"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Chicken Retirement

Uncle Guido has always been amazed at the ‘Love Your Chicken’ movement in the United States.  He has wondered, mouth agape, at the fawning (or chickening) over poultry, especially in Portland which has led the way in over-the-top bleeding heart misplaced feelings for them.  There was a restaurant in Portland reported on not long ago in which chickens were guaranteed to be coddled (this is a great way to eat eggs, by the way) from birth to ’passing over’.  Each chicken served in the restaurant had been given a name, so to the familiar routine of “Hi, guys.  My name is Bruce, and I’ll be your server tonight” was added, “And your chicken tonight is Bob”.

A new report in the generally respected New York Times, is about chicken retirement in Portland http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/26/us/new-homes-beckon-for-city-chickens-in-retirement.html?

Hindus regard the chicken as a vessel for evil spirits. The Chinese cook them to honor village deities. But here, chickens are a symbol of urban nirvana, their coops backyard shrines to a locavore movement that has city dwellers moving ever closer to their food. And the increasingly intimate relationships have led some bird owners to make plans for their chickens’ unproductive years. Hence a budding phenomenon: urban chicken retirement.

We all agree this is ridiculous, but it is important to deconstruct this paragraph a bit:

* Hindus may regard the chicken as a vessel for evil spirits, but will Murgh Masala get rid of them?

* Were the Chinese deities also chickens?  The point is not made clear

* How much closer to food are locavores trying to get?  Should they live with them?  This would give a new twist to the old saying, “You’ve made your bed.  Now lay in it”.

Here is how the Portland scheme works:

While many Portlanders still pluck aging birds for the broiler, others seek a blissful, pastoral end for them. Because most chickens lay the majority of eggs early in life, and can live about 10 years, the quest for a place where chickens can live out their sunset years has brought a boom to at least two farm animal sanctuaries and led Pete Porath, a self-described chicken slinger, to expand the portion of his business that finds new homes for unwanted birds.

“I would say I’m a halfway house for chickens on the move,” he said.

This is American entrepreneurial spirit at its best – finding a market niche and exploiting it.  Portland locavores, seeing their pullets move on into their infertile years, pay Mr. Porath to take them away and give them happy sunset years. This enterprise has spun off others.  Lawyers as usual have gotten into the game:

Karen Wolfgang of Independence Gardens, a consulting firm that helps clients build sustainable gardens, has meanwhile become an expert on end-of-life issues for chickens. She teaches a course to help urban farmers plan a wholesome end for their chickens, including referrals to retirement farms.

End-of-life issues, Uncle Guido presumes, are significant.  For example, there must be government regulation of chicken retirement homes, just as it regulates old people’s homes.  The regulation would specify chickens’ rights.  Although it hardly seems possible that a chicken could get any dumber, the issue of Chicken Alzheimer’s has raised its ugly head.  Retirement home staff have to be given special training to recognize Chicken Alzheimer’s.  The signs are not obvious.  Memory loss? Just about all other animals – songbirds, dogs, pigs, horses – have the ability to memorize some basic words or instructions.  Chickens, with their pea brains are waaaaay more stupid and just peck and squirt anywhere anytime.  Imagine this: “Come here, Daisy, come to Daddy.  Atta girl!” You can’t imagine it because it is unimaginable.

Incontinence?  Refer to the above about pecking and squirting.  Disorientation?  Have you ever seen chickens bob and weave around the barnyard with no sense of any direction or purpose?

The abuse of old people in institutions is well-documented.  Poorly-educated, poorly-paid, barely literate women from the Third World surely lose their patience quickly.  I once heard a Jamaican woman telling a patient that she had to get up for her physical therapy – at least that’s what I thought she was saying; but her Island English said something entirely different.  “It don’t take no phy-si-cal ex-er-shun”, she lilted and sang, “To take a bloody di-ur-eh-tic”.  The poor patient could barely make sense out of Fox News let alone Dorothea Levy.

So, you can imagine the abuse of chickens.  Which makes you wonder who does Mr. Porath employ?  “Instead of going upscale”, he said, “I go down.  My workers have to be as….” Here he paused, obviously trying to phrase his comments delicately for the press.  “…intellectually challenged as the chickens.”  It must be a real circus in there.

Not only does Mr. Porath have to intend with government regulations on client care, hygiene (whew! can you imagine that job?), space requirements, and ventilation (All chickens stank, but old chickens really stank), he has to put up with former chicken owners.  Actually they are not called ‘owners’ because that is too insensitive; and the  preferred term is ‘colleagues’).

These former colleagues have treated their chickens to a high-and-mighty life style, and get all pissy if Daisy is not getting her due:

They have personalities,” [a former owner/colleague] explained. “And they each have different ways of interacting with you, and they make different sounds.”

Mr. Finley said the five birds he now owns are a home-based food source that complements a vegetable garden. But they are also pets, he said, part of a family that includes his partner, Ray Frye, two dogs and two cats.

“We name them and we hold them,” he said. “I know it sounds kind of crazy, but we kiss them.”

The couple also buy toys for their chicks, and enjoy watching the older birds jump for Cheerios and chase one another around the yard.

Their stunning multilevel chicken coop was featured in the 2011 Tour de Coops in Portland. The event showcases the most spectacular of bird lodgings. Last year’s featured coops sported green roofs, rainwater systems and towers with panoramic views

Please note the comment of Mr. Finley: “I know it sounds kind of crazy, but we kiss them”.  In America, anything goes, so Uncle Guido is not at all surprised at the kissing part, he just wonders where and how.  Chickens are pretty much all feathers and beak and they do a lot of twitching.  In an off-the-record comment to the Times, Mr. Finley admitted that he held them in his arms, pinning the head to his chest and giving it a light peck.  “Nothing sexual here”, added Mr. Finley.  “All very above board.”

In any case, these former owner/colleagues are always at the Retirement Home, almost as bad as liberal parents who send their kids to a shitty public school on principle, then spend hours each week supervising bad teachers.  “Why aren’t you giving Daisy more stimulation?”; or “I don’t think Daisy is not getting enough quality time”. 

Apparently the burn-out rate for caregivers is extremely high, and who can blame them?

Now for the elephant in the room question: “What happens to the retired chickens when their time to pass over has come?”.  Is life support removed, and if so, who gives permission?  Are they allowed to just flap around one last time, pirouette in the dust, and drop dead – a death as natural as they come?  What happens to the remains?  Uncle Guido doesn’t want to even begin to contemplate chicken cemeteries, but he assumes they are there.  And the tombstones?  “Here lies Daisy, our beloved colleague, who left this life after ten glorious years.  She leaves 3420 children and 10,223 grandchildren.  She will be missed”.

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