Sunday, July 12, 2009

I'm Not a Virgin Anymore

And I don't mean sex, you perverts! I popped my killing cherry today and let's just say that there was a lot more crying with this one. More like hysterics, but that's beside the point.

Last night I came to the conclusion that Pearl was not just suffering from an upper respiratory infection, as she had become completely paralysed in the legs over the last few days. I searched and searched the web for illnesses that included both cold symptoms and paralysis and came up with nothing. I had thought she might have Coryza because her breath and boogers smelled like a strong cheese, but when I brought Pearl into the barn, I mean garage, she didn't stink up the whole place with the putrid scent of rotting meat. Apparently, that's how you know for sure your bird's got Coryza. I used some VetRx to help with the upper respiratory crud, which helped her to breathe through her nostrils, but she was quickly losing her ability to stand on her legs. When I pressed against her feet, she had no reflex response. Pearl was not great at roosting, having never been able to quite grasp that bar with her claws. But I chalked that up to her being a bit runty. And though she was a feather legged Cuckoo Maran, she was scant in leg feathers. These 2 things were a sign of something much more hideous and insidious than Coryza. This was the dreaded Marek's. Prior to the introduction of a vaccine in the 1970s, Marek's, which is a herpes virus and a cancer, caused huge economic losses for the poultry industry because of its high mortality rate and the fact that once infected, a bird is a carrier for life. In the 80s and 90s, super virulent strains of this disease began to sweep across the U.S. and Europe, and is so widespread today that the title of an article I recently read sums it up entirely, "If Your Chickens Breath, They've Been Exposed to Marek's". I believe Pearl probably came from a hatchery in Iowa that purposely doesn't vaccinate in order to breed for resistance. In theory, I agree with this method, though it did put me in a bit of a pickle.

Some birds recover from Marek's. I was hoping that Pearl would be one of them. But last night when I checked on her before I went to bed, I knew this wouldn't be the case. She was laying on her side, gaping her mouth wide whenever she drew a breath. This was a problem. You see, my DDF was not in town. Having hunted with his father when he was a kid, he's like a professional compared to me when it comes to killing stuff. But he had taken our daughter to Fresno; she is staying the week with her grandparents. I prayed that Pearl would pass in the night. It's a funny thing for an atheist to do, but desperate times call for desperate measures. I knew I couldn't keep her alive like this, but I was also too chicken to do the deed (pun totally intended). But I told myself that if she was still with us in the morning, I would have to put her out of her misery.

Well if there is a god, he clearly doesn't hear the prayers of atheists. For a split second, when I first checked the box after my morning chores, I thought Pearl had gone. She lay on her side stiff as a board. But when I looked at her face, she was still breathing. I began to cry. I couldn't get out of it now. I promised myself I wouldn't let her suffer one more day like this. I picked her up and held her. Told her in a sobbing voice how much I loved her and that she was a good chicken. My sobs turned to hysterics when I began my litany of apologies for what I was about to do. I asked for her forgiveness and that I hoped I could do this as painlessly as possible.

