Grit Blogs > Oregon Trails

How Not to Kill Chickens

Sarah S HeadshotI hate chickens. I love to eat them, and I love their eggs, but that’s as far as the love reaches.  

As a junior in college I was required to do an internship for class credit. My job was working at an interpretive center near Mount Saint Helens in Washington. The center was privately owned and I was provided company housing not far from a little wide spot in the road called Toutle. One of my co-workers was also my housemate.  

The house we lived in was old state highway department house. It had that 1930s look. It was located about two hundred feet upslope from the highway. Below the house was the shop that had been used for the highway equipment. There was a group of  bear grass pickers that I’m pretty sure lived in the shop and there was an additional home next to the shop. 

The house was a two story affair. You walked into the back door where you went downstairs to the unfinished, daylight basement or turned left and up two steps into the kitchen. The upstairs, where we lived was a decent sized two-bedroom house. There were about five hundred windows in the house only two of which opened and there were no curtains. So we lived in a fish bowl with no air flow. 

For some reason unknown to me the director of the visitor center where we worked had baby chicks in a fish tank in the “hands on” portion of the center. To be clear the center was all about forestry and the effect that the 1980 blast had on the surrounding private forest – not chickens. 

My roommate was a student at Berkley and like me was working at the center for the summer. She took to the baby chicks and when one became sick she tried to nurse it back to health. When it died she was nearly inconsolable. I was raised on a farm but had absolutely zero experience with chicks. Everything I “knew” about chickens came as hearsay and second hand information. What I did know was that I wanted nothing to do with them.  

But as chicks do, they grew bigger and not as cute. The director of the center decided that they would have to go. My roommate was in love with them by this time and she decided that they were coming home with us. I tried to convince her otherwise but she would not be swayed. So it was with much dismay that I came home one evening to find my roommate building a chicken coop in the basement.  

When I use the word “chicken coop” it’s a loose translation of the word. What she had built was a corral out of chairs, cardboard and an old screen door. Then she put newspaper on the floor and called it good. She then proceeded to lay the fifty pound bag of food inside the corral and slit open the bag for the chicks to free feed. There was no heat lamp. As the days went on the dust and smell was something awful. Everyday when I came home the smell assaulted me at the door. They got bigger and started jumping out of their pen and wandering all over the basement making a mess. I told my roommate that they needed to go outside. 

On her next day off she built a new “coop” for them outside. Again the term “coop” is generous. Because the house was built on a slope, the front porch was a full story off the ground. The front stairs made one wall of the coop. The old screen door made another and she found some old rotten boards and debris to make up the other two walls. It had no top, so of course the birds got out.  

The house was surrounded by woods and blackberries. My inclination would have been to let them run free, fend for themselves and either they’d get smart about where they roosted or they would die. My roommate did not share my sentiments. 

One day I came home from work to find my roommate running down the driveway at me chasing a fluffy little lap dog screaming obscenities and bawling. Quite a welcome home, I’ll tell you what. In the middle of the driveway was one dead chicken and two others that were badly mangled but still alive. It was apparent to me what needed to be done with the poor chickens. My roommate was convinced that they could be saved. 

It took me awhile to talk her into the fact that they should just be put out of their misery. She finally agreed and went in the house. That left me with two chickens to kill. I had no experience killing chickens, I’d read about chopping their heads off, but we didn’t have an ax. I remembered Dad taking a shovel to an opossum once, but we didn’t have a shovel either. We had absolutely no heavy tools or even light ones for that matter. 

I stood in the driveway contemplating how to kill those chickens for a half hour. Then somewhere in the recesses of my brain I remembered a story from high school. One of my friends and his brother used to make a game out of killing pigeons in the barn. They’d take tennis rackets and knock them out of the air. Then they’d take them by the head and swing them and snap their necks. It seemed rather too hands-on for me. But that was the only tool I had. I remembered my friend saying there was a technique to snapping the wrist just right. 

It took me another half hour to work up my nerve to attempt to kill the chickens with my bare hands. I picked up the first one by its head and swung it around. Its feet kicked and its wings flapped and it squawked something fierce. I could feel its vertebrae going around and around, just as if they were meant to do that very thing. It wasn’t working. I tried flicking my wrist and the chicken grabbed on to my shirt with its feet. I was sure that I was traumatizing the chicken more than the dog attack had. I finally gave up, let it go and worked up my nerve to try the other chicken. 

I decided I needed to be more forceful, that in trying to be gentle I was causing more harm. I picked up the chicken with conviction, swung it around three times, snapped my wrist and I felt its head detach from the backbone. That is the grossest, most disturbing feeling I’ve ever had. But at least the chicken was dead, and now I knew how to do it. I swiftly dispatched the other chicken, threw them both in the blackberries for the wild critters to eat and I went in the house.  

My roommate was still bawling. I couldn’t help her. I was so mad that she had kept the stupid chickens against my advice and then made me deal with them because she didn’t have the slightest idea of how to take care of them. 

I really hate chickens. Never mind the fact that we raised fifty of them this spring to butcher for the freezer. My father-in-law cut their heads off for me. After that was done I could deal with them. They’re quite tasty in fact. But my new dilemma is that three of my five layers have quit laying. I am a practical woman. If you can’t do your job, I’m not going to feed you. But that doesn’t mean I’ve got the guts to kill you either. So what I’m wondering is if there’s anyone out there who’s looking for three non-laying layers. I’ll give them to you, because I hate chickens!