Rethinking Chickens

An on-air comment by Micah Brzezinski, co-host of Morning Joe, about how much she loved her three chickens, one ironically called “Nugget”, made me ponder our relationship with the poultry that’s beating out beef in popularity with Americans.

Years ago I saw a PBS special about a man who loved chickens who had a large, luxurious “coop” and an assortment of truly beautiful bantams. He told stories of traits shown by the chickens indicated a higher level of intelligence that surprised me. I was so touched that it gives me pause each time I look at a crispy thigh or watch hungry kids scarfing down nuggets of sometimes questionable contents. Images of the life of chickens in factory farms fill my mind.

While living on sabbatical on a Greek island in the seventies, I developed a bad attitude about chickens, particularly roosters. Mykonos was on a different schedule than America’s. Businesses shut down in the middle of the hot days for siesta. (Imagine if Americans shut down for a nap after lunch!) Slowly re-opening in late afternoon, mostly for the tourists clogging the narrow streets, dinner wasn’t served until around 11:00 pm followed by dancing ‘till dawn in the tavernas. Dancers took to the streets under the midnight blue sky with hundreds of shooting stars twinkling across the universe. Walking home via the donkey trail, ready to sleep, the sky glowing a soft pink, one by one, roosters across the valley began a cacophony of ear shattering cock-a-doddle-do-s which didn’t help falling asleep and made me cranky.

As a child, I’d accompany my mother to a local farm where she’d select a chicken, we’d watch as the farmer chopped off its head leaving a headless body to run around the barnyard spurting blood, no doubt the source of my adult avoidance of horror movies. I once raised an Easter chick that ended up on the dinner table; I had to leave the room.

Recently I met a woman with a remarkable chicken story. It used to be that when grandmothers met they’d share pictures of their always adorable grandbabies. Nowadays with the seduction of smart phones, some grandmothers now include endless photographs of their companion animals, often in costume. She had photos and videos of her rescue cat and dog. And a chicken the dog had gifted her with, dangling squeaking and protesting from his softened mouth. The chicken took over the fenced city backyard and spent her days playing with the cat and dog. They all got dressed up for holidays though the chicken was usually not cooperative. Twice a day, they all came in to eat and cuddle. The chicken slept outside in the beribboned coop the woman had built for her.

One morning, the woman decided to sleep in. Not long after the silenced alarm would have gone off, she was awakened from a delicious slumber by a tapping sound. Raising the blinds, she looked out onto the back yard. There was a storage shed beneath the window. She stared at the face of a disgruntled chicken who’d somehow gotten up on the shed scolding the woman for neglect. No one knows how she got up there though maybe she’d taken secret flying lessons.

Maybe the roosters are trying to tell us something. Maybe sharing their hens’ eggs is ok but a short life of never moving or seeing the sky before being slaughtered for nuggets cannot be ok. Maybe we need to listen to them.

If you find yourself enticed by Tyson and McDonalds, pause, take a deep breath and think of that plucky, un-plucked chicken who has so much to teach us. Show gratitude for their giving us their eggs.

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