The New York Times recently ran this piece from Lee Van Der Voo (sweet name, huh?) titled “A Place for Old Chickens, Outside the Pot.” It considers what some of Portland, Oregon’s backyard farmers do with chickens when their egg-laying days have come to an end. As Van Der Voo writes, “While many Portlanders still pluck aging birds for the broiler, others seek a blissful, pastoral end for them. Because most chickens lay the majority of eggs early in life, and can live about 10 years, the quest for a place where chickens can live out their sunset years has brought a boom to at least two farm animal sanctuaries and led Pete Porath, a self-described chicken slinger, to expand the portion of his business that finds new homes for unwanted birds.”
It’s the sort of story that may seem like fodder for a “Portlandia” sketch, and yet it raises a real issue when it comes to chickens. As one of the finalists in the recent NYT essay contest about the ethics of meat eating wrote, “Responsible animal husbandry will recall you to your own mortality. I would agree with those vegetarians who say that our culture eats too much meat. Too much meat creates its own imbalances as farms are converted into smelly feedlots…. However, I also ask my vegetarian friends to consider that if they are eating eggs, then someone had to cull the roosters or mature hens, and I hope those animals were not wasted. If they are drinking dairy, someone had to cull the males from the herd, since a world where every animal is maintained would be unsustainable. And if there are no animal inputs on the farms, then that energy has to come from fossil fuels and other nonorganic sources.”
Lest you think that all of Portland’s over-the-hill chickens are doing nothing but playing bingo and canasta all day long, consider this: “Retiring such chickens, Mr. Porath said, is surprisingly easy. They are steered toward farms where they eat pests that bother other animals, and are used for breeding, to turn compost, to keep grass down and as pets. Roosters are also sought to protect flocks from predators.” I guess we all do better when we feel useful in our golden years.