Man, chickens can be nasty. A few weeks before butchering our broilers we removed one guy from the pen because he was breathing weird and getting pecked to death by the rest.
They have this thing for identifying weakness. It must go way back. I bet they're hardwired to assume a predator is always close by. So if one of them stumbles, well, better stick it to him so everyone else has time to get away.
We took that broiler and quarantined him in the chicken run beside the layer coop so he could catch a break and get healthy. Healthy enough so we could eat him. Man, humans can be nasty.
At first we called him “Sick Chicken.” Then “Sicky.” Then “Wheezy,” or “Wheezy McSicky Pants.” But mostly we just called him “Wheezy” for short.
When Wheezy got quarantined he acted a little squirrelly. But he's a broiler. So once it dawned on him he was getting a massive portion of food all to himself...dude was OK with being put up in the Executive Suite all alone.
The kids loved him. Wheezy was by far the most kid-friendly chicken on the property. He'd waddle right up to the boys, tap their boots with his beak, then tilt his head up as if politely asking for more food.
The layers, however, were less than kind. They instantly recognized the aberration in their midst.
Among them there's a firm pecking order. It's a complex hierarchy not at all based on size or aggressive tendencies. How it gets shuffled out is beyond me. But it's obvious there's an agreed upon power structure at work there. And all of them hated Wheezy.
He was bigger (but wider, lower). Yet every chance they got they'd chase him down. Only his physical size prevented him from getting picked apart completely.
Poor Wheezy. I guess what we did was kind of like saving someone from an office full of jerks by dropping them in the woods with a bunch of angry loggers.
But seeing Wheezy in close with the layers really highlighted their differences. Now, in our defence, it's not like we backed the truck up to Monsanto and asked for their freshest batch of Super Chickens. But we did get our broiler stock from a major distributor that specializes in fast growing meat birds. So Cornish Crosses are not genetically modified creatures per se...but...
Look at it from above for a second. Wheezy was an industrial chicken. Our layers are all random heritage breeds. It's hard to see them together and not think of Wheezy as Frankenstein's creation. (...100% Mary Shelly original version).
I mean...he tried! He lived in an abandoned cabin beside the villagers (we put him in the old layer coop beside the main birds). He poked around, explored. He tried to learn about his own kind. He appealed in vain to his creators - we had no answers, we pushed him away. But he kept returning. He kept trying.
Wheezy was just this lovable little juggernaut, desperately trying (and failing) to fit in.
Here's what happened on slaughter day.
To give you some context, previously Anna and I had offed 3 roosters last November, then 3 more the following spring. So six birds total. On this day we had 40 birds on deck. So pitter patter, let's get at'er.
Last fall we used an axe and a pot of water boiling over an open fire in the snow. It took all day.
Yes, some time was wasted on looking for non-existent avian genitalia. But now we knew better. And this time we had technology on our side.
Our neighbours that helped pen our llama dropped off their scalding pot, kill cones, and power plucker. So we were geared up. We'd also woken up good and early, had plenty of cartoons lined up for the kids, and a bottle of rum on the kitchen counter to keep momentum going.
We got to work.
My job was to kill and pluck the birds. Anna was cleaning and bagging. I walked each bird to the kill station holding it close to my chest.
Now, everybody tells you to carry the birds upside down by their talons. This is supposed to let the blood rush to their heads and cause them to pass out. I gotta say I don't believe this. They don't like being flipped upside down and held by their feet. They panic. And that overrides any urge to pass out, as far as I can tell.
So I picked them up gently and held them close to my chest.
Listen, I won't get too descriptive. I understand a lot of people might think we're monsters for offing a bunch of living things. Sure. I get that. I also admit to eating a few thousand Chicken McNuggets before the age of 15. I also pass chicken trucks on the highway blasting along at 120 km/h with hundreds of birds crippled in the wind.
Those birds aren't coming from pleasant environments, and they certainly aren't ending up at a place where they're at least held a moment and thanked before they're killed quickly.
Anyway, I struggle with it. I do. But I'm not ready to give up meat. And I don't want to feed my kids animals that were swamped in fecal matter and treated rough. And I can't become a Jainist because...it looks really hard.
So here we are. Butchering day. We're into the rum at about noon.
But now I'm really getting my groove on with the chicken plucker. Once you get your rhythm down these birds de-feather in no time.
A chicken plucker is just an electric motor spinning a tumbler of rubber pegs. You dunk the bird in the scalding pot, swish it for ten seconds, then pass it over the tumbler of rubber fingers and the feathers just fly off. It looks very releasing.
The bird gets transformed from this wet dead thing into a really appetizing, epicurean substance. Yeah it's hard, it's uncomfortable to get it to that point. But cruel? I don't know. In the moment it's more like alchemy. You've taken one thing and with a bit of flash and drama turned it into something else.
