I’m not a “pet person.” I’ve never had a pet and never wanted one. It’s not that I hate animals; I was just never interested. I don’t go all gaga over baby animals. I’ve never felt the urge to pet a gorgeous cat or play with an adorable dog. I’m blessed (or cursed, depending on the situation) with a very strong sense of smell. I can smell odors from a distance that others have to get up close to smell. So animals often offend my olfactory senses.
I’m also a fairly fastidious person, at least about some things, so I feel squeamish about the practices of some pet owners, especially when it comes to food. I’m sure I irritated my sister-in-law Cara, at least a little, by shrieking for someone to get the dog out of the kitchen when my brother Jess and I were cooking. I’ve also been known to wrinkle my nose when my sister Teresa’s son Jeremy takes his pet rodent out of its cage to play with it. (Is it a guinea pig? A ferret? A rat? I can’t remember.)
So when I announced that I was thinking of getting chickens, I’m sure my relatives thought I was delusional; that it would either never happen, or wouldn’t last long. “I just can’t see you with chickens,” my sister Donna remarked mildly. I’m sure the others expressed stronger opinions among themselves. Our then 13-year-old grandson Nathan couldn’t stop laughing. My husband Rick acted like it was a bad joke, and I played it that way for awhile, pretending it was just a ploy to annoy him.
Why in the world did think I wanted chickens? I blame filmmakers Tashai Lovington & Robert Lughai. I attended a screening of their film Mad City Chickens at the 2008 Wisconsin film fest. The film centers on chicken aficionados in Madison, Wisconsin, but playfully contextualizes their multiple stories in the larger historical tradition of chicken keeping. Unlike most of the other film fest screenings, this one had a party atmosphere. Many of the chicken people featured in the film were in attendance, handing out chicken buttons, literature, peeps, and one woman dressed in chicken costume handed out chocolate eggs.
Their sense of fun was contagious and the chickens were gorgeous. Clearly, the filmmakers love chickens – they photographed them so beautifully. I had no idea there were so many different kinds of chickens. My experience of chickens up to that time was of plastic film covered bloodless chunks of flesh in a supermarket. I began to wonder whether I might like to keep chickens.
They fit perfectly with my notion of a backyard nest egg. I’d been thinking about how to get a protein source in the garden, perhaps by cutting down some old maple trees to plant nut trees. I also knew that pastured chickens produce healthier eggs, with less cholesterol and saturated fat, and more omega-3 fatty acids, beta carotene, and vitamins A and E. Chickens also fit with the principle of minimizing purchased inputs by producing manure for garden. I’d also heard that they eat a lot of bugs; some people even claim their Japanese beetle problems disappeared once they got chickens.
I gave myself a year to really think it through and do my research. I read everything I could find, from message boards on websites to agricultural extension articles to poultry-raising books. I visited local coops during the 2008 Mad City Chicken Coop Tour. (Note to those in the Madison area: the 2009 tour is on August 15th). The tour allowed me to see different kinds of coops, talk to owners about chicken-keeping, and find out whether they were as smelly as some people claim. (The coops, not the owners. Turns out none were too stinky, even on a hot summer afternoon, but I’m guessing that’s partly because they cleaned the coops before the tour.)
I got my first baby chicks in May. Although I thought of them as livestock, rather than pets, I’m secretly (or maybe obviously?) growing a bit fond of them. Backyard chickens occupy a complicated border region between pets and livestock. It’s an interesting journey I’ll be detailing in future posts. Some days, when I’m scooping their poop from the coop, I’m still a little surprised to find myself here. I think about my friend Laura in Omaha gushing, “You’re living my dream!” This is some people’s dream, I remind myself. And I laugh and I laugh.