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11 March 2016
Karen Davis: Backyard chickens have a downside Published in The Gainesville Sun

Posted online today, this article will also be published in
Sunday's edition of The Gainesville Sun, March 13th.

By Karen Davis
Special to The Sun
Published: Friday, March 11, 2016

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Chickens kept in a backyard coop of a home. Photo by Mike Spencer/StarNews

Yes, it is heartening that more people are discovering the pleasure of chickens, as described in The Sun's March 1 article, "Chick business thrives in Gainesville." It’s great that people who want to keep chickens are eager to create yards for them to enjoy. After all, chickens come from the tropical forests of Southeast Asia where they’ve been running around the forest for millennia. Chickens are not meant to be sedentary.

All the breeding that has been done to chickens for human convenience has not changed the essential nature of chickens. Chickens love to run about, dig in the ground, sunbathe, socialize and perch. Unless they are disabled, dispirited or industrially confined, this is what chickens do.

I’ve kept chickens since 1985 and have had the pleasure of opening their doors each morning for more than 30 years. I love watching the hens and roosters spill out the door and race into the yard, vocalizing their enthusiasm as they run in all directions inside our 12,000-square-foot predator-proof aviary filled with trees, bushes, mulchy soil and grass.

Through the years, I’ve adopted hundreds of chickens and helped people find homes for chickens from factory farms, school-hatching projects, cockfighting raids, animal shelters and, increasingly over the past decade, backyard chicken-keeping.

My view is that making a business out of chickens does not bode well, however “small,” benign or local the business may appear compared to so-called factory farming. It can be an extension of factory farming rather than an alternative.

Hatcheries that produce chicks for backyard flocks or any other purpose treat chickens and their offspring the same way puppy mills treat breeding dogs and their puppies. The only difference is that, in the case of chickens, the parent birds are in a factory-farm building and their eggs, taken from them, are in a mechanical incubator elsewhere. Since there are no laws regulating how breeding hens and roosters are housed, they typically are crammed together without outdoor access until they are slaughtered, just like a factory farm.

Many backyard chickens bought from hatcheries are shipped through the postal service as airmail without any legal protections. Newborn chicks are deprived of food and water for up to 72 hours, sometimes longer, and they are exposed to extreme temperatures, flight delays and other hazards, without protection.

Dr. Jean Cypher, a veterinarian specializing in avian medicine, states: “A day-old chick can no more withstand three days in a dark crowded box than can any other newborn.”

Ordinances permitting hen-keeping create a market for killing 50 percent of all chicks in hatcheries because for every hen, a baby rooster hatches, only to be ground up alive or suffocated to death in a trashcan as soon as he struggles out of his shell. As in Gainesville, most urban and suburban areas allowing chickens ban roosters. Yet hatcheries will often mail roosters to customers as packing material, and chick-sexing is an inexact science. Over the years I’ve received many calls asking for help from people who ended up with roosters they either did not want or could not legally maintain.

Many people start out thinking it will be fun and easy to keep a few hens, only to learn that labor is involved. Chicken houses need to be cleaned every day. Yards, food, water bowls and bedding must be kept fresh and clean. People who consider it a “chore” to spend time maintaining a wholesome environment for chickens should not keep them.

As with any animals, health and hygiene go hand in hand. Squalor, including excretory ammonia gas buildup in chicken houses, causes respiratory infections, ammonia-burned eyes and weakened immune systems in chickens, predisposing them to suffering and premature death. No less than a companion dog or cat, a chicken must have veterinary care when injured or ill. Anyone not willing to pay for veterinary care should not keep chickens. And while avian medicine has made significant progress in the treatment of birds, good veterinary care can be expensive.

Chickens are not “dumb” animals — they are neither silent nor stupid. And hens are not “egg-laying machines.” Anyone who wants hens only for eggs should not keep chickens. Best if you really want chickens is to adopt rather than buy. And always remember to meet your chickens at their own eye-level. If all they ever see of you are your boots or shoes, they will not bond with you and you will never get to know them.

My experience with chickens for more than 30 years has taught me that chickens are conscious and emotional beings with a range of interests and personalities. Chickens are cheerful birds, quite vocally so, and when they are dispirited and oppressed, their entire being expresses this state of affairs.

The fact that chickens become lethargic in barren, unwholesome environments, instead of proving that they are stupid or passive by nature, shows how sensitive they are to their surroundings, deprivations and prospects. Likewise, when chickens are happy, their sense of well-being resonates unmistakably.

— Karen Davis is president of United Poultry Concerns, a nonprofit organization that promotes the compassionate and respectful treatment of domestic fowl including a sanctuary for chickens on the Eastern Shore of Virginia.

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