OK. That's a deeper observation I formed in retrospect. In the moment I was rolling each bird over the tumblers singing this song under a hail of wet feathers. But I'll choose to remember it on several levels.
At about bird 35, I slapped a freshly plucked carcass onto Anna's evisceration station and said to her, “Look at this. We've just decapitated a pile of chickens in our driveway and nobody cares.”
“Actually, our neighbours helped. They dropped off the gear.”
“Yeah. But what I'm saying is, it's not at all weird. Nobody's walking by wondering what the hell is going on, or if we have a license to do this.”
“Yeah. That's a beautiful thing.”
“Yep. I think it is.”
I kissed my wife, then went back to dunking chickens in power ballads.
It was a full day.
Even with all the awesome gear we still had to finish up with headlamps. Bird 40 got done way after the kids were in bed.
We cleaned up, dumped all the crap, then hosed off the stations and were about to head in for the night when we realized something...
We forgot Wheezy!
He came waddling out of his pen looking like he'd just gotten up from a long nap, wondering if there was any more food to be had.
“Crap! We'll do him tomorrow,” we both agreed, then went to bed.
But who feels like butchering one more chicken after doing 40 the day before? So a week passed. Then another. Now Wheezy was sleeping in the main coop (albeit behind the door, away from the rest). He was getting hand fed by the kids everyday. The layers were picking on him less. He was wandering more.
We let him go where he wanted.
To see him bustling through the overgrown weeds beside the coop was sad and kind of heart warming all at once. He moved like a fat tourist that got lost on safari. A little glad to be away from it all, a little proud and determined to forage for himself what was needed to make it through another strange night.
Over dinner one evening we asked the kids if we should butcher Wheezy. They kind of hummed and hawed. We told them Wheezy is a broiler, and broilers don't live that long. But after saying that, I thought...says who? Broiler farmers? What's stopping this bird from just going on? Who says he's ten weeks into his eight week lifespan?
It's one of those things you hear yourself saying as a parent then immediately think, I'm saying that as a parent.
But before I could correct myself, Bohdan said,
“I think we should just let him live it out.”
It was nice to hear. And we all agreed. OK, so Wheezy was going to live it out.
Of course soon after we said that it became obvious Wheezy was breaking down.
His respiratory condition was gone, but now he was huge. Most of our broilers came in at around 5 lbs, cleaned. Some were 6. They all looked like turkeys. Wheezy, with his personal food supply and a few extra weeks of growth, looked like a miniature emu.
Plus the weather was changing. Nights were colder. Not by much, but definitely no longer summer. Remember – these broilers have barely any feathers on their underside, and they can't roost. So he was on the ground. He had bedding, but still, it must have been affecting him.
Then one day, I can't remember what happened exactly, but Anna met me in the city and we traded vehicles but she forgot to give me the house key. And because we're always putting off little things like “make more than one house key,” I was locked out when I got home.
But it was sunny and I didn't feel like breaking in. Plus I'm always busy doing something, so it was nice to just sit for a minute on the side of my truck and watch the chickens.
We've got more birds and breeds now than can be counted at a glance, so it took me a while before I noticed Wheezy was missing.
He wasn't far.
I found him dead in the weeds beside the coop, belly up and a little purple looking. He was simply dead. None of the other birds had pecked him.
I texted Anna to let the boys know what happened, and where he was.
When they pulled up, Bohdan popped out of the car and told me like he was the one breaking the news.
“Dad,” he said, matter of factly and just a little excited, “Wheezy's dead!”
“I know,” I said. “He's over here. Want to take a look?”
“Yeah. Where is he?'
So we all walked over and had a look.
“We should bury him so coyotes don't get him!” Bo said.
“OK,” I said. “Let's do that.”
“Oh – Dad! Let's put him in the pet cemetery, with the rest of the animal pets!”
We've got a pet cemetery on our property. (Yes we do).
It's just a bump in the grass beside the treeline of our pasture, marked by a couple of lawn gnomes and some solar lights left by the previous owners. There's a bunch of pet graves there. Last summer we sprinkled our Vancouver cat's ashes around that spot.
So I grabbed a shovel and went out with the kids to dig a grave for Wheezy.
We live in a Marsh, so there was two inches of topsoil and the rest was wet grey clay. I dug a hole about a foot around, a foot and a half deep. It was already filling up by the time I got the last clump out.
We walked back to the bush beside the coop. I picked up Wheezy and carried him upside down by his talons to his grave. There was no panic now, so I didn't feel like I had to hold him close to my chest.
As I dropped him in and packed it down, the kids looked on and gave him this little farewell:
“...he got to live it out.”