ETHNIC CLEANSING IN THE CHICKEN COOP
I didn't plan it this way, but I have birds of three different sizes
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
All is peaceful there, except for a constant low level of sexual
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
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
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
chicks were from them. But they worked out a pattern of mutual
and all was well, until Mother Hen got bored with her duties and returned
the laying flock.
That left me, the Coop's Only Remaining Superpower, to defend the
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,
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
them. I only order pullets, baby hens. But the hatchery often throws in
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
them in when they're babies, so I raise them up till they begin to fight,
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
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
inherently brutal, only their current benighted leader and his henchmen
Every nation, including my own, has gangs of cowardly ruffians who get
kicks from using deadly weapons on defenseless victims. The Serbs have
suffered under Slobodan Milosevic almost as much as the other peoples he
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
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
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
littered with mines and cluster bombs that will go on maiming for years
"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
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,
paraphrase Abraham Maslow, if your only tool is a cruise missile,
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
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
bear real risk behind weapons inappropriate for the task, though we waited
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
(Donella H. Meadows is director of the Sustainability Institute and an
adjunct professor of Environmental Studies at Dartmouth College.)