Fowl Play at Reed College

January 29, 2010

Every January, just prior to the start of spring semester, Reed College students and alumni enjoy the tradition of Paideia, a week of alternative education during which they can use institutional funds to teach short, non-credit courses on any topic. This year’s schedule of events included courses ranging from the practical (how to brew beer and how to pick locks) to the salacious (a public demonstration for would-be sadomasochists and a lecture entitled “The Economics of Stripping”).

But of all the colorful courses taught by students or alumni this year, some Reedies were particularly offended by one taught by Gabriel Holt, a senior biology major, entitled “Chokin’ the Chicken.” And the concern was not over the innuendo.

Last Sunday, Holt was supposed to lead a demonstration on “how to properly slaughter, clean and dress a chicken.” In his mind, the course was supposed to help students build a closer connection to their food and understand how to eat poultry in a more responsible fashion, with an eye toward sustainability.

“In Portland, there’s a great movement toward urban agriculture and urban homesteading,” Holt said. “Freshman year, I lived in a co-op on campus and got into gardening. When I moved off campus, I had my own garden at the house. Then, the summer after my sophomore year, I got chickens and started taking care of them to get fresh eggs. There’s a point where chickens stop laying eggs, though. … Between my housemates and me, we’ve collectively killed five to eight chickens.”

According to Portland municipal code, residents do not need a special permit if they have three or fewer "ducks, chickens, rabbits or pygmy goats.” Those with more than three of these animals – or one of any other city specified animal, including pigs and cows – must get a permit and register them with the city.

Nevertheless, some students expressed concern about the chicken slaughter course to Holt as well as to the college’s office of student affairs. Leslie Zukor, a Reed senior, even sent an e-mail tip to the Portland Animal Defense League informing them of the event, as well as who was planning it and where it would take place – at Holt’s private residence off campus. The note was forwarded to the entire membership of the local organization and included the condemnation, “I feel that it is sickening that Reed students are taking part in the killing of live animals.”

In the days and weeks leading up to his course, Holt said, he received a number of threatening e-mails and Facebook messages from people who had heard about it from the local organization. Eventually, deciding that his demonstration wasn't worth the controversy it was drawing from local animal-rights activists and fellow students, Holt canceled the slaughter but got permission from the student group that funds the courses to spend his $80 budget on whole (dead) chickens, beer and other food from the grocery store for the event instead.

With his event scheduled to go ahead, minus the controversial slaughtering, Holt awoke last Sunday to a surprise. The four hens he and his housemates kept in a chicken coop in their backyard – for strictly egg-laying purposes – were gone. He suspects that someone raided the coop in the middle of the night, thinking that these were the chickens to be slaughtered.

“I’ve never raised chickens for meat purposes,” Holt said. “The farm that I had originally planned to get old hens for slaughtering at – before I canceled the event – is actually planning slaughtering classes this spring, so the hens I was going to buy will probably be killed anyway.”

Though Holt is upset about the missing chickens, he still finds humor in the incident.

“I understand that these animal rights activists are against animal cruelty,” Holt said. “I don’t approve of animal cruelty either. But they missed the point I was trying to convey. … I find humor in the fact that these people really think they’re doing something good, but they’re so focused on this individual topic that they can’t contextualize it.”

Angeline Wolski, one of Holt’s housemates and a 2009 Reed graduate, is able to laugh about the episode as well. Now, days after a fiery plea on Craigslist for her chicken to be returned, she does not think a reunion is likely.

“It’s funny,” Wolski said. “They didn’t have enough information and stole the wrong chickens. But I’m pretty bummed about my chicken. I raised her since she was a baby, and I’m very attached to her.”

Kevin Myers, a spokesman for Reed, explained that the episode "speaks to the nature of Reed."

“It’s really a student-driven exercise where they’re able to share their knowledge with one another," Myers said of Paideia. "Sometimes that knowledge is very goofy and bizarre, but they’re young students and they’re trying to push the content. … Ultimately, the administration is not going to condone something that’s illegal. The students are in charge of this, though. It’s sort of left up to their judgment, but if something arises that’s in poor judgment the administration would step in.”

Still, Myers did express some frustration with the controversy created by just a few Paideia courses. Some of the more academically stimulating courses this year included one on how to read more efficiently; another on journalism, with the college’s magazine editor; and an introduction to personal investing.

“I think what makes the administration gnash its teeth and wring its hands is that 90 percent of the classes in Paideia have serious content,” Myer said. “It’s always the outliers that get the attention.”

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