My Chicken Story: A Different Kind of Dispatching
I grew up a California city girl, just like my mother. My dad was a Northern California country boy and exposed us somewhat to the ways of the poor rural life he had known growing up: cast iron skillets, killing your own dinner, reusing old cast-off items that people threw out, and trying to be self sufficient. He tried to teach us the value of money and that eggs at the store didn’t come from a clean little egg factory and that some people ate all the parts of a cow, including the tongue.
We had some chickens growing up, and even a goat once. The chickens were a source of fresh eggs, and pecked little children’s legs. Dad once even trimmed the beaks of the entire flock so they couldn’t peck us while we played in the backyard. I remember him holding the hens under his arm, squeezing them tight, and as I recall, using tree pruners to cut the fingernail like tip off the beak. Those chickens were scared of us after that. And honestly, I was still scared of them. Even with a blunted face, they would still try to tag us on the hands or legs when we gathered poopy, feathery eggs from the coop.
Once a hen gets too old to lay, there’s no sense in paying for feed to keep it alive just to have a pet around - no sense in Dad’s view anyway. Dad would be so proud of me (he died in 2009), except for the actual dispatching part. You’d think that as a professional police dispatcher for over 10 years, I’d be more adept at this. But it’s a different kind of dispatching...
The extra rooster was doomed from the start. We got four little chicks for our newly built chicken coop and crossed our fingers that we got 4 hens. With my internet research, I guessed we picked out 2 hens and 2 roosters, not bad for first timers. After several weeks, my suspicion was confirmed: we indeed had 2 roosters. What to do? Kill them? Keep one and raise baby chicks? That could work. But there was another rooster to deal with. Should I put an ad in the paper for a free rooster? There were several already. Oh well, we’ll just keep them both and see what happens.
Well, chicken feed isn’t free. Bugs and leaves in the yard only go so far and don’t feed a flock of four growing fowl. I decided to try my hand at butchering the extra roo, once they were grown and meaty enough to make it worth the trouble. At about six months old, they all seemed full grown, so I decided it was time to do away with one rooster.
The internet was a good source of information, as usual, for the how to instructions. City girls can watch a few YouTube videos, and read a few BackyardChickens.com articles to feel empowered enough to do the deed.
Ryan took the girls to preschool. I had 3 hours for my dastardly project before curious little eyes wanted to see what Mommy was doing in the backyard. I watched my favorite YouTube video one more time for reassurance.
Everyone in the videos was dressed in plastic garb, head to toe with aprons and gloves and plastic coverings. But they were processing dozens of chickens. I was only planning on one today. I didn’t want to get in too deep with two dead roosters and not be able to stomach the act in the first few moments and waste good meat. What would Dad think of that? What would I do with a couple of dead roosters besides eat them? I didn’t want a pet graveyard in the backyard. I decided I need more practice at living off the land before I tried any other new ideas like goats or pigs or say, a second dead rooster.
I got a knife from the kitchen and put on my gym shorts and flip flop shoes. Only one chicken shouldn’t make too much mess. This will be done soon and I’ll have plenty of time to work on my furniture refinishing project before the girls get home from school, I thought. So, I rounded up the first rooster. All the professional villans used a “killing cone” - a device to hold the chicken during the alive to dead part. You put the chicken in upside down in the cone with his head sticking through the hole in the bottom and slice the jugular vein, allowing the chicken to lose blood quickly and relax himself to death. It seems much more humane than, say, beating the chicken with a stick or shovel, or even chopping the head off and watch the running around decapitated as the old saying suggests. Does that actually happen? I wondered, but didn’t want to find out.
I climbed in the chicken coop and picked out my target. Obviously, the flock thought I was there bringing treats or going to let them out to scratch around in the yard. “Squawk, squawk! Why don’t you have any food? Let us out!” They had no idea that just outside the coop, a knife was waiting to meet their friend’s neck. I scooped up the victim and took him to my chosen murder site between the two large peach trees at the edge of the lawn.
