by Donella Meadows
— June 23, 1999 —
I didn’t plan it this way, but I have birds of three different sizes in my chicken coop, which is a bad idea.
The coop has a floor-to-ceiling chicken-wire divider down the middle. One on side are 40 full-grown layers plus a handsome Buff Orpington rooster. All is peaceful there, except for a constant low level of sexual harassment.
The other side is for growing chicks. You can’t put chicks in with adult chickens. The big ones peck at the little ones. If they draw blood, they go into a shark-like frenzy and keep pecking until they kill. Once they’ve killed, they eat, even their own direct descendants. In evolutionary terms chickens are not so far from dinosaurs.
So every year when the day-old chicks arrive by airmail, I put them on the other side of the divider until they’re big enough to defend themselves.
The hitch came when one of my Black Australorpe hens went off in a corner and hatched out nine chicks. They emerged three weeks after the mail-order chicks arrived. Their mother protected them ferociously for a month, during which time the older chicks were more in danger from her than her chicks were from them. But they worked out a pattern of mutual coexistence, and all was well, until Mother Hen got bored with her duties and returned to the laying flock.
That left me, the Coop’s Only Remaining Superpower, to defend the underchicks.
They hide behind the feed cans and come out only when they see me. They cluster around my feet as I put down grain for them. While they eat, I fend off the larger chicks, who have plenty of their own food but enjoy swooping in and raiding the little guys.
The meanest raiders are the Rhode Island Red cockerels. I didn’t order them. I only order pullets, baby hens. But the hatchery often throws in extra chicks for warmth during the air shipment. They are always male. Useless. Once they’re grown they’ll kill each other off. I don’t have the heart to do them in when they’re babies, so I raise them up till they begin to fight, then put them in the freezer.
One day last week I was carrying out my peacekeeping mission, hovering over the small chicks as they ate contentedly and peeped sweetly. Suddenly they were jumped by three red cockerels. Before I could think better of it, I yelled at the raiders: “Cut that out, you Serbs!”
I immediately chastised myself, horrified at how quickly the media infest our minds with the idea of a whole people as aggressor. Serbs are not inherently brutal, only their current benighted leader and his henchmen are. Every nation, including my own, has gangs of cowardly ruffians who get their kicks from using deadly weapons on defenseless victims. The Serbs have suffered under Slobodan Milosevic almost as much as the other peoples he has savaged.
If I’m going to yell at my roosters, I should say, “Cut it out, you Slobodans, you Saddam Husseins, you Suhartos.”
Or “you Bill Clintons, you Madeleine Albrights, you NATO chiefs of staff?”
My Slavic friends would say so. They are burning up my email with their anger over the lawlessness of NATO. I try to point out that I see a moral difference between armed thugs who displace whole populations and distant armies who drop bombs to stop them..
They don’t see that. They see civilian bridges and power systems destroyed and innocent people killed by blundering bombs. They see a landscape littered with mines and cluster bombs that will go on maiming for years after “peace” is enforced. They see an international force invading a sovereign nation. They believe all this power is being exerted for selfish purposes.
After all, I stand there in the coop nobly defending the underchicks partly because I can’t stand to see them picked on, but mainly because I intend to eat the males and steal the unborn children of the females.
What is the moral here, the lesson, if any, of Kosovo? Is it that wielders of power are all too likely to see only their benevolent motives, while the subjects of that power see something else entirely? Is it that, to paraphrase Abraham Maslow, if your only tool is a cruise missile, everything looks like a target? Is it that eons of evolution from chicken to human haven’t produced much progress?
I guess it’s clear that there’s still some raider rooster in us, some instinct to take advantage of the weak, considerable pleasure in power. On the other hand, I’ve never seen one strong chicken try to stop another from violence, or one group of chickens organize shelter and food for another. Though we have been ham-handed and self-serving, hiding our unwillingness to bear real risk behind weapons inappropriate for the task, though we waited far too long before trying to rein in the Balkan bullies, at least we used our strength at last to stop the abuse of strength.
However imperfectly, evolution has produced a moral sense in us and an ability to learn. I see no evidence of either of those qualities in the chicken coop.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1999