I wasn't exactly sure how to kill a chicken without any blood shed, but remembered the self-explanatory sign language description that my father-in-law performed for me at last week's 4th of July family gathering. This entailed a quick whipping of the chicken over one's head like a cowboy throwing a frantic lasso from which I read, twist neck fast and hard. I held one hand on Pearl's head and the other at the base of her neck, readying myself to do the wringing, but by this time my crying had reached a feverish pitch interjected by pathetic pleas of "I don't want to do this. Please don't make me do this." But I knew I had to. I couldn't let Pearl go on like this until the DDF returned later in the evening. I jostled her to see if she would suddenly open her eyes and stand on her own feet again, as if my shaking had some potent magical powers. Sadly, I have no such powers. I tried again, hands in position, but failed to complete the act when I had suddenly awoken to the fact that I was going to kill my daughter's pet with my bare hands. I once again drifted back to pathetic pleading. I didn't allow myself to go on for too long. I drew a deep breath, counted to 3 and twisted. I heard the disturbing crackle of breaking bones and began to relax thinking that my job was done. Like I'm that lucky. Pearl was still breathing. How could that be possible? So I quickly twisted again in a panicked effort to put an end to this. Her neck wobbled and she oozed a thick liquid from her mouth, but she was STILL FUCKING BREATHING! At this point I found myself screeching "Die Pearl. Please die!" Obviously I hold no juju in the life and death arena. I couldn't think of what to do next. I couldn't bear the fact that I was drawing out her pain. Should I get a shovel and smack her over the head? Way too violent. I settled on covering her nostrils with my fingers whilst holding her beak closed. She continued to make efforts to breathe, flapped her wings, then released a foul smelling fluid from her vent and went limp. It took at least a minute. I don't have to tell you that this was the longest minute of my life. But I had to do it, right?

I cried like I've never cried before, howling near the door of the garage. It was the only place I could think to do the killing where the other animals wouldn't see what I was doing. The goats are already distrustful. No need to add any fuel to that fire. I walked out the back door to look for a box in the yard. I was trembling from head to toe. The goats stopped their goaty games and eyed me suspiciously. I went back to clean up the residuals of Pearl's death throws, placed her in the box, and brought her to the far corner of the backyard where we will bury her under the cement retaining wall that is being built this week. I wretched for a solid five minutes. Good thing I hadn't eaten breakfast.

I'm sure you all are wondering why I gave such a gruesomely detailed description of "the deed" without even a warning. Frankly, I think all of you pussies divorced from the reality of growing food should have to take a good hard look at how that food gets to your table. There's a lot of killing that goes on out there, even when it comes to eggs, which I'm sure a lot of you have assumed involves no killing at all. Wrong. Go read Michael Pollan's The Omnivores Dilemma. It's a real eye opener in regards to the egg industry. And all you vegans out there sitting on your high horses thinking you have no blood on your hands, think again. Growing vegetables, even on a small scale, involves a great deal of death. And I'm not talking about bugs. Gophers, moles, voles, rats, mice, birds: they all want those vegetables. They'll do what they have to do to get those juicy treats. And the farmer will do what she has to in order to prevent excessive crop loss. Chew on that the next time you're crunching on a carrot with your pompous "I don't eat meat" swagger.

R.I.P. Pearl. I'm truly sorry.

P.S. I'm sorry I called you pussies. I don't mean to take it out on you, but it's been a rough day. I need a hug.


  1. Hugs, woman. I finally had a chance to actually read this post. If I had a hard time just reading, after you actually had to do it, then I totally deserve to be called a pussy. So sorry. But I am impressed. Farming takes such raw commitment and I am always in awe of those who can do it!


  2. Mommy was afraid for her very sensitive child when she decided to 'farm'. Let's put it this way, between your blog and some memories from childhood on a dairy, I know how gut-wrenching this is. Farming is very difficult and takes committment - and takes a little indifference to life which I am afraid my eldest was not imbued with.

  3. I am so sorry that you had to go through this, but am proud of you for finding the courage to end Pearl's suffering. The only things I've had to kill are spiders and a few half dead birds and other "gifts" from my cat. I couldn't imagine killing a critter I love. I'm glad you shared what happened and didn't gloss it over to spare my delicate senses.

