The Paradox of Backyard Hens
September 7, 2011 11 Comments
I live in Austin, where people keep a lot of chickens. Nobody’s knows exactly how many Austinites currently keep backyard chickens. We do know, however, that this movement is more than a passing fad. Asked about the upsurge in local demand for chicks, the manager of Callahan’s General Store responded, “It’s phenomenal.” Phenomenal it might be. But a critical assessment of this wildly popular trend is sorely lacking.
“Most food,” writes Dartmouth geographer Suzanne Friedman, “is sold with a story.” This is certainly true for backyard chickens. Local media has responded to this do-it-yourself renaissance with a celebratory narrative of hometown empowerment against an overly-consolidated chicken-and-egg industry. Writing in 2006, just as urban homesteading was taking root in Austin, Statesman writer Molly Bloom noted that “H-E-Bs and Super Wal-Marts have made it easier to pick up a dozen eggs at the store than grab them from the backyard coop, but in recent years, Austinites . . . have rediscovered the joys of backyard chicken husbandry.”
I’ve no doubt that ample joys have been discovered through backyard chicken husbandry. Judging from the accounts of my own hen-raising friends, eggs produced by their “girls” are gastronomically orgasmic, miraculously disease-free (one friend drinks the eggs raw), and come from birds that are loyal “members of the family.” When Addie Broyles, one of Austin’s most critical food writers, took the backyard hen plunge earlier this year, she went all wobbly. “Even though I didn’t have a clue what I was doing,” she wrote, “I knew we’d made the right decision within minutes of getting both birds home.”
But if ample joy is evident in the task of keeping backyard chickens, considerable abuse is quietly obscured. Search popular media accounts of backyard chicken keeping and you’’ll encounter little more than agricultural pornography (soft core). Why this uncritical glorification persists is hard to say. What I do know, though, is that several disturbing aspects of this sad fad deserve due consideration before you drink the Kool-Aid, run out to Callahan’s, and moonlight as a farmer.
A major problem involves hatcheries. Most backyard chicken owners get their birds from hatcheries. But hatcheries–which are essentially puppy mills for chickens–don’t give a cluck about that half of the bird population incapable of laying eggs: males. Male chicks are killed–often in a mechanized grinder– as a matter of course. Other males are shipped to a retailer or consumer, either purposely as “packing material” (to keep the hens from knocking around in the shipping container) or due to “sexing errors”– mistaking males for females, which happens anywhere from 10 to 40 percent of the time. In either case, because male chicks are considered useless by anyone with high hopes of poaching a backyard egg, they’re more often than treated worse than household waste.
Then there’s the issue of a chicken’s life-cycle. Backyard chicken enthusiasts primarily purchase their birds in order to obtain fresh eggs. Urban homesteaders are frequently surprised to learn, however, that a chicken’s rate of egg production diminishes rapidly after a couple of years, often to the point of complete non-productivity. Chickens can live to well over ten years of age. What to do with birds when they stop producing those orgasmic-tasting, impossibly yellow-yolked eggs?
Many rock-ribbed urban pioneers have no problem slaughtering hens on site. This act is legal in Austin so long as the meat isn’t sold. But as pragmatic as this solution sounds, it’s actually rife with the very welfare problems that backyard chicken advocates sought to avoid by going local. Just because earnest homesteaders love their “girls” doesn’t mean they have the first clue about how to properly kill them. As Dr. Karen Davis, President of United Poultry Concerns, told me, “Most amateur slaughterers don’t know a carotid artery from a jugular vein.”
The results of this ignorance is horrific for anyone with the least concern for animal welfare. I’ve been following the personal accounts of backyard bird keepers for years (urban homesteaders happen to be prolific bloggers). In so doing I’ve amassed a gruesome database that, sadly, I call “botched slaughters.” Here’s a typical case, one from Heidi, a San Francisco “farmer” describing her first slaughter. The victim was “Pearl,” a chicken:
I drew a deep breath, counted to 3 and twisted. I heard the disturbing crackle of breaking bones and began to relax thinking that my job was done. Like I’m that lucky. Pearl was still breathing. How could that be possible? So I quickly twisted again in a panicked effort to put an end to this. . . Should I get a shovel and smack her over the head? Way too violent. I settled on covering her nostrils with my fingers whilst holding her beak closed. She continued to make efforts to breathe, flapped her wings, then released a foul smelling fluid from her vent and went limp.
For those without the fortitude to self-slaughter, keeping older hens as companion animals is also an option. This choice, too, has a downside–one that applies to the chickens while they’re laying as well. Backyard chickens are like fish in a barrel for predators. As a quick perusal of any on-line forum for chicken keepers will attest, chickens frequently fall prey to dogs, hawks, skunks, coyotes, foxes, and, notoriously, raccoons. Owners often declare themselves completely helpless to protect their birds. Forcing chickens into semi-secure locations and inhibiting their natural survival tactics is in the same vein as a hunter loading a feeder with corn and sitting above it in a deer blind. And that’s no way to treat a pet.
Animal shelters have traditionally been a viable last option. But that was before every urban hipster with access to a patch of dirt decided it was time for eggs to go uber-local. Today, sanctuaries are bursting at the seams with unwanted chickens. An official statement from a coalition of animal sanctuaries declares, “As organizations with limited resources and space, it is no longer feasible to take in even a small percentage of these sadly unwanted birds.”
Many (if not most) consumers, even if they are aware of these drawbacks, will continue to support backyard chicken keeping on the grounds that their eggs are safer. Even on this point, though, ground is shaky. Not only is there no study (to my knowledge) comparing industrial and small scale egg farming on a disease-per-egg basis, just last month Food Safety News reported that the CDC had identified 71 cases of salmonella (more than half under the age of 5) linked to backyard chickens. Eighteen people were hospitalized.
The foodie media generally tends to glorify the practice of backyard chicken-keeping without paying particular attention to its downsides. At the very least, future chicken keepers should be cognizant of the less publicized challenges they face. As I see it, the drawbacks of eating backyard eggs far outweigh the benefits. And, be assured, this is not support for factory-farmed eggs, but rather yet another reminder that, when it comes to the ethics of raising and killing animals and animal-based products, the best answer is to just say no.