Alfred was an unplanned rooster and, as is often the case with roosters, a jerk. Unlike most asshole roosters, who would have had a date with the chopping block, Alfred and I ended up in the elegantly appointed waiting room of the University of Pennsylvania’s Ryan Animal Hospital, me handing over my credit card to cover his $276 vet bill and Alfred pecking at his poop. As I signed the paperwork, people came over to peer at my magnificent bird; Alfred ruffled his feathers and glared through the grill of the carrier.
A few days before, I had tried to euthanize Alfred – if “euthanize” is the right word for overdosing a six pound rooster with enough sedatives to kill a forty pound dog. Alfred and I sat on the side of a grassy hill in the sunshine as I waited for him to drift into a drugged slumber. A friend stood nearby with an ax and trash bag to finish the job.
I felt Alfred’s muscles unclench and his dark pink eyelid slipped up over his eye, but the testosterone coursing through his body made Alfred immune to such trivialities as a massive dose of sedatives. After the lightest of naps, my rooster awoke, ready to return to his two favorite pastimes: sex and violence.
A rooster attack is no small thing. And Alfred attacked anyone who looked at him or his hens: children, dogs, visiting friends, and – eventually – me. Alfred puffed up his feathers and hurled his fierce body at people, grabbing with his beak and pounding with his sharp talons. I imagine he must have felt the ancestral frisson of his fearsome dinosaur ancestry. Chickens are descended from theropods (Greek for “beast foot”) and, as such, they are the progeny of the Tyrannosaurus Rex and the Velociraptor. When Alfred came at you, it was easy to see that, in his mind, he was going to shred you to bits and chew on your entrails.
Alfred was no dummy, though. When a pair of foxes started to pick off his hens, Alfred was occupied elsewhere. “Alfredo,” I chastened him, “when the fox comes, you’re supposed to die a hero.” My previous accidental rooster (Mr. Cecilia Fluffball) had gone down in a blaze of glory protecting his hens. Now that was a good rooster, so I knew they existed.
Alfred and his companion, Matilda, were, as I have said, unplanned chickens. We already had a small flock of hens at the farm where I kept my horse, and I had not intended to add any more until I found Matilda dying in a tub of three-day-old Buff Orpington chicks at the local feed store. An employee prodded the lifeless body with her finger and the chick fluttered her wings very slightly. “She’s just about dead,” the clerk said.
“Can I have her?” I asked.
I cupped the little peep in my hands. After a few minutes of blowing between my fingers, she moved. In a fit of righteousness, I selected her companion from the unsexed Silver Laced Cochin chicks. Generally, chicks are sexed after birth so customers are guaranteed hens. Just about nobody wants a rooster. The male chicks become “chicken by product,” which means they are macerated in a specially designed machine that grinds them up alive. I didn’t want to vote with my dollars for an industry that kills male chicks in the hundreds of millions each year. That moral purity cost me much more than the seventy-five cent mark-up for a guaranteed female.
Alfred and Matilda grew up in my home. They spent their days eating freeze-dried mealworms, blueberries, and my flowers. They chased each other between the legs of my dog and over the backs of my sleeping cats. At night, they perched on my shoulder, warbling in my ear. When they were old enough, I brought them to the farm to join the flock.
A few months later, the hormones hit and my sweet Alfred turned into a monster. I looked into castration, but because rooster testicles are internal, neutering a rooster involves surgery that is best described as “exploratory” and is usually fatal. I tried to exert my dominance, carrying Alfred around on my hip, his wings pinned under my arm. (According to some experts, this would tame his wild ways). “I’m the boss of you,” I told him, but when I put him down again, he fluffed his feathers and lumbered monstrously back to the hens for a little ego-reassuring sex before returning to attack me.
I locked Alfred up, but he pressed repeatedly against the fencing until his legs were raw and his comb bled. When, in a moment of sympathy, I put a hen in with him, he ejaculated all over her tail feathers. Even then, he would not stop mounting her. Unwilling to watch what increasingly looked like a rape, I rescued the hen. Alfred made a moaning sound I hope never to hear again.
The American Veterinary Medical Association’s 2013 “Guidelines for the Euthanasia of Animals” considers the following ways to kill a chicken: cervical dislocation, asphyxiation, suffocation, electrocution, cranial compression, and decapitation. I was not ok with any of those options. I’m a vegetarian. I rescue animals. Alfred was a psychopath, but he was also the peep who had warbled sweet tunes in my ears that spring. I wasn’t going to wring his neck, chop his head off, or crush his skull.
I called the humane society, but they said they only euthanized cats and dogs. Game Control told me that they only worked with indigenous species, and chickens do not count.
“Is he wild?” the man asked me.
“He’s a jerk,” I answered. “Isn’t that good enough?
“Sorry, we can’t help you,” said the man.
According to the law, I could have killed Alfred however I wanted. Chickens are not explicitly included in the Humane Slaughter Act, which means they are not even entitled to be “rendered insensible to pain by a . . . means that is rapid and effective” before slaughter. Chickens are also not protected from religious sacrifice, even if the process is brutal — and religious sacrifice often seems to involve swinging a bleeding chicken around, which strikes me as a particularly terrifying way to die. In 1993, for example, the Supreme Court upheld the right of religious groups to slaughter chickens for religious purposes, noting that, “religious beliefs need not be acceptable, logical, consistent or comprehensible to others in order to merit First Amendment protection” (Church of Lukumi Babalu Aye v. City of Hialeah, 1993). More recently, Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Debra James decided that it was ok to swing a chicken above a person’s head before having a rabbi slit the chicken’s throat. Many of those chickens die in huge piles of feather and blood.
