Backyard Chicken Flocks...
Is It Really a Good Idea?

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Backyard Chicken Flocks...
Is It Really a Good Idea?

[Ed. Note: Read Backyard Chickens Require More Care Than Some Realize, The Locavore Movement's Mistake: Deregulating Animal Slaughter and Collective Position Statement on Backyard Poultry.]

From Animal Place Sanctuary
November 2009

And while we do believe having chickens as companions opens up hearts and minds, giving people access to a new world, we want to ensure that the cost is not the lives of more chickens, that the benefits are in the chickens' favor, not humans. They are already exploited by the billions for their flesh and hundreds of millions for their eggs. We do not want to see even more suffer. So again, if you are considering chickens, do your research, make sure you can afford their medical and basic care, ADOPT and ensure it is legal to have chickens.

The chicken calls come in daily. Hens turn out to be roosters. Neighbors find the rats the chickens attract unbearable. Children lose interest in day-old chicks once the birds become adults. Hens are not producing enough eggs to keep people satisfied.

Then there are the abandonment calls. Good Samaritans who find loose chickens, running in traffic, being threatened by neighbor's dogs or cats. Recently, Animal Place took in LooLoo, a beautiful buff Orpington who was abandoned. She ended up in the backyard of a kind couple who fed a small colony of neutered feral cats. There she was attacked by a cat, ending up with bite wounds to her body and face. Although she recovered and is a large, healthy hen at the sanctuary, the fate of other abandoned birds is not so kind.

Chickens are wonderful animals. They're fascinating and engaging. They form bonds and friendships, have preferences and desires of their own. We believe they can become wonderful companions. We do not believe the backyard chicken phenomenon is turning out to be in the best interest of the birds or people. That is not to say we oppose the adoption of chickens, we whole-heartedly support anyone's efforts at providing an appropriate and permanent home to abandoned birds.

But! There are many concerns with backyard flocks. Not just with the flocks themselves but with where birds come from and how they are perceived and treated. This recent New York Times article highlights many of the reasons why.

It's painful, at points, to read.

She has not taken them to the vet because of the high cost, but she goes to workshops and searches out cures on the Internet.

This woman started with eight chickens and is down to three. Even though she is down to three, she refuses to take them to a poultry veterinarian who might identify the cause. She has not taken any of the birds in for a necropsy (for backyard flocks, it is a free service offered by the state's animal health and food safety lab) to see if there is a discernible reason for the high mortality.

Instead, she goes to workshops (which arguably cost money) and searches the internet.

If these eight animals were dogs who kept dropping dead and whose guardian never took them to the vet - that would constitute animal neglect or cruelty. The disconnect hurts.

Don't misunderstand. At Animal Place, we have nearly 100 chickens and turkeys. Almost all of the medical treatment is performed by staff. Our knowledge is based on years of experience and, most importantly, on the lessons provided to us by veterinarians and poultry experts. When a bird's symptoms are such that a vet visit is required, we bring a vet out to examine the bird or take the bird to a vet. This is being responsible.

Chickens, it turns out, are not the hardy animals many people confuse them for. They get lice. They get mites. They get impacted with eggs they are trying to lay or their diet is inappropriate and their eggs become soft, sometimes breaking in the abdomen. Respiratory disease is common. Neurological diseases, like Marek's, can wipe out entire flocks and vaccination can only occur when the bird is less than 10 days old (preferably within the first 1-2 days of hatching). Coccidia and giardia are common in chicken poop. Salmonella is absolutely normal on eggs and in bird excrement. In larger breeds, foot infections are difficult to cure. Chickens require more care than throwing them out in the back 40 and throwing them some scratch. The margin for error may be greater with hardy breeds of birds, but purchasers appear to believe chickens will take care of themselves, they don't have health problems and, even more tragic, if they do die a new one can just be bought as a replacement.

Some chicken owners buy from large hatcheries, which determine the sex of the birds and kill large numbers of baby roosters

Hatcheries are sad, sad places. Adult birds are viewed as breeding and egg producing machines, not sentient, thinking, feeling beings. There are no laws dictating how breeding hens and roosters at large hatcheries are to be housed or treated. Large hatcheries find it profitable to cage the birds, maximizing use of space and exhausting the reproductive abilities of the birds.

