Thanks for your question. Contemplating the complexities of life is one of religion’s bailiwicks. And yet, despite our sincerity, still there doesn’t seem to be a rule-book for every situation in life. Something we do know is that Buddhism is practiced in numerous countries, by about 500 million people worldwide, which represents 7% of the world’s population. And thanks to world-wide travel, vast communication,
and great access to multi-cultural ideas, we know that Buddhism is practiced differently in different regions. In many of these regions, like Thailand, Sri Lanka, Japan, China, and India, the Buddhists are land-based, farming-based, or fishing-based peoples.
And as farmers we are often dealing with the cycles of life and death—the seasons, different types of growing situations, the vicissitudes of weather, etc. For those of us who are integrating animals into our farming systems, the question becomes: how do we consciously and compassionately deal with the cycle of life and death? One of the joys and challenges of being a farmer is being up close and personal
with those questions on a daily basis.
Here are some suggestions about what to do with chickens that are past laying productivity. Hopefully these answers honor both the lifecycle of farming and the desire for not contributing to suffering of another.
1. Keep the chickens until they die natural deaths. If you only have a few birds, you can let them live out their days scratching around your yard/farm. When they’re not producing eggs, they need minimal food, which for 3 seasons of the year they can find themselves if left to forage outside. A handful of grain now and again will supplement their diets and keep them on the tame side. In the winter, especially in snow and ice cover, there will need to be food provided. If you have a much larger flock, this solution is likely untenable unless there is a large area for them to roam and you don’t mind them scratching up your land, as chickens can be hard on pasture cover.
2. Offer them to a farm sanctuary. There are such things as farm sanctuaries, where compassion-minded folks take in animals that otherwise would be sent to slaughter. These farms however incur significant expenses, as one can imagine, having to procure feed, provide shelter, and incur labor expenses. If you plan to bring your farm animals to a shelter, please support the shelter financially so they are able to keep doing what they’re doing.
3. Give away your chickens to people in need. There are, for sure, families and even communities struggling to feed themselves. In some cases members of these communities may have the skill and interest to receive the birds and process them. Laying hens make excellent soup and bone broth is one of the most nourishing foods known to humans, benefiting the sick, the young, and the elderly. Ask around at Manna Foodbank, Lord’s Acre, or other food pantries about folks in need who might have the wherewithal to receive your birds.
4. Sell your chickens when they’re spent. If you sell them, it’s likely that the buyer will kill the birds for food, which may be directly in alignment with their belief systems and/or their economic or nutritional needs. If that can makes sense in your worldview, this is a great way to go.
5. Sell the chickens before they are done laying. In this case, another farmer will get some productive time out of the birds before having to contemplate the question of what to do at the end of their egg-laying lives.
6. Let the chickens into the wild. My neighbors are farmers and Buddhists. They are vegetarians and yet keep chickens for eggs and goats for milk. Their approach is to let the birds out into the wild when they have completed their service on the farm. The chickens can live a life of free-choice and the wild animals that will no-doubt eat them will live another day. This method works for their hearts and their spirituality. This is a viable option in rural areas but probably not in urban areas.
7. Partner with compassionate meat-eaters. If you’re raising chickens on a regular basis or in large quantity and the above methods seem too laborious or unworkable, try partnering with farmer folk who you know are compassionate meat eaters. Those that see death as sacred and “give death” in a sacred way, with gratitude. You know the birds will be honored by feeding others and thus feeding the cycle of life.
Buddhism and animal farming can coexist with a little creativity. Our goal, at OGS, is to support the average person in sustainable food production, including backyard chickens, which is a joyful, educational, and nutritious part of that process. Buddhist, you are not alone in the trepidation about killing the animals you’ve loved and cared for. Your question can help us all look for opportunities to partner and support each other.
Lee Warren has been homesteading and farming in cooperative community for more than 20 years. She is the Executive Director of Organic Growers School, which has been offering organic education to Southern Appalachia since 1993. She is the co-founder of Village Terraces CoHousing Community, a collaborative, off-grid neighborhood at Earthaven Ecovillage, and the manager of Imani Farm, a pasture-based cooperative farm. Lee is also an herbalist, writer, teacher, and food activist, with an avid interest in rural wisdom, sustainable economics, and social justice issues.