About a month after my husband got back from Afghanistan, we ordered a small flock of 12 laying hens. The hens came to us as pullets — teenage chickens. We opted for pullets over chicks, which is how we normally order them, because we were both eager for farm-fresh eggs as soon as possible.
Well, the pullets came, we went and picked them up from the store where we ordered them. But when we brought them home we noticed something was amiss: the tips of their beaks were missing. Our chickens had been de-beaked.
For those of you who don’t know, debeaking is one of those old-fashioned but disturbingly common industrial farming practices intended to reduce cannibalistic pecking. To be clear, pecking is totally normal chicken behavior. It’s how they root for food, groom themselves and establish hierarchy in a flock — it’s where the term “the pecking order” comes from. Chickens aren’t really chickens unless they peck.
Pecking only becomes a problem when chickens do it habitually and obsessively or violently — eating their own eggs or pecking one another or themselves to death. This is abnormal chicken behavior, often resulting from the stress and duress of being reared in captivity — cramped battery cages, crowded floor systems with little to no access to fresh air, grass or sunshine. To paraphrase from Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, when chickens or any animal (including humans) are denied the right to express their creaturely nature (in the case of birds, foraging, rooting, roosting, flapping), they tend to go a little koo koo, either by trying to harm each other or themselves.
You’d think industrial farmers would have thought to remedy the situation by attacking the root of the problem — reducing livestock stress by giving animals a bit more space — but someone decided it was better and more cost-effective to tackle the end result of that problem instead: bye-bye, beaks. It’s like chopping off the hand of a bully who you know is being abused at home.
So now we find ourselves with 12 debeaked birds. And I have to say, every time I see them, I’m a little put off. All I can see are animals that have been, well, mutilated! More disturbing is that they behave as if they’ve been traumatized. I realize I may be anthropomorphizing here, but we’ve had them nearly two months and they have yet to lay a single egg. It took them two weeks to finally venture outside the Hen Hut, and when they did, they huddled underneath it for another week or more (you can just make out a pair of legs hiding beneath the Hen Hut in the photo). They don’t allow us to get close but scamper away on approach. I can’t even get a decent picture of them, they’re so skittish. They are the most nervous, shell-shocked bunch of birds we’ve ever owned and I can’t help but blame it on their beak-less faces.
Which leads me to the second part of this issue. We live in an area where debeaking is still considered normal and okay in certain pockets.
“It’s not a big deal,” I’ve heard debeaking pacifists say. “People have been doing this forever.” To which I’ve responded, “Funny, they say the same thing in countries where they burn women alive for cheating.”
I wanted to complain to the store where we bought them (who I’m sure ordered them from a large poultry supplier/wholesaler). But Jake, who is more of a “kill ’em with kindness” kind of guy with a gift for ingratiating himself to the locals, was concerned my complaint might only highlight my outsider status as an armchair tree-hugging hippie who doesn’t understand “real” farming. I guess I don’t much care what people think, but we do live in a small town, and once you have a reputation — good, bad, or otherwise — it tends to amplify. You have to be careful discussing these issues when the prevailing ethos goes the other way.
At the same time, neither of us want to give June, who just turned two, the message that it’s ever okay to accept the status quo just because that’s the way things have always been done. Jake opted to insinuate our displeasure to the store rather than say it outright. “Do pullets always come debeaked?” he asked, concerned look on his face. “We were surprised to find them like that.”
Who knows if they got the message, and we probably won’t buy chickens from them in the future. In the meantime, we’re stuck with 12 beak-less, non-laying birds who still deserve fresh air and forage, ample space and sunshine … the cornerstones of good animal husbandry, a lesson we want to instill in our daughter.
Every night after work, Jake and June amble hand-in-hand down to the Hen Hut where she helps dad fill the food troughs and change their water. And every night they check all the laying boxes just in case. And you know what? Two nights ago, June collected her very first egg.
Maybe those chickens are coming around after all.
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