How a Rooster Lost His Swagger: A Farmer's Regret

Though many of us share the dream of starting a little farm of our own, the few who actually follow through with it often find themselves a little overwhelmed by jobs that our great-grandparents took for granted. Hobby farmer and Allegheny Front commentator Ken Chiacchia explains how something as trivial as learning to live with a "spirited" rooster can get -- well, complicated.

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This is a difficult story for me to tell, because animals were harmed in its making -- and I've nobody to blame but myself.

Henery was our first rooster, a "mystery bonus bird" the supplier included with our first order. Henery turned out to be a Hamburg. They're a small breed, known for "spiritedness" -- meaning they can be nasty. My wife, Heather, named him after Henery Hawk, the bird who used to try to drag off the much larger Foghorn Leghorn.

At first, I found Henery charming. He strutted around the barnyard like a little pimp among a harem of much-larger females. Despite his bantam size, he showed every sign of being a good protector. Unfortunately, his pugilistic nature wasn't restricted to weasels, raccoons, and the like; he also loved chasing people.

Our runt of a farm collie, Rosie, proved an excellent bodyguard. When Henery so much as looked sideways at Heather, she'd call Rosie, and the dog would chase him around the farm, rough him up a bit, and thoroughly humiliate him in front of the hens, which apparently is a rooster's worst nightmare. Being the consummate professional that she was, Rosie never really hurt him.

I suppose I should have just followed suit. But I'd learned to be a leader working with dogs -- hard dogs, sharp-edged herding breeds. It didn't sit well with me to call for help when menaced by someone too puny for Colonel Sanders.

Henery was like the worst ninja in the world. I'd walk by him, see the look in his eye. As soon as my back was turned, I'd hear the little thump-thump-thump as he rushed me. I'd turn and come back at him, which he didn't like so much. I'd chase him around and scoop him up, petting him in front of his girls. Though he obviously hated it, it wasn't preventing those initial attacks.

Then I started throwing sticks at him. Which looked like it was beginning to work, until the day I was concentrating on half a dozen other things, in no mood for Henery's nonsense, and heard him coming at me. I leaned down, picked up a dowel from the ground, turned, and let loose.

Too late, my brain registered the heft of the missile; when it hit him he darted away, flapping his wings to keep himself erect despite the no-longer functional right leg.

I called out, "Heather -- I think I've hurt Henery" She helped me catch him, and I held him as she examined and splinted his broken leg.

Your relationship with your livestock is fundamentally exploitative -- any time someone may wind up eating someone else it could hardly be otherwise. You'll do more harm than good forgetting that. Despite that, or maybe because of it, you develop a certain protectiveness.

Right now, encouraged by the current political climate, western senators are pushing several new bills to exempt gray wolves from the Endangered Species Act, so that the states can legalize hunting them. I don't approve, don't support; I'm against hunting predators. But I do think I get it. When something hurts your livestock, your hand instinctively reaches for your rifle. It works that way.

When the thing that hurt your animal stares back at you every morning, it's not as easy to resolve your anger and frustration. But Henery let me off the hook; he recovered. He never quite got full function of that leg back; at a certain point we had to adopt him to a pet home, because the younger roosters were starting to pick on him. Apparently he has a pretty good life, with a couple of hens to call his own.

Me, I'm beginning to forgive myself. Our two roosters, later acquisitions from the supplier, are much gentler with people -- only lately have I begun to remember Henery's passion for terrorizing children and other visitors. He really was a mean little SOB. As a bonus, the new boys also are more gentlemanly with the hens. One way or another, the "spiritedness" of many of his progeny has earned them a trip to what Heather calls "freezer camp."

Like I said, when one has the option of eating the other, it can hardly be an equitable relationship.