I killed one of my chickens yesterday. I sat on an overturned milk crate and held it upside down in between my knees with it’s head in a five-gallon bucket as I cut it’s throat and let it bleed out. I could feel the muscles twitching for a few seconds as the body released the last of it’s stored energy. When it was finally still I stroked it’s feathers and thanked it for it’s life the same way I thank every single animal I have killed. I prayed for it’s smooth entry back into the place from whence it came; energy in and then energy back out.
Later when I was looking down at the carcass of the chicken in my sink, washed clean and resembling a store-bought bird without the GMO fattened breasts, I had this out-of-body experience as I pictured this very bird as I had found her just an hour earlier. I had gone to the coop like we do every day to gather eggs and feed the birds. All of the birds came down the chicken ramp squawking and begging for the scraps I always bring with me.
All came down except for one hen. I found her in the coop looking quite unwell and barely able to lift herself up from the shavings. I immediately climbed into the coop regardless of getting chicken poop and dirty shavings all over my ski clothes and I gathered her up in my arms stroking her and speaking quietly to her. I felt that her crop (the place she stores food to digest it) was impacted and as hard as a rock. I had dealt with this before and the outlook is not good. She was dying, short of serious intervention. I considered nursing her back to health with low odds of success. I placed her near her water and gently massaged her crop; willing the food to break up and go down. I walked back to my truck with some resignation after leaving her by the watering dish.
In the truck, I googled “the most humane way to kill a chicken” and began to read through the various chat rooms. After formulating a plan I walked back to the coop with the tools I needed. Part of me really hoped that I would walk in and she would be perked up and standing on her own, but I also knew the realities of being a chicken “farmer.” These chickens were getting older. They were past their egg-laying prime and to be completely honest we are in the business of providing eggs for our family and not becoming a chicken retirement community. We had already decided that we would be butchering this flock and using the meat for stock and canned chicken. We would start with some fresh chicks in the spring. This hen would just be the first to go.
Once I had decided what I would do, it was not hard to do it. I was gentle. It was very quick and I do not believe she suffered at all. I did everything from start to finish and now that bird has been simmering in a crock pot all day. Even though she wasn’t a big meat chicken and we won’t get a very big meal out of her, I won’t waste her. She had a life. I valued that life. I respected her in life and in death.
As I came back to the moment, staring down at this bird in my sink and preparing to season her for cooking, I thought about how most people in today’s culture have no idea what leads up to the point of them picking up the cellophane-wrapped bird in the cold case at the store. They didn’t see the life, feel the life, care for the life and then humanely end the life. They simply bought a carcass.
I then thought of my own journey to this point in my life where I found myself sitting on a milk crate with a knife in my hand and a chicken on my lap. I did not grow up having these experiences. I grew up in the city and food came in the form of TV dinners and Happy Meals. I grew up a passionate animal lover, protector and rescuer. I didn’t think there was ANY way I could love or respect an animal any more than I did when I was a child. Little did I know, and never would I have believed, that after becoming a hunter and a chicken “farmer” I would respect and love animals more than I ever did before.
You see, there is something truly sacred (as cliche as that sounds) to entering into the whole process of providing for my family. The logistics of preparation, the clothing, the gear, the weight of the gun, the crunch of the leaves, the tracks left behind, the weather in the air, the crisp bite of a sunrise, the dying embers of a sunset, the smell of wild game, the sounds they make, the moment of taking the shot, the waiting, the hoping and praying it was clean and ethical, the watching as the last breath is exhaled, the feel of the fur, the feeling of relaxation, knowing that the freezer is full again. Yes, sacred.
There was a time in this country, in the beginning, that almost every home would have a gun inside of it. Either propped next to the front door for quick access or tucked in a cabinet or under a bed. This gun would be used for feeding the family, putting down sick livestock, protecting the homestead, and fighting for the homeland if needed. This gun was respected as a necessary tool by EVERYONE in the household and it was not to be trifled with. It would be a natural part of a child’s education just as natural as the way they would be taught to build a fire, to fix a fence or to slaughter a chicken. This was normal. Death was not a foreign concept that was hidden or spoken about in hushed tones. It was very real and every child was reared with the very real knowledge that death IS a part of life. It was never meant to be a novelty or entertainment.
There is a very real disconnect between modern humans, especially young people, and the natural world around them. They see death through movies, video games and graphic footage on YouTube and internet news. Most have never actually touched death. Their pets were taken to the vet to be put down “gently” and to save the child and the family from experiencing death. Their grandparents died in nursing homes with strangers attending to them rather than in the homes of their families as they each whispered their well wishes and goodbyes and fervently listened to the last words of their ancestors. Their food comes cleaned and packaged. The life of the food matters nothing to the person unwrapping it and frying it up. Disconnection.
Our children are experiencing a vacuousness in their lives; an emptiness that they are trying to fill with anything that provides short-term pleasure. Parents are busy, children are reared by daycare providers and teachers who make too little. They come home to empty houses or houses filled with busy people. They put their headphones on and check out of this feeling of disconnect and connect to another world; social media, music, video games, Netflix, reality TV. It provides the dopamine release that they should be getting from experiencing life AND death…
The morning dew that gives way to wind and sun, the feel of the wet grass between their toes, walking to school in the winter and marveling at the icicles that appeared overnight, playing for hours outside until the lights came on, running and jumping in puddles, sitting around a campfire sharing “ghost” stories, learning to build that fire (what an accomplishment), watching their first pet die, gazing into the eyes of that loss and not being sheltered from it.
Our kids need to see death to be able to respect life. They need to be connected to the natural world. They need to touch it, feel it living and breathing, and then see it dying as well. Because when one really faces death and sees the demise of a living thing before their very eyes, either gracefully or horrifically, one would never find death to be an amusement.
Our kids need to see death as a part of life NOT just as something they can do for fun after school with a game controller in their hand. Our kids need to see death to respect life.
Editor’s note: This essay was originally published on huntjacksonhole.com
Gloria Esguerra Courser is a bookkeeper, shooting instructor, writer, and hunting guide residing in Jackson Hole with her husband and two daughters.