He was calm inside the firm grasp of my arm. It would help, I thought to myself, to have a third arm. It would help with taking care of twins, and it would help when killing chickens. I’m sure there are other applications where an extra limb would be useful, but these were all I could think of at that moment.
Without a killing cone, my plan was to lay him on the ground and hover closely over him, slice the neck and back off so the spurting blood wouldn’t get all over me.
Slice! A wound the size of a large papercut appeared on the roosters neck. Obviously, I need a sharper knife for next time but I was in position and had the nerve at that moment. Slice. Slice! SLICE! I got a good cut finally and released my grip on the bird. Blood didn’t gush out like on a horror movie, but this was only a chicken. There was some, uh, oozing? He stayed on the ground. As long as he’s relaxed enough while he bleeds to death, I don’t feel so bad. After a few seconds or so, he still seemed alive so I touched his foot. And up he went! Running for his life at the chicken speed of light. Through the tall weeds, past the chicken coop, under the grapevines, over the garden barrier and hopped up on a dirt mound at the corner of the fenced lot.
Well, that sucks. I was left dumbfounded. The tally was: Chicken 1, City Girl Zilch. Maybe he will just slowly bleed to death over there by the fence while standing up, staring me down, hating me and cursing my name. He’ll surely just fall over from loss of blood. Any second now. Any second. He darted back into the low hanging grapevines with the other chickens, no doubt warning them of his harrowing experience. Will I find a dead chicken near the grapevines? I walked over and all four birds scurried out into the open. I followed their path to the green lawn that needed mowing and they all ran in different directions. The maimed rooster didn’t seem so maimed. If he wasn’t lightheaded by now, my amateur knife wound must surely be clotting over.
How to finish this? Time is ticking away, and this was supposed to be the easy part. The knife just wasn’t working. A shovel could do the trick. But I doubt I’d be a great aim using a shovel javelin and I’m also not as quick as a chicken running for its life. Maybe I could use the shovel as a bat. I’m not a sports kid and have trouble even at batting cages and golf. I don’t think I could really get the business end of the shovel around in time to make contact with the ball, I mean head. I grabbed a piece of lumber. An old 2x2 about 30 inches long. I could probably just whack him in the head with this and that would be the end of it.
I certainly got my exercise chasing that rooster all over the yard. The tally changed over and over, but only in his favor. He ran into the tomato plants and I knew I had him. As soon as he tried to come out of the dense greenery, I’d bop him on the head and that would be the end of this fiasco. I waited patiently, club in hand, and watched for movement. The leaves of the tomato plant shook and I swung my sword. The little bugger got past me and was running back toward the lawn with his friends. If he had been my only rooster, I would surely just let him live after this. He had earned it! But duelling roosters in a hen house was not any drama I want to deal with. Maybe I’d just wait for Ryan to get home. Two city folk could certainly trap and kill a chicken easier than one.
It was a little disheartening to admit to Ryan that I had failed in my multiple attempts at chicken massacre. It was downright embarrassing to ask him for help with the wrangling. He put on his tennis shoes and we went back to the battlefield. We came up with a game plan. We would herd him into the rear part of the yard and get him cornered, then we’d bean him on the noggin. We determined after several plans of attack, that chickens on the defensive are very nimble, and humans on the unsuccessful offensive are thirsty. Maybe we really should just let him live. Nah. He finally ran into the dead end alley between the garage and the fence. The stretch of dirt was 3 feet wide and 20 feet long. Unless he flew over the 6 foot fence into the neighbors yard, he wasn’t getting out. He couldn’t escape us now.
Ryan went down the corridor, wielding the lumber of death. I expected to hear “THUD, THUD, THUD! Okay, come get him!” One minute or more of silence left me to wondering what Ryan was doing. I walked to the very back of the property where the rooster would ultimately lose his life. Had Ryan even attempted to clobber him? One swift whack and he’d be a goner. But indeed, it was a stand off. Is there a barricaded chicken SWAT page I could send out for assistance? Ryan stood there holding the stick and the chicken stared him down, neither one flinching. I told Ryan that I would do it. He gladly passed off the murder weapon and stepped aside. Ryan had been a vegetarian for ten years before we got married. I had turned him to the dark side about 6 months into our marriage. I didn’t want this experience to send him running back to the other team. I knew this was my show.
