Pirate Chicken, our friendly one-eyed hen, was put down a few weeks ago. She had been suffering with skin cancers on her feet and legs but eventually died of a tumour in her reproductive tract. She was probably about four years old which is about as good an age as one can expect with a contemporary layer breed like an ISA Brown. That’s less than half the life a captive chicken should have, but they are bred for such a high egg output that they end up weak and frequently suffer from reproductive complications. We got her from a hobby farm when she was no longer producing enough eggs for them, so was probably around 1.5 years old at that time.
Despite being a pirate, she was a bit of a home body. She liked to stay in places she was familiar with and unlike her sisters she never was one for destroying garden beds. Pirate Chicken was an introvert and a character. In her seed mix she’d pick around the wheat and barley to eat the corn and sunflower seeds. When you said “good morning, Pirate Chicken!” she’d reply with “a-bokbokbokbok”*. When she was unhappy with something she’d glare at you with her good eye and say “CLUCK CLUCK CLUCK BEH-GERRRRK!” If you spoke to her through her house after she’d gone to bed, you’d get a soft “berrrrrkbokbok”.
Chickens are living, feeling creatures with distinct personalities. They can form bonds, feel pleasure as well as fear and pain. They are also among the most abused species by humans. Each year in Australia we kill around 35 million ISA Browns like Pirate Chicken so that we can eat eggs. Half of these are male chicks that are ground up alive soon after hatching, the other half are “spent hens” — females of around 1.5 years old whose egg output is no longer profitable. They are not used for meat — their bodies are generally just thrown out. This is in addition to the 600 million broiler chickens we kill each year for chicken meat.
It’s easy to reduce the suffering of Pirate Chicken’s brothers and sisters by eating fewer eggs and less chicken. You can choose something other than the five egg omelette for breakfast. Or skip the bucket of wings at KFC.
Every chicken — whether in a backyard or a farm, whether bred for meat or for eggs — is just as much a personality as Pirate Chicken was.
Story and picture — Simon Dwyer