  4. OK, so it's years since Pearl's demise but I just now found your website and read this (after reading of a similar necessity in Gabrielle Hamilton's "Blood, Bones & Butter.") I recall my back neighbor (in New Jersey) had chickens. Being a child, I would frequently visit his birds. One day, my neighbor opened the pen and I was so excited thinking he was going to let me play with one of the chickens. He carried one out by the legs, wings flapping. He tied the bird to the clothesline and so quickly I did not see it coming, cut the bird's neck. Blood dripped in a puddle beneath the bird. There was no flapping (once chickens are turned upside down, they become calm) and no running around with its head cut off. I was horrified and ran home to tell my mother! Rather than offering an explanation, she forbade me to ever go to the neighbor's yard again. Yet I never forgot that experience. If I ever had to kill a chicken (I hope not), I would do exactly what my neighbor did. If you ever have to do it again (I hope not), try his method. Just be sure your razor or knife is EXTREMELY sharp and that your hand is EXTREMELY quick. I admire your ability to face the reality of the food sources that support life. I am vegan today...I wonder why? Thank you for sharing your grief. You get a HUGE hug from me...

  5. Surprised there aren't more comments now that an Atlantic article that's basically calling what you did animal cruelty links to this post. Gotta say I kinda agree with it. I'm not a pussy with my head stuck in the sand about how food gets to my table. Death is part of it. I don't think that gives a free pass to amateurs and people who don't know what they're doing meteing out a prolonged and agonizing death to their animals. I think industry should hold itself to a higher standard than it does in how it kills their animals. I think you should too.

    In fairness here's the referenced article

  6. Thank you for the comment "anonymous". I will not defend being an amateur with this "kill". I was. It was horrible. I've never felt worse about doing something in my life, which I think is adequately portrayed in the post. It was a desperate situation. But everyone is an amateur on their first try and I've seen others mess up their first kill due to inexperience and anxiety over doing the deed. The article in mention clearly has a bias towards people killing their own food assuming that folks continue to fuck up every kill for the fun of it or something. That isn't the case. And if you look into future posts you will see step by step instructions on how to more appropriately kill a hen.

  7. I'd say Esperanza took it at least as hard in the death-by-a-thousand-links department, if that's any sort of of sick comfort. : / Keep up the good work. If it comes down to comparing who's inflicted more animal cruelty, you or the "well regulated" professionals behind large scale industrial animal slaughterhouses, you're in the clear.

  8. I came to your Open Letter article from Erica's link on FB, and now to this post... and had to reply to say thank you for being honest and detailed. I really feel for you in this situation, and though the realities of backyard livestock mean us 'urban homesteaders' might need to 'toughen up princess' at times, it doesn't mean it won't be heart-wrenching at times. That said, we haven't had to do it ourselves yet.

    We are about to get chickens, and my husband is more than happy to dispatch them for whatever reason may become necessary, with my assistance. The kids will also be a part of the process. He will no doubt, in his thorough and caring way, research & research the options, and posts like this help a lot... the 'what not to do' posts are important too!

    Can I ask, for curiousity sake, did you consider taking the chook to be euthansed by a vet, or asking a neighbour/ family member to help?

  9. I think anonymous missed the point. This wasn't so much a "farm" story as a "having to dispatch one's pet" story. Calling it animal cruelty misses the fact that you weren't trying to hurt her at all. Which is generally the idea of animal cruelty... an intent to cause or callous disregard for the animal's sufferings. At any rate, I'm sorry your terrible experience was drug up and turned into fodder for callous self-righteous types.

  10. Poor you, what a horrible experience.

    Whatever anyone says, it was a faster death than leaving her to die alone of whatever the disease was.

    My husband has just left for six months, I made sure he got out the tomahawk just in case I have to euthanase one of our girls. I'm not sure I could kill for meat, but to euthanase an injured or ill bird - yes.

  11. I just read this post and it brought back the first time I had to kill my first hen. She had been hurt by a dog and it was obvious after a couple of days it wouldn't heal well. I followed the lasso advice and did it so enthusiastically because I wanted her to die quickly that her head was in my hand and her body sailed across the yard. It was well done but I sobbed too.

    My botched killing was later when I tried to dispatch a duck using the same method, and it did not work so well as they are heavier.

    I no longer keep poultry!


  12. Heart wrenching story. I really wish you hadn't taken a dig at vegans at the end of it though, really unnecessary and catty. Please don't justify your eating meat by putting down others that choose not to.