The Dilemma of Backyard Chicken‑Keeping
By Karen Davis, PhD, President, United Poultry Concerns
This article was first published today, February 2nd on Animals 24‑7.
“Would you be pleased if chickens came to be viewed more and more as animals to be kept as pets? Is the routine objection of neighbors to roosters an insuperable one?”
This inquiry was prompted by an article in The Boston Globe, January 28, about a family’s lawsuit to keep their 7-year-old daughter Rafaella’s beloved hens.
My answer: It would be wonderful if, instead of being considered commodities and consumables, chickens came to be respected and loved for their own sakes by their human families – a trend that tentatively emerged a few decades ago when some people started keeping a few hens for eggs in opposition to factory farming, only to discover how friendly and personable their chickens were. Who knew?
But Marcela Garcia, the sympathetic author of The Boston Globe article that supports the family’s fight to keep their five hens, inadvertently brings out two big problems with backyard chicken-keeping: most of the chickens are purchased from industrial hatcheries, either directly or via retailers like Tractor Supply Company, and most towns prohibit roosters, as exemplified in Chicken Coops Allowed In Backyards Starting Feb. 1 in Baltimore County, Maryland, where the new legislation stipulates “no roosters.”
In what is now a familiar story, The Boston Globe article relates in passing that “Rafaella’s mom got her a few baby chickens around Easter last year” and that the family had “already sent the roosters in the flock away to avoid noise complaints from neighbors.” Where, I wonder, did the roosters get “sent away” to?
These two aspects of modern backyard chicken-keeping – the purchase of chickens incubated parentless in factory-farm hatcheries, and the prohibition and bleak fate of the unwanted roosters – align this ostensibly sunny enterprise with the dark reality of industrial egg production. Apart from the roosters who are warehoused with hens specifically for breeding before they are slaughtered, the egg industry has no use for the billions of male birds who are therefore destroyed, by suffocation or maceration, as soon as they hatch.
The mid-20th-century replacement of traditional chicken farming with industrialized chicken and egg production banished actual chickens from the yards and the consciousness of people who now experienced chickens and eggs solely as items bought at the supermarket or eaten in a restaurant.
The late 20th-century resurgence of a suburbanized semblance of old-fashioned chicken farming has brought actual chickens back to life for people who, to their surprise, have found that the hens they bought for eggs are warm and personable individuals. But many of these same charmed people, who wouldn’t dream of eating their own chickens, continue eating those who are sold in the supermarket and served in restaurants.
Even in places like the Eastern Shore of Virginia where we’re located, and where truckloads of thousands of crated chickens are being taken every day to the local Tyson and Perdue slaughter plants, a distinction is not unheard of between “our chickens” and those chickens who, though visible in the trucks, are disconnected emotionally in people’s minds from the ones they know and love. This may be in part the result of seeing the chickens in the trucks sitting lumped together motionless, unlike the ones in the yard. But if you look at the chickens in the crates on their way to being slaughtered, you will see their faces and their eyes and their life peering out at you.
For these reasons, I’m ambivalent about backyard chicken-keeping while seeing it, hopefully, as an opportunity to expand perceptions. I’m in total favor when the keepers rescue or adopt their chickens instead of buying them. Even so, buying a victim out of slavery may be considered, in my opinion, a form of rescue. For the chicken, from the chicken’s point of view, it is a permissible trade-off. The chicken-keeping issue before us is complicated.
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KAREN DAVIS, PhD is the President and Founder of United Poultry Concerns, a nonprofit organization that promotes the compassionate and respectful treatment of domestic fowl including a sanctuary for chickens in Virginia. Inducted into the National Animal Rights Hall of Fame for Outstanding Contributions to Animal Liberation, Karen is the author of numerous books, essays, articles and campaigns. Her books include A Home for Henny; Instead of Chicken, Instead of Turkey: A Poultryless ‘Poultry’ Potpourri; Prisoned Chickens, Poisoned Eggs: An Inside Look at the Modern Poultry Industry; More Than a Meal: The Turkey in History, Myth, Ritual, and Reality; and The Holocaust and the Henmaid’s Tale: A Case for Comparing Atrocities. Karen’s latest book is For the Birds: From Exploitation to Liberation – Essays on Chickens, Turkeys, and Other Domesticated Fowl.