Country Corner

Flying the Coop

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The chickens haven’t yet come home to roost in Columbia,Mo. As of this writing, a proposal still stands to let the urban Columbia homeowner keep a few yard birds.

But trouble is on the wing. Representatives from the local animal shelter have expressed concerns about what it might mean for them. They expect an influx of neglected, unwanted and derelict chickens. It presents a problem that the shelter is ill-equipped to handle.

What with the crates and cages used for dogs and cats being unacceptable for chickens, logistical chaos would set in. It’s a system that isn’t built for chickens, they reason. Who would adopt the birds that will inevitably be orphaned by the fowl weary?

And so I must retract. A couple months ago, I said that urban chickens would be a boon for town and country relations. I said that for people of pavement, the urban chicken coop would be an object lesson in animal husbandry and all its dilemmas.

The generations of urban hubris that separates us from our city cousins would melt away as the life-and-death reality of keeping animals made clear to the urbanites that life does, in fact, eat life.

My assumption then was that someone, somewhere, would have a look at Matilda the hen in her declining days and say, “Well, there’s always soup.”

I figured that she would meet the same fate of her ancestors since Gallus bankiva made its way from the tree branch and was domesticated—in a pot with noodles.

But the professionals at the animal shelter have set me straight. I was, as any woman who has been in my life would provide evidence and testimony for, wrong. I hadn’t thought things through.

The chasm that separates the consuming public from the livestock producer has grown so wide that we must face and accept a very stark incompatibility. It’s a hard reckoning. What you take responsibility for on the farm is escapable in town. What economics and biology—and I dare say ethics—tell you must be a culling decision that can mean only one thing for an animal is something altogether different in town.

Hen isn’t laying? Take it to the pound. Rooster a little aggressive? Let someone adopt it.

I kept pigs as a young man. Being tuned into the trend before it was even cool, my pigs roamed idyllically on open pasture.

They were free-range to the extent that I couldn’t keep them in a pen. Or maybe I couldn’t build a pen. Either way, during my swine herding tenure, I picked up a nice boar. He was of good service for a time, but, as they do, the boar got up enough bravado that he decided he’d have a run at being boss. One day as I did chores in the snow, he knocked the bucket from my hand and mauled me. But for the layers of clothing I’d donned against January’s cold, I would have been significantly injured. Having been at the wrong end of his tusk and maw, I made a resolute decision about that boar’s fate. He went the way of the sale barn. Someone got sausage. I got a check. Problem solved.

The livestock industry faces pressure from many directions. There are healthy debates to be had about how livestock is raised and certain compromises to be made between modern husbandry and the plate.

Yet there are some things for both sides that truly are inescapable.The lesson is that however we wrap it, cook it and serve it, life eats life. And no animal shelter needed 450 pounds of porcine wrath. The boar had to go.

For producers of livestock, the challenge has become explaining that notion to the public, who, despite the best efforts of animal rights groups, wants an acceptable social contract with meat to bless along with their evening meal. I was wrong about urban chickens. They are not a panacea. We’re looking for something simple to yank the carpet of time from beneath our population’s evolution of strangely packed ennui.

What I thought was so simple isn’t. A few urban hands dirty with chicken dung won’t be the beachhead back toward the reality you see in the barn lot.

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