Exploiting Animals?

This is in response to the conversation between Deerjon and me in the comments to “Curbing Our Appetites” (which see), about whether it’s appropriate at all for humans to “keep” animals and benefit from them.  It just came to me this morning, looking out the window and delighting in the chickens scattering across the grass and mud.  It wasn’t so obvious to me in the winter, when the chickens huddle in their coop and dislike stepping onto the snow, but now that it’s muddy and warm they’re all over the yard:

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My chickens are free to leave. They are truly free-range; in the daytime the door is open, the gate is open, and the chickens go wherever they want.


When we moved hay in the green barn on Monday, we found these eggs left behind

Which is quite annoying when they lay their eggs in random places and walk away, leaving them to rot. (This is one of the reasons it doesn’t trouble me to collect their eggs; most aren’t being brooded anyway. Granted that some breeds of hens have been bred, over time, to have less of a “broody” instinct — that means, “sitting-on-eggs,” for all of you non-farm people; nevertheless, what we have today are many hens who lay eggs and walk away. I don’t make them do that!  Is it a sin for me to collect their excess, ignored eggs and eat them?!)

If my chickens want a different life, all they have to do is not come back to the coop in the evening. As some have chosen! We have chickens roosting in the barn above the goats, and a couple summers ago one brooded and hatched 3 chicks in a spot she chose near the road; and when friends of ours asked us to do foster care for their young hens last summer, I spent the first week walking around and lifting them out of trees after dark.

Why? And why do we close the door and the gate after dark? And why are there fences around the goats? Because they are extremely vulnerable to predators. With the chickens, it’s really clear: They can run away any time they like. Those barriers are for their protection.

With the goats it’s a little more ambiguous, but I can tell you, the few times they have gotten out, they don’t run away. They hang around looking for all the world like, “What now?”

The fences are certainly there so that it’s easier for us to manage them –we don’t have a full-time goatherd.  (Alas, child-labor laws and truant officers prevent it…)  But they are equally for their protection.  Our friend Dottie Cross, who’s been raising purebred Nubian goats for over 30 years, has a sad story about her very first goats, who were slaughtered by neighbors’ dogs.   I’ve kept that in mind.  And “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” is all about the threats to livestock.  Yes, protecting them is in our interests — but it’s obviously in the interests of the goats themselves, too.

There’s a reason that the animals we have domesticated over the millenia — and who have certainly shaped our domestic life as well — are low down on the food chain.  Predators don’t need us.  OK, predators are dangerous to us, too; think of the occasional stories of zookeepers or circus professionals who are mauled by animals they have been working with for years.  So we’re not going to domesticate lions and tigers and bears.  Goats and sheep and chickens are much safer for us to be around (though let me tell you, one of the reasons we don’t have cows is because they outweigh us by way too much!), but they also benefit from the protection we offer.

If, as a species, they have consented to share their milk, eggs, and fiber with us, is that so terrible?  I don’t think so.  Then we return to the issue of killing some animals for meat, and that’s a separate and much more fraught-with-moral-implications step; which is why I choose to approach it through the medium of kashrut, bringing reverence to the process from the beginning.