How a Chicken Changed My Life

By Grant T. Smith


chickenI was once a chicken catcher and it changed my life.


Before we get to that story, I also grew up with chickens as pets and providers of the best eggs I have ever eaten. We played hide and seek in our large yard, with chickens often being the ultimate betrayer of a hidden person, as they clucked and visited me tucked under a juniper bush, or flew (yes, they could fly) up into a tree to roost in the arms of a concealed combatant. I can still see Henrietta as she would cock her neck and step forward at my invitation to share a Popsicle with a stilted peck to the side – it is a treasured memory.


At seventeen, when I went to work at the slaughterhouse, I understood chickens even before I understood life and death. My job was simple.


I would stand in my forklift and start the engine, cranking the wheel as I pivoted on the single back tire and pointed the machine towards the truck pulled alongside the raised loading bay. For the first week my greatest fear was falling off the edge in a tight spin. I would ease the forks just over the bed of the truck and beneath the base of the rack full of live chickens, tilting back on the forks and slowly raising the rack off the bed of the truck, which initially raises with the reduction of weight, I would ease backwards and pull the rack off the truck. Once clear of the other racks on the first truck of the day I would spin the racks around and place it where the butchers could reach the birds.


Between as many as two thousand chickens a day were processed in this small, independent processing facility and, to the best of my knowledge, they were all treated respectfully, in the way that we understood it. I do not have horror stories like the one revealed last week and shame on any person who can behave in the vile manners I have heard about but which I lack the stomach or desire to watch.  


On a day in July and sweltering in the heat, I glanced up and spotted a chicken who had freed herself from the cages, the first such escapee under my watch. She was wandering the yard and I was struck by how much larger she was than the small Bantams we kept as children. I perceived my role to be managing the livestock and off I set to practice the skill of chicken catching – on an open field.  She dodged me expertly and the chase began, she fast and mobile, but flightless unlike the birds of my youth. I thought I had her once, as my feet slid out from underneath me and I tasted gravel.


Rising to my feet my eventual efforts were rewarded as I cornered her and finally, with her wings flapping and her beak snapping, I grabbed her. My instincts immediately had me holding her in an embrace that restored a measure of comfort and we sat in the dust of the parking lot while we both recovered our breath. We rested there and she clucked a hello as she relaxed in my arms while I sang an Elvis Presley song that was on my mind. (For another day – it is a good story, just ask).


The day was growing late and she was the last chicken in the daily process the team was just finishing cleaning the bays after the last kill. They had sprayed down the walls, hosed of their rubber suits and washed the detritus of the day down the drain. I walked proudly with my new catch and handed her to my boss so we could put her aside for the night.


The walls were clean and she had no worth for tomorrow as we were not able to store her. With the slightest twist of his hands on her neck her life was ended. I have relived the horror of her wasted life and my unwitting role many times since.


There was, however, a fundamental respect for the lives of the birds exhibited every day by everyone in that building. I still struggle to sort out the lessons learned of economics and life and I weep in the telling of the tale. I know I aged and grew that day in July, I also know I carry a respect for the sacrifices made for my diet. I do not simply eat products bought in bulk styrofoam packages, rather I eat animals and plants and I respect their lives and their sacrifices. I expect them to be honoured in their lives and in their deaths.


Shame on the abusers and shame on those who allow such a culture to exist and shame on me if I do not speak out.