As I wrote in my previous post, a coalition of the following animal shelters and sanctuaries has issued a press release and position paper advising municipalities to disallow chicken-keeping:
Chicken Run Rescue
Eastern Shore Sanctuary and Education Center
Sunny Skies Bird and Animal Sanctuary
United Poultry Concerns
They cite a host of reasons, most of which I address here. They also urge people who want chickens to adopt a chicken they have rescued, rather than buying one from a hatchery.
There is no doubt that any creature given to these organizations will be well cared for, and that their members are deeply committed to the humane treatment of animals. These organizations have also performed a useful service in raising awareness of cruelty in industrial poultry operations, and in rescuing chickens injured and maimed at these sites. Nevertheless, I still urge my fellow chicken enthusiasts to never, EVER give a chicken they cannot care for to these organizations for adoption. Here are five reasons why:
1. Those who want to adopt your chicken from the shelter will likely be required to surrender a degree of their privacy.
Farm Sanctuary’s adoption application form asks for your birth date, the number of children you have, their ages, your marital status, and your employer. What bearing any of this information has on one’s suitability for keeping a chicken is hard to imagine. The application also asks you to check whether sanctuary adoption officers may visit your home. Similarly, Chicken Run Rescue’s terms for adoption require would-be chicken-adopters to allow their staff to “examine or make inquiries at any time.” That means you agree to allow them to come in at will to check up on your poultry management and ensure it meets their standards.
2. Would-be chicken adopters may be denied if they are not vegans or vegetarians.
Farm Sanctuary’s adoption application asks you to check whether you are vegan or vegetarian, and if neither, to explain why. They also require you to be a member of the Farm Animal Adoption Network (FAAN). Membership requirements for FAAN include “a vegetarian lifestyle.” Chicken Run Rescue’s adoption form asks whether you raise animals for slaughter. Note they do not say simply that you may not slaughter the chicken you are adopting. They ask about raising animals for meat generally.
3. Potential adopters will never truly own a chicken they obtain from these organizations.
Chicken Run Rescue requires that you agree not to show the chicken, breed it, sell its eggs, or give it to anyone else. If you can no longer keep the chicken, you are required to give it back to them. Further, if they determine during one of their “inquiries” that the “health and well-being [of the chicken] is being jeopardized the bird will be returned to Chicken Run Rescue immediately.”
4. Low-income persons who wish to adopt a chicken will likely be denied.
Several of the adoption application questions suggest an expensive standard of care that would exclude many low-income persons. For example, Chicken Run Rescue asks whether there is a heat source in the building where the chicken will be housed and whether the temperature of the building can be maintained at 32F or higher. Farm Sanctuary asks outright what your income range is and whether you can afford veterinary care for the bird.
The heat requirement is not only expensive; it is likely unnecessary and may even be harmful to the chicken. There is some debate among authorities on chicken husbandry about whether chicken coops should be heated at all, except on the very coldest days in northernmost areas. An early 20th century book, Open Air Poultry Houses, which advises keeping chickens in open front coops, even in places like Canada, is now coming back into vogue. One long-time chicken keeper here in Madison advised me against ever heating a coop; she never does, and her chickens are healthy. Some of the older breeds, such as Barred Plymouth Rocks and Rhode Island Reds were developed in New England in the mid-19th century. I doubt anyone was heating their coops in those days.
The problem is that chickens are more susceptible to frostbite and disease at higher temperatures when air in the coop is humid than at lower temperatures when the air is dry. (Warm air holds more moisture.) All authorities agree that proper ventilation in winter is vital to move humid air (chickens emit a lot of water vapor through breathing and pooping) and thus keep chickens healthy. After seeing our set-up, our poultry extension specialist advised me to leave the pop door open during winter, despite the fact that we have ventilation holes in the roof of the roost box.
I can only imagine what it would cost us to keep the coop heated to 32F or higher with the pop door open on days when highs are in the single digits. It’s a waste of energy when it’s not required for the health of the chickens, and during the day, they won’t go in there anyway, except to lay an egg. They prefer to be out in their pen. Further, safely heating a coop to Chicken Run Rescue’s standard would require proper wiring – not simply running an extension cord - another expense that could exclude low-income would-be chicken adopters.
The bias against low-income people is particularly egregious to me. The focus of this blog is “gardening as an investment in food security.” Chickens are an integral part of my garden, providing a protein source, free organic fertilizer, and natural help with pest control. Excluding people who most need to invest in their own food security from having chickens simply because they cannot afford to meet standards that are unnecessary is unconscionable.
Chickens are relatively inexpensive to raise; poor people around the world do it. Chicken rations can be supplemented with kitchen vegetable scraps and discarded produce from grocery stores that is in good condition. If allowed into pasture or yards, chickens can forage for some of their own food. In fact, they prefer it. Coops can also be built rather inexpensively (though maybe not to the standard of some rescue groups). We spent several hundred dollars on ours, but I’m more impressed with people who report they used scrap wood or repurposed an old shed and ended up spending only forty bucks or so.
5. Finally, you should never, EVER give your chicken to one of these shelters because they will use it as a reason to pressure municipalities to restrict, or refuse to allow, chicken-keeping.
In their press release, this coalition of shelters and sanctuaries “urge[s] municipalities throughout the U.S. not to allow backyard flocks and exhort[s] those that are already zoned for this practice to establish and enforce strict regulations for the care of these birds,” and claims that since keeping chickens has become popular, they have been “inundated with calls to take in chickens.” In their position paper, they raise the issue of the expense of “an extra burden, like enforcing chicken licensing laws and related complaints” for municipal shelters.
Every time you give a chicken to one of these agencies, you add to the numbers they will use when urging city officials not to change ordinances to allow chickens, thus making it harder for your fellow chicken aficionados to have chickens, and harder for yourself, should your circumstances change and you are again able to keep chickens.
So, what should you do if you have or find a chicken that you cannot care for? One option should be to give or sell it to someone. I’m lucky here in Madison, because although I live in a city, we are surrounded by farmland and rural communities. Many people from these areas come into Madison to work, and are happy to take a chicken off my hands – they have the space to do it.
I’ve had good luck finding such people on Craigslist. I gave six nearly three-week old chicks to one guy (they are sold in lots of five, and I was only allowed to keep four), and recently sold Little Jerry to another. When I gave away the chicks, the question crossed my mind: How do I know they’re going to a good home? Then I remembered that no one questioned my credentials when I showed up at Farm and Fleet to buy my very first baby chicks. I should extend someone else the same courtesy, unless they give me a reason not to.
As it happened, the guy turned out to be practically a “chicken whisperer.” He knelt down and gently stroked the head and neck of one of the chicks with one finger, and she never moved! It was like she was hypnotized. There are many good people who will care well for a chicken; many more than are bad, I believe.
Roosters present a more difficult problem, as I wrote in my previous post. They’re harder to give away because many cities will not allow them, and outside cities, healthy flocks require fewer roosters than hens. It may be that your beautiful bird will have to be sacrificed to feed someone less fortunate than yourself. For a rooster that has had a good life, it is not a bad way to go.