NOTE: The following commentaries represent the opinions of the authors. We welcome comments from our readers.
Joy Mench Department of Animal Sciences, University of California, Davis
Throughout history chickens have been admired not only for their usefulness to humans but for their striking appearance and characteristic behaviors (Smith and Daniel, 2000). The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO, 2010) estimates that globally there are approximately 19 billion chickens kept as livestock, three for every person on the planet, with this number steadily growing.
While much of this increase is associated with expanding mid- to large-scale commercial production of chicken meat and eggs worldwide, small-scale (village) production is also an important element of food security for many of the rural poor in developing countries (Kitalyi, 1998). Village chicken production can also contribute to gender equality economically, since many village chicken-keepers are women (FAO, 1998). And now the village appears to have come to many developed countries, with the recent explosion of backyard chicken keeping.
Who are these backyard chicken keepers, and what roles do their chickens fill in their lives? We recently conducted an online survey of nearly 1,500 backyard poultry keepers throughout the US to find out the answers to those questions (Elkhoraibi et al., 2014). Even though backyard chicken keeping is often considered an urban phenomenon, the responses to our survey came equally from urban, suburban and rural areas. The vast majority of respondents, most of whom identified themselves as the chickens’ primary caretakers, were well-educated, married, adult Caucasian women with high family incomes. Most had fewer than 10 chickens, and had kept chickens for less than 5 years. Almost all respondents indicated that they kept chickens for food, mainly eggs. The majority thought that the eggs and meat from their chickens tasted better, was more nutritious and safer than commercial products, and that the health and welfare of their chickens was better than that of commercial chickens. Many also considered their chickens to be “gardening partners,” providing fertilizer and controlling garden pests. Backyard chicken keeping can thus be considered one aspect of the movement occurring in some areas of the country towards more local, “sustainable” food consumption.
It isn’t just about food, however. Most respondents also consider their chickens to be pets. They enjoy spending time watching their chickens’ behavior, and feel that chickens provide companionship and are a good way to teach children about caring for animals.
If backyard chicken keeping turns out to be more than a fad, are there challenges ahead? Certainly. Concerns have been raised about public health implications and the potential risk that backyard flocks pose to the health of commercial flocks (Bailey and Larson, 2013; eXtension, 2014), but these risks can be reduced by providing education programs specifically targeting backyard keepers (Stinson and Mete, 2013). Many municipalities are struggling to come up with reasonable zoning regulations, a challenge given the lack of information about backyard chickens and the fact that chickens now occupy an intermediate place between “agricultural animals” and “pets.”
Our survey also makes it clear that backyard chicken keepers face a myriad of challenges – in addition to dealing with zoning challenges and neighbor complaints, these include lack of access to veterinarians trained in avian or poultry medicine, lack of availability of small quantities of vaccines to protect their birds from important infectious diseases, minimizing problems with predators, providing their birds with high-quality feed, locating reliable sources of information about caring for their flocks, and finding “chicken sitters” when they go on vacation. Undoubtedly these are the kinds of problems that contribute to the reported increase in relinquishment of chickens to shelters (Allecia, 2013). However, more than 90% of the respondents to our survey indicated that they will be likely to continue to keep chickens during the next decade, suggesting that any reports about the impending demise of backyard chicken keeping have been greatly exaggerated! If backyard chicken keeping does nothing more than increase appreciation for chickens, which play such a significant role in the lives of humans around the world, in my opinion, that will be a good thing.
Aleccia, J. “Backyard Chickens “Dumped at Shelters when Hipsters Can’t Cope, Critics Say.” NBC News Health, 2013.
Bailey, Tanya, Jean Larson, and Minnesota Landscape Arboretum. “Backyard Poultry: Implications for Public Health and Safety.” (2013).
Elkhoraibi, Carine. Backyard Chickens in the US: A Survey Investigation. Diss. UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA, DAVIS, 2014.
Kitalyi, Aichi J. Village chicken production systems in rural Africa: household food security and gender issues. Vol. 142. Food & Agriculture Org., 1998.
Smith, Page, and Charles Daniel. The chicken book. University of Georgia Press, 2000.