When chicks hatch, it is not in a nest but an incubator. They are sexed the day they are hatched. Now, in large hatcheries that sell chicks to egg farms, the accuracy rate may be high (90-95%). That is patently untrue in hatcheries that sell to feed stores or individuals - accuracy can be as low as 50%. Compounding the issue is that hatcheries will use rooster chicks as packing material when shipped, even if purchasers did not order them. The majority of calls we receive are from people who purchased hens but ended up with roosters - for our sanctuary alone, in the past month, we've received calls to place 40 roosters who were supposed to be hens. This is a major issue.

Then there is the transportation of birds. These are day-old chicks. Babies. Sensitive, young animals who should be nestled under wings, not confined in a box for shipment. Day-old chicks are shipped through the postal service without food and water for up to 72 hours. Can you imagine doing this to a puppy or kitten? The basic physiological needs of a day-old chick are no different than that of an 8-week-old puppy - they need nourishment from their parents, appropriate social interactions and warmth that can only be provided by a mother's wings. It is unfathomable that it is still legal to ship sensitive baby animals through the postal service with no legal oversight.

In Berkeley, which does allow roosters, Steve Frye is in the middle of a cockfight with Ace Dodsworth, who lives about four houses away and tends a flock of hens and roosters that his community household uses for eggs and meat.

This highlights two issues: roosters and slaughter.

Roosters are male chickens. They are generally illegal in urban areas. Male chickens are often purposefully used as packing material or accidentally included in purchases. Depending on breed, visual identification of a rooster can take months. Now they are unwanted. People find themselves incapable of brutally murdering an animal they have bonded with, named, care for for the past five months. So they call us or another sanctuary. We cannot take the 50 roosters a month for which we get calls. We just cannot.

So they end up in shelters, often in areas where roosters are strictly prohibited. Trying to place roosters is incredibly difficult. When a rooster cannot be placed, he is killed. Perfectly healthy. Perfectly adoptable. Now perfectly dead. The unintended consequence of backyard flocks invariably means the death of healthy animals - be it at the hatchery, during transport, or abandoned at shelters.

Then there is slaughter. Do we really want to live in a day and age where backyard slaughter of intelligent, feeling animals is perfectly acceptable? Is it not bad enough they are raised by the billions, subjugated to mistreatment and cruelties...do we really want to bring that into our backyards? Your average person is ill-equipped to slaughter an animal. Thankfully, many cities with ordinances permitting chickens are re-evaluating this issue or are outright banning the slaughter of backyard chickens. We encourage the ban of slaughtering backyard chickens - they should be seen as companions not commodities. Their welfare should be of paramount concern.


Animal Place opposes the creation of new ordinances permitting backyard flocks. Until cities and counties allowing backyard flocks can show there are fewer concerns with abandonment, noise control, disease issues, cruelty, and the potential for slaughtering fully-conscious animals, we cannot ethically support the decision to allow more exploitation of chickens. While we realize that there are people who provide wonderful homes to chickens, opening up new markets for chickens means more dead roosters, more dead birds, more animals killed in shelters or abandoned to the streets. Perhaps 2% of people will adopt, while the remaining 98% will purchase from cruel hatcheries or feed stores, and find themselves ill-equipped to adequately care for birds.

Animal Place supports the adoption of chickens into homes where it is legal and where the birds can be provided optimal care. Please never buy from feed stores or hatcheries where roosters are killed and sensitive baby birds are shipped for up to 72 hours without food or water through the postal service. For those cities and counties currently allowing backyard flocks, we encourage incorporating ordinances that address welfare and housing concerns. We especially encourage the incorporation of laws that prohibit the slaughter of backyard chickens.

Chickens are wonderful. We love them. Few people see them as worthy of compassion or as engaging as a dog or a cat. And while we do believe having chickens as companions opens up hearts and minds, giving people access to a new world, we want to ensure that the cost is not the lives of more chickens, that the benefits are in the chickens' favor, not humans. They are already exploited by the billions for their flesh and hundreds of millions for their eggs. We do not want to see even more suffer. So again, if you are considering chickens - do your research, make sure you can afford their medical and basic care, ADOPT and ensure it is legal to have chickens.