We don’t think of chickens as individual entities; they are measured in flocks. According to the manuals, a veterinarian should diagnose illness by dissecting one chicken and then treating the flock. In the event of disease outbreak, hundreds of chickens are drowned in foam, a process called “mass depopulation.” It can take up to an hour to immerse the flock in enough foam to kill all the birds; once exposed, a chicken will die in a span of one to seven terrible minutes. Is it no surprise that Heinrich Himmler, architect of Nazi death camps, had been a chicken farmer who was inspired by methods of mechanized slaughter?
About a week after my unsuccessful attempt on Alfred’s life, I heard about the new Deslorelin implant, which would reduce the testosterone coursing through Alfred’s body. Less testosterone meant less aggression and, maybe, a rooster who could live out his days ranging freely with his flock. It was this news that led me to the University of Pennsylvania veterinary hospital, where I eagerly made an appointment with Dr. La’Toya Latney, credit card in tow.
According to policy, Alfred had to have a $75 “wellness exam” before the surgery. I confessed to my attempt on his life the week before, but we weren’t on the farm anymore. We were in a premiere veterinary hospital and they needed to do a wellness exam. Fine. A pair of vet students counted Alfred’s breaths, examined him for injury (scrapes on his legs; dried blood on his comb; head still attached), checked his eyes and beak, and declared him healthy. Alfred was strangely quiet during the exam, humbled even.
Dr. Latney made a small incision and inserted the device; then, she carefully stitched his skin back into place. A chicken’s skin has the consistency of wet toilet paper, so stitches easily pull through, but Dr. Latney could have sewn together cobwebs. As she attached the bandage over his incision, she said, “Now Mom, Alfred is going to need a few days to recover and then about two weeks for the implant to work.” I agreed to let Alfred convalesce at my house.
Perhaps Dr. Latney, who is the closest thing I’ve seen to a rooster whisperer, wanted to boost Alfred’s ego when she invited him to crow for her. On cue, he belted out his mighty song and the bunny in a cage nearby ran and hid behind her giant stuffed bunny doll.
Alfred returned to the home of his chickhood. He spent the day loudly lording it around my deck until I got a stern warning from Animal Control. Roosters are illegal in Philadelphia. Facing a possible fine, I brought Alfred back to the farm earlier than the rooster whisperer had advised.
One evening when I was the only one there, I let Alfred out for a little time with the ladies while I went on a quick trail ride on my horse. When I got back, I discovered that Alfred had attacked another horse owner who had come by unexpectedly, and this person kicked him in self defense. I found Alfred on his favorite dirt pile by the coop, his wing dangling helplessly by his side, but still trying to mount the hens.
I sent a desperate email to Dr. Latney, who called me right back despite the late hour. She called in a prescription for painkillers to keep him comfortable until the next day, when we would decide what to do. I drove Alfred back to the vet hospital to pick up his Tramadol. I could feel my heart fumble clumsily in my chest. Despite my best efforts, we had suddenly found ourselves at the real end of our rope – there is not much anyone can do for an asshole rooster with a broken wing and internal injuries.
I crawled into bed and tried not to think about what was almost certainly going to happen when the sun came up. The next morning, Alfred barely objected when I gave him his dose of pain medicine. I packed him into my car for what I feared was our final trip.
At Dr. Latney’s suggestion, I brought Alfred to the Wildlife Clinic at the Schuylkill Center. The manager, Rick Schubert, would be able to assess Alfred’s injuries and, if necessary, euthanize him for me. Rick examined Alfred and declared his injuries not life threatening. My rooster had miraculously escaped with just a sprained wing.
“Might you have a spot for a mean rooster with an expensive implant?” I asked.
“I was just thinking I needed a rooster,” Rick said.
And that is how my asshole rooster found sanctuary.
Rick bandaged Alfred’s wing and we brought him out to the henhouse. Alfred seemed as stunned as I was and, when he met his new flock of hens, he became suddenly tentative and shy. It was a pathetic sight, but also a small miracle.
Soon after Alfred’s departure, a pair of foxes killed my sweet Matilda, but not before she hatched out another accidental rooster, Edward. Oops. Happily, Edward is a good rooster who knows better than to turn on the hands that feed him. Good thing, too. Should Edward turn on the humans, he won’t be as lucky as his jerk father was.
The next time I bought chicks to add to the flock, I paid the seventy-five cent mark-up for guaranteed females. Their brothers count among the many millions of male chicks ground up alive because no one wants a rooster.
The world has no real sanctuary for the rooster, so in the event that I am reincarnated as a male chick, may someone crush me inside my shell. May I never scratch in green grass to hunt for bugs. May I never shiver dirt between my feathers on a sunny day. May I never know the joys of rooster sex. Better never to be born than to be shredded no sooner than my chick fluff dries.
By the year 2020, I might get my wish. Unilever has developed technology that can determine a chick’s sex in the first few days of gestation. Thus, male eggs can be destroyed or used for research rather than hatching only to be ground up for byproduct. If we hope to live in a world where by-product isn’t the fate of half the chicks that hatch, we should hope to live in a world almost free of unplanned roosters, one where only female chicks emerge from their shells into an uncertain world.
Alexine Fleck usually writes about drugs and addiction. This is her first foray into poultural studies.