Stinson S, Mete A. 2013. “Popular Backyard Flock program reduces biosecurity risks of amateur production.” Calif Agr 67(4):203-209.
Molly Mullin Department of Anthropology and Sociology, North Carolina State University
As an anthropologist, I’ve been doing research on backyard chickens since 2010, research that grew out of an interest in understanding domestication as an ongoing process. In addition to attending annual coop tours in cities across the U.S., I’ve interviewed coop tour organizers, attended town government debates on whether or not to allow chickens, and-in three different cities-have kept my own flock, navigating a bewildering array of municipal ordinances and threats to my flock’s safety and well-being.
Once when I was presenting a conference paper on backyard chickens a member of the audience denounced me as an enslaver and an abuser. It was wrong, she argued, to use animals for food, to participate, even peripherally, in a cruel animal-industrial complex, and to encourage others to do the same. The last point was the one I found most bothersome and, in the end, constructive.
Although I didn’t share the commentator’s view that it is inherently unethical to eat my hens’ eggs, I was intending to explore the urban chicken’s place in culture and history, not to encourage more people to set up backyard chicken coops. Despite alarmist news reports of salmonella being spread by hatcheries that provide chicks to backyards across North America, occasional complaints by animal rights and welfare organizations, and the many cities and small towns that have maintained strict bans on chickens, everywhere you look there are people putting out the message that keeping a small flock of chickens is pure joy for all concerned. Mother Earth News and other magazines depict chickens as part of a cheery and bountiful domestic landscape. Bumper stickers proclaim “My Pet Makes Me Breakfast.” On coop tours, handmade signs by children instruct visitors: “No Need for a Rooster.”
And what’s wrong with all this enthusiasm? Why does it concern me, a person who finds it it hard to imagine life without her hens? Consider the claim that you don’t need a rooster for chickens to lay eggs. It’s a little half-truth that illustrates a larger problem. Yes, as people should know–but apparently often don’t–from basic biology classes, hens will lay eggs regardless of a rooster’s presence. A rooster only determines whether the eggs might be fertile or not. But at some point, there is, or was, a rooster involved in a hen’s life. Most roosters are killed at younger ages than their female counterparts-because they aren’t needed for egg production, because roosters don’t lay, because even hen-friendly cities don’t usually permit even a single roo.
Like many-but not all-who keep household flocks, I am less troubled by killing than I am by the inhumane treatment of the living. The missing roosters however illustrate all that is left out of the glossy media portrayals of backyard chicken keeping. Opponents of backyard chickens will tell you some of what’s left out, including the problem of the missing roosters. From what I have seen, the opponents will also get a lot of their information wrong or they will overgeneralize. This is perhaps the result of getting impressions from a distance rather than having much direct experience with current urban flock-keeping practices. But what opponents get right is that things are more complicated than they seem. If you decide to keep chickens in your backyard, you are going to encounter unforeseen problems, dilemmas, and expenses, as well as joys.
People often have radically opposing views about animals. In places where chickens are returning to areas where they were absent for many years, the disagreements can be especially intense. But it is often possible to learn from constructive dialogue, as I did when pressed to consider more carefully what’s missing from that picture of the happy hen pecking about among the flowers in the backyard.
Vasile Stanescu Department of Communication Studies & Theatre, Mercer University
People who raise “backyard” chickens for eggs and meat harm the environment, hurt animals, and support factory farms. In terms of the environment, Adrian Williams of Cranfield University in England found that free-range and organic raised chickens have a twenty percent greater impact on global warming than chickens raised in factory farm conditions (Leinonen, “Broiler production systems” 18-25). He found that organic eggs have a fourteen percent higher impact on the climate than factory farm eggs (Leinonen, “Egg production systems” 26-40). The main reason for this counterintuitive result was because of greater need for feed, transportation, and processing which, in turn, ended up producing more GHG emissions (per the same weight of chicken) than factory farms. On a global scale, backyard farming can only become environmentally sustainable if the current rates of consumption of all animal products (regardless of source) are decreased by a third to a fourth (Schader, Muller and El-Hage; Steinfield et al ). Environmentally speaking, the current focus should not be on increasing the number of “backyard chickens” but on decreasing the total number of chickens, eggs, or