Photo Essayby Brian Awehali

San Juan Chickens Before Harvest - photos (c) 2012 Brian Awehali

San Juan chickens before harvest – photos (c) 2012 Brian Awehali

“I am largely worried about wingless chickens. I feel this is the time for me to fulfill myself by stepping in and saving the chicken but I don’t know how exactly since I am not bold. I only know I believe in the complete chicken. You think about the complete chicken for a while.”

Flannery O’Connor, The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O’Connor

I’d asked if I could come and see the chicken harvest. It was a sunny day in the San Juan Islands, and my acquaintance with two farmers had presented an opportunity to see a free-range, all organic culling, or harvest.

Chickens Clamoring for Feeding - (c) 2012 Brian Awehali

“Do you think they have any idea that today’s different from other days?” I asked one of the farmers as he beckoned the chickens.

He paused handsomely in his well-worn green t-shirt with a large peace sign on the chest and scratched an unruly sun-bleached beard.

San Juan Chicken Portrait - (c) 2012 Brian Awehali

“Nah. They have a simple life, and they’ve never known anything but this, so why would they?”

“And anyway, these are broiler chickens. They can’t live past about two years old, or their hearts give out.”

I watched the chickens, and the few dark ducks in the flock, who were eager to approach in hopes of being fed, and paid me no attention as I shot photos. A few had to be chased down and put into the enclosed truck bed, but most just filed in, clucking, in a way that made me think darkly of Black Friday.

About 9 billion chickens are harvested and eaten each year in the United States. Most are slaughtered in factory farms, where “cervical dislocation,” “asphyxiation by carbon dioxide,” and maceration (grinding) are considered the best “acceptable humane methods.” I was curious to see a smaller, sustainable family-run operation, where the farmers actually care about the quality of the chicken’s lives, care about what they eat, and where they participate directly in the harvest, rather than resorting to mass mechanical means.

Once all of the chickens were in the back of the truck, we rolled towards several white tents where the harvest would take place.

Chicken feet in a cone. - (c) 2012 Brian Awehali

This type of chicken has been bred for early harvest, as well as for an easygoing temperament and generally pleasant appearance. They did not get too excited in the truck, nor did they put up much resistance before being placed headfirst into tapered metal bleeding cones, where their vivid yellow feet and bright red combs twitched as they bled out.

“When I was six I had a chicken that walked backward and was in the news. I was in it too with the chicken. I was just there to assist the chicken but it was the high point in my life. Everything since has been an anticlimax.”

— Flannery O’Connor

[Warning: graphic material follows the jump]

Chicken's Last - (c) 2012 Brian Awehali

Chicken. Bleeding Out - (c) 2012 Brian Awehali

After the chicken’s wide eyes had grown slitted and oddly peaceful, the bodies were dipped into a vat of boiling water. Some twitched and thrashed a bit more; others didn’t.

Chicken in hot water - (c) 2012 Brian Awehali

“It’s just nerve reflex.”

Several days later, I showed some of these pictures to the farmers, and they professed a heaviness about it that I hadn’t observed during the actual harvest.

Only after the dip in boiling water did the chickens seem well and truly beyond suffering. Their bodies were then placed in a plastic drum lined with rubber spikes that spun rapidly at the press of a button and pummeled and rinsed the feathers from their bodies in impressively short order.

Chicken in Depilating Spinner - (c) 2012 Brian Awehali

Bucket of Chicken Feet - (c) 2012 Brian AwehaliI’d resolved beforehand that I would buy, cook and eat one of these chickens. It seemed important.

I lost track of which chicken was which at some point, and have no idea if the one I ate was one of the ones depicted in these photos. I roasted it, with onions, carrots, potatoes and spices, but the meat was tough to eat, partially because of the chicken’s more active, natural lifestyle. It was a labor to get through.

Blood Pooled Beneath the Bleeding Cone - (c) 2012 by Brian Awehali

San Juan Chickens Just Before Harvest - (c) 2012 Brian Awehali

I personally think pain and some measure of cruelty or violence is an inseparable part of reality, and that a politics based on the avoidance of those reduces to something like a reactionary Politics of “Eww” or “Ick.” Just consider the logic and usual operation of the food chain. What I object to is the mechanization and regimentation of creatures and their suffering. Industrial food.

But: vegans or vegetarians who get their packaged, processed, chemical-ridden food from the industrial food system, and pay war taxes on their purchases, have no moral high ground over omnivores! An intellectually honest look at the sentient (emotional, intelligent) life of plants or the true environmental impact of mass agriculture on wildlife and the biosphere doesn’t permit those who don’t eat animals any comfortable distance from cruelty. Everything in the world eats something else to survive, and that something else, whether it runs on blood or chlorophyll, would always rather continue to live rather than become sustenance for another. No animal wants to be penned up and milked, or caged and harvested, and you’ve never seen plants growing in regimented lines of their own accord, or giving up life voluntarily at any point in their life-cycles.

It was one thing when our race of featherless bipeds figured out fire and spears and the bow-and-arrow. The work of hunting, feeding and clothing yourself was difficult, and one might call the playing field between predator and prey fair in those days. There’s nothing fair about a chicken, pig, or cow processing plant, and I personally don’t even think small-scale mechanized farming of genetically-manipulated chickens, even free-range and antibiotic-free like those depicted in this post, is fair.

To be moral, the cruelty of killing for sustenance requires a creature balance and little or no profit motive.



  1. Pingback: » OF BICYCLES, BIRDS & SPICES: A photo walk around Chengdu, Sichuan | LOUDCANARY

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