Doris: How Does it End for a Backyard Hen?

It was the summer solstice and the beginning of a supermoon weekend. On the way to the top of the ridge we heard a clap of thunder, but there was no storm. From the top we could see a rainbow to the east, a double rainbow actually, but there was no rain. My friend and neighbor Ashley Sprinkle-Tappan drove the van. In my lap I held Doris, a black and white speckled chicken in a laundry basket. We were taking her to the ridge to kill her.

We didn't have much time. In an hour, the family we were going to visit would be lighting the Shabbat candles and all work had to be finished.

Antoinette Juhl, who calls her property on the ridge "Little Farm in the Ghetto," has killed lots of chickens for meat.

Juhl's husband made her a restraining devise called a "killing cone." In the killing cone, the chicken is held upside down, a calming position, with the wings held against the body, and its head sticking out the bottom. Juhl slits its throat with a sharp knife. After the blood drains out, the chicken is quickly skinned and soon ready for the freezer. Juhl said it wouldn't take long.

Doris belongs to Sprinkle-Tappan, one of the first people in Knoxville to jump through all the hoops for legal chickens after City Council approved the backyard hen ordinance in 2010.

Sprinkle-Tappan keeps her hens for their eggs. Like all farm animals, they work for their living. But since she was allowed so few (no more than six, according to city law) and they lived in her yard, her family named them, and learned their different personalities.

When Doris, the liveliest of their hens, developed an infected prolapsed vent, Sprinkle-Tappan was thrown into a quandary. Her hen was suffering. Euthanasia was too expensive, something she might consider for a companion animal like her dog, but not for a chicken.

Sprinkle-Tappan wanted to learn to humanely dispatch her chickens and process their bodies for meat, and Juhl was excited to teach what she believes to be an "important skill."

In the end, things happened differently. By the time we reached Juhl's, Doris seemed to recover somewhat. Her "inside-out butthole" as some local children unscientifically call her condition, had righted itself.

I think we were all in the mood for a miracle.

Juhl gave Sprinkle-Tappan a special cage for Doris. She said she had seen hens undergo remarkable recoveries. They decided to wait and see.

"Let us know next time you kill something," we said, before driving back down the ridge with the chicken, bedraggled but still alive.

By Sunday Doris was clearly dying. Sprinkle-Tappan handed Doris over to a farmer she knew from church to put the hen out of her misery. She had lost her desire for a chicken slaughtering demonstration or meat processing workshop.

"There is a strange guilt in ‘culling' an animal that provides food for my family with eggs. I know people eat chicken all the time, but she worked for us in some ways," Sprinkle-Tappan says.

Even practical farmer Juhl says she has never raised "dual-purpose" chickens—hens that are slaughtered for meat when their egg-laying days are over. She buys her (mostly male) meat chickens and raises them intending to kill them from the beginning. Juhl said it would be emotionally hard to slaughter one of her "girls," a layer she had watched over and protected for years.

The only Dominecker in a flock of Rhode Island Reds, Doris was a loner and a wanderer. While the other three took dust-baths in the shade, Doris regularly broke out of the coop and explored the neighborhood on her own. She was a notorious escape artist, a "Houdini chicken."

Sprinkle-Tappan writes in an e-mail:

"It just seemed right that in Parkridge, in the middle of the urban part of Knoxville, with people all around and kids on bikes and noisy dogs, there was a fat, black and white chicken waddling down the alley. When I went to retrieve her she'd sit still so I could pick her up, and tuck her head under my arm. I'll miss her."