i hate my back­yard chicken

For two years, I raised a chicken in the back­yard of my semi at Queen and Bathurst. I loved the fresh eggs—but I hated the hen

Toronto Life - - Front Page - by sarah tre­leaven Sarah Tre­leaven is a writer in Toronto. Email sub­mis­sions to mem­oir@toron­to­life.com

One hot night in sum­mer 2011, I was in­vited to an un­con­ven­tional din­ner party. A friend of a friend had been rais­ing chick­ens in the postage-stamp back­yard of his Queen West semi. That night, he was plan­ning to kill and eat a hen that had stopped lay­ing, hop­ing to per­pet­u­ate the cir­cle of life. Did I want to come?

I was sur­pris­ingly un­con­flicted about it. My im­me­di­ate an­swer was yes, and off I went. Af­ter watch­ing an in­struc­tional YouTube video, the chicken’s owner, Jamie, and a few ac­com­plices opted to slit her throat with a butcher knife. I sat on the steps, feel­ing not re­pelled, not dis­tressed, but in­creas­ingly hun­gry.

The dis­mem­ber­ing process was more stress­ful: one of the guests, a doc­tor, was shock­ingly in­ept at de­ci­pher­ing chicken anatomy, and we all puz­zled over where ex­actly to make the cuts. When we were done, we tried to make coq au vin. Af­ter five hours of brais­ing—and five drained bot­tles of wine—the chicken was still too tough to eat. At three years old, she was long past her prime. So we or­dered a meat lovers’ pizza.

Not long af­ter that, Jamie and I fell in love. Friends glee­fully dubbed this ori­gin story a “meat-cute.” Watch­ing a man slaugh­ter an an­i­mal in a down­town back­yard would typ­i­cally be con­sid­ered the hall­mark of a pretty bad first date. It was, how­ever, one of the more hon­est things I had ever wit­nessed. A man who had cared for his chicken for years de­cided to kill her hu­manely and ef­fi­ciently for a group of hun­gry friends. We all knew where this din­ner had come from—a re­fresh­ing al­ter­na­tive to buy­ing anony­mous, shrink-wrapped chicken parts in gro­cery stores, prove­nance un­known. We’d met the chicken and watched her peck around the rasp­berry bush for a cou­ple of hours while we drank pre-slaugh­ter cock­tails. Then we’d seen the life drain out of her. It sounds grim, but some­one is usu­ally watch­ing when an an­i­mal dies for food. I fig­ured it might as well be us.

A year later, I moved into Jamie’s semi and quickly be­came ac­quainted with his re­main­ing chicken, a hand­some leghorn hen with thick red feath­ers. Ev­ery morn­ing, I’d throw on a sweater over my py­ja­mas, creep down the back steps, open the door of the coop and re­trieve a fresh, warm egg. I was de­lighted that this was all hap­pen­ing in the mid­dle of the city, against an in­con­gru­ous back­drop of sky­scrapers and restau­rants that charge too much for omelettes.

Her eggs were smaller than the gro­cery store va­ri­ety, but creamy and rich with a bright or­ange yolk. I hap­pily fried them up for break­fast sand­wiches and baked them into chewy choco­late chip cook­ies. When friends came over, we’d proudly show off our bounty. We oc­ca­sion­ally slipped a few eggs to the neigh­bours, too, lest they be tempted to re­port our il­le­gal chicken. We were pleased with our­selves, al­most sanc­ti­mo­nious about be­ing city slick­ers with a partly sus­tain­able house­hold—even if the chicken was do­ing most of the work.

The chicken, who went unnamed, was very easy to keep. She lived in an Eglu, a $250 Scan­di­na­vian-chic coop that in­cludes a fox-proof run and plas­tic house. She ate chicken feed, as well as a range of scraps, com­post and left­over Chi­nese food. Once a week, Jamie would clean out her house and run, re­plac­ing the hay she liked to nes­tle in. And in win­ter, we put in a warm­ing bulb and watched for frozen wa­ter and food.

While I loved the eggs, I was un­able to form any kind of con­nec­tion to the chicken they came from. She pecked at my hands and arms when I opened the run to feed her. And when I crouched down be­side her Eglu to stare into her beady lit­tle eyes, there was no warmth or af­fec­tion.

I’ve sin­cerely loved ev­ery other an­i­mal I’ve owned—Merv, the dwarf ham­ster; Thumper and Dusty, the rab­bits; Ban­dito, my tiny and spir­ited Chi­huahua. I once heard some­one re­fer to back­yard chick­ens as “pets with ben­e­fits,” but mine wasn’t my pet or my friend. She was more like an em­ployee.

When she turned three—re­tire­ment age for a chicken—she grad­u­ally stopped lay­ing. Her daily eggs dwin­dled down to five a week, then three, then two. And with the end of her util­ity, I’d stare out the kitchen win­dow and won­der if she was con­tent. Sud­denly, I didn’t like the idea of keep­ing a bird in a cage. De­spite my lack of at­tach­ment, I couldn’t bring my­self to kill an an­i­mal I knew wouldn’t be de­li­cious. And so, af­ter a few weeks, we called up the hip­pies who had sold us the chicken and asked them to re­home her on their farm. They ar­rived one af­ter­noon, sev­eral hours late, to take the chicken back to their spa­cious co-op in the Kawarthas. Af­ter de­clin­ing an in­vi­ta­tion to at­tend their full moon party, I watched as they scooped up our big red bird and drove off in their VW van.

We sold the Eglu and now buy ex­pen­sive free-range eggs in Kensington Mar­ket. Per­haps rais­ing an­i­mals for food re­quires a blend of fond­ness and de­tach­ment. But no mat­ter how hard I tried, I couldn’t love that chicken—and I couldn’t keep an an­i­mal I didn’t love.

When I crouched be­side her Eglu to stare into her beady lit­tle eyes, there was no warmth or af­fec­tion

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