breed improvement.

Stunning knives

I visited a farm that is approved for humane certification, where I was assured in no uncertain terms that use of an electric stunning knife is essential if you are to kill a chicken in a humane (moral) manner. Setting aside the fact that there is disagreement on whether a bird feels pain after (or while) being stunned with electric shock, I am myself stunned by this extraordinary implication: My grandmother’s method of killing a chicken (popping off its head) was inherently inhumane, whereas I may now, in contrast, kill my birds morally using a miracle of modern technology. If, that is, I can pony up the $2150 or so to buy an electric stunning system (only $1200 or so used). Most readers of this magazine have small flocks, and many will not have to cull more than half a dozen old hens or excess males per year. Shall we conclude they are moral fiends because they don’t shell out the bucks for such moral purity?

Frankly, I wonder if the appeal of the stunning knife is the illusion that we are neutralizing the bird’s suffering (when as a matter of fact we know no such thing with certainty), to escape confronting head-on what we are doing: killing a beautiful animal for food. No technological trick is going to relieve us of the anguish of that tragic dilemma.


Surgically castrating cockerels (for grow-out as larger, plumper roasting fowl) is unquestionably stressful on them, and for that reason is strictly prohibited by the Animal Welfare Institute’s humane standards. But which is the better choice for the excess male who is to be culled—being slaughtered at an early age, or enduring the temporary stress of caponization for the sake of getting to live a nice life for a much longer time? (One of my capons lived a full year and a half before gracing the dinner table.) Has anybody asked the bird?


The Animal Welfare Approved standard is unambiguous on the subject: Debeaking (chopping off half the upper beak in order to prevent cannibalism and feather picking) is never permitted in any poultry operation considered humane. I have corresponded with a few producers for local markets who keep debeaked layer flocks, either because that is the only option from their source of supply, or for management reasons of their own. Since I am not meeting the same bottom line they are, I will not presume to judge their decisions. It does seem to me, however, that debeaking is an admission upfront that the birds in our care are going to be under a high level of stress, with the implied claim that the alteration is necessary to prevent their injuring each other despite that stress. But isn’t our duty to give our birds as stress-free a life as we can? In all my years of poultry husbandry, all episodes of stress sufficient to cause the birds to start pecking each other viciously have been subject to amelioration through management changes on my part. I see no need for beak-clipping in the well cared for backyard flock.

The learning curve

We all make mistakes, and sometimes our birds pay the price. Early in the management of my flock on pasture, I failed to anticipate the necessity for shade. In an unseasonal temperature spike, the poor stressed birds began pecking a couple of flock members apart, alive. We all lose birds to predators from time to time. Such calamities are not moral failings. Should we fail to make preventive changes following such crises, however, then we do indeed come up short in the moral equation between us and our birds.

Read the rest of this piece over at Harvey’s website TheModernHomestead.

smallscalepoultrycoverHarvey Ussery is the author of The Small-Scale Poultry Flock

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