I took the end of the square post in my right hand and braced myself for the impact. Wham! He was still on his feet. I guess I hit like a girl. Wham! Wham! Wham! He slumped over and then flopped uncontrollably between the fence and the garage wall for 20 seconds as the multiple head wounds finally ended his mortality. Ryan was wide-eyed watching the last seconds of fowl seizure. “Was that supposed to happen?” I thought sarcastically to myself, “No, he was supposed to bleed to death an hour ago.” But I said under my breath, “Yeah.” Ryan solemnly said, “Sorry chicken.” He walked away to start his project of mowing the lawn.
I waited a few minutes until there was no movement. Picking up a twitching chicken would be just plain traumatic, as if the whole experience up to this point was just a run of the mill day at our house. I grasped his feet and made my way out of the alleyway toward the processing area complete with wooden cutting surface and running water.
Well, that took about 59 minutes longer than I thought it would. Now on to the part I was most unsure about: getting our little friend ready for the cookpot.
I walked over to the processing area, aka, the raised garden bed near the hose and spigot. I rested the lifeless lump of feathers on the wood beam and picked up my knife that had failed me an hour earlier.
I hunched over this way and that, eyeballing the neck and the now infamous, yet useless, slice mark. Small garden rocks kept getting in between my toes making me realize that flip flops weren’t the optimal footwear in this treacherous backyard environment. I contemplated my apparatus, my task at hand, and if any nausea would kick in. I wasn’t exactly in my comfort zone. It would have been handy to have a pro there beside me pointing and encouraging. All I had was a squeamish husband mowing back and forth, back and forth. With each lawn mower pass, Ryan got further away from my view, but like a car accident rubbernecker, could hardly take his eyes off what I was doing. Finally, I told him “Don’t look.” He went about his business like normal.
I placed the point of my dull knife just down from the rooster’s head and applied pressure. I had to use a sawing motion to get through the tissue. I remembered Dad’s story of a dull pocket knife and “dispatching” an injured deer on the side of the highway for the upset city woman who creamed the frolicking deer. With the head now disconnected from the body, it was obvious that I needed a place to put the unwanted parts. But the bird also needed to bleed more. Thankfully, there was an apricot tree a few feet away. I positioned the headless bird upside down in the crook of a branch and went after my empty plastic steer manure bag that had been floating around the yard for a few months. If I fall down dead right now, I can’t imagine what they’d say: Why did she have a decapitated chicken in a tree? Was she in a cult? Oh the horror my family would endure if I broke my neck tripping on a twins-produced Barbie swimming hole in the dirt.
The hose was used multiple times during this whole operation. I must have run the hose for an hour. Water equals sanitation? Maybe. With makeshift bodybag in hand, I dropped the head down to the bottom corner and sat back down to work on my dinner. It might not be my dinner tonight, but eventually I was going to eat this troublemaker.
I spun the carcass around and took off the feet at the knee joint. Do chickens have knees? I briefly thought of giving the feet to the dogs to chomp on, but decided I didn’t want to give the dogs any more interest in the flock than they already had. Into the garbage sack they went. I stretched out the right wing and hyper extended it to reveal the first wing joint. I made my cut. Then the left side came off. This was going much easier now. I pulled at the skin at the breast of the bird, poked my knife in and made a slice away from the meat, opening the rooster for skinning. I had decided weeks ago that I didn’t want to take the time to pluck feathers. I read stories and it seemed a lot of work just to have skin. Maybe I’ll try that another time, but for this time, I’m going skinless.
Just as the video showed, I pulled the skin away from the meat on the entire body, the wings, the legs, and back. Feminine as I usually am not, I decided feeling the muscle and bone with bare hands it was kinda yucky and I wanted gloves. Good thing I dye my hair red and have a large box of plastic gloves handy in the bathroom. I’ve always been a redhead, and thanks to Clariol dye, I always will be. I rinsed my hands off and went inside. Hand sanitizer sits on the kitchen counter and I was glad of that. Two pumps for extra insurance and I was off to the bathroom to find some protection.
Ryan was putting the lawn mower away by this time and wondered if I was finished. “No, I just want some gloves.” I got two pair and sat down at the computer. I’m at the most nerve wracking part: the gutting. I don’t want to slice the wrong bulbous protrusion in the rib cage and end up with garden fertilizer dripping everywhere. Time to review the video one last time. It was only about five minutes long and the farmers taping this educational video had quite a southern drawl. I wondered if they knew that dumb city folk watched this before they hacked up their own chickens. Makes you think.
I had a little more knowledge under my belt and I was able to focus on what was coming up. Walked outside and gloved up. I finished pulling the skin away from the body and as expected, had to use a little more force to free the skin from the wings and legs. I don’t know where all the little feathers come from, but there seemed to be thousands sticking to my gloves, sticking to the meat, sticking to the knife. Lots of rinsing ensued. I pushed on the carcass to get a better grip and felt and heard a little accordion noise. OH MY DEAR HEAVENS! That rooster had one more thing to say, I guess. I decided that was probably the strangest part of this whole experience and hoped it wouldn’t happen again. Glad Ryan wasn’t here for that. The animal had been decapitated for at least 45 minutes.
I followed the directions drawled out by the woman who had obviously had her gloved hands in hundreds if not thousands of dead animals. I slowly cut away at the bottom of the rib cage where my southern belle teacher told me to. I made my cuts opening up the abdominal cavity of the bird, although not as precise as she did. The quality of a knife sure can make or break it for this experience. I saw some innards and felt like, as long as this part went well, I could be done and showered by the time the kids got home from their 3 hour preschool session. But I had to hurry. This had already taken almost 2 hours.
If I did everything just right, no poo would touch my meat, and all the guts would be in a nice little, non drippy, non leaky package of skin and feathers. Seemed easy enough if you’re practiced at it. I just had to get the practicing part done. I finished my knifing and then shoved my gloved hand up into the oddly small chest to loosen the lungs and such. I wiggled my fingers around and tried to figure out what lump was what. It was an interesting anatomy lesson, if only I were a high school health teacher I could use this as a lab experiment and the kids could shish kebab their own lunches. I didn’t know how rough I could get with my hand in the roosters unmentionables, so I took my time being gentle. I didn’t want any gooey surprises. I made more cuts down by the vent - that’s chicken talk for special parts - that’s toddler talk for butt hole. It seemed to be going okay. I was just being careful and taking my time. I think I’m almost done!
With the innards loosened to my satisfaction, I carefully slid my knife inside the bird and attempted to sever the windpipe and esophagus. This kung fu move would allow all the guts I had just tickled to fall out and away from the bird. Sever, sever, saw away. Good grief, if I wasn’t almost done, I’d go to the store right now and buy a new knife. Finally the neat little package-o-guts fell out just like BettyJo Sue said it would. It took her all of 2 minutes. It took me all of, much longer.
Last, I cut the neck all the way off and removed the crop - that’s chicken talk for big slimy sack of gross wet sand and rocks and bits of other indigestible items that help the chicken... do who knows what. But you don’t want to cut that open either or you could get crud on you. I rinsed the bird inside and out. Then I decided to do like all the other hunters do when they get a noteworthy kill: get someone to take a picture of the hunter holding a dead animal. Poor Ryan.
I won’t turn this into a weekend ritual, or even a seasonal hobby. I’m glad I have a different kind of dispatching under my belt. If ever the world comes to an end, and we need to turn our hens into supper, it will be easy to guide the husband through the process. I’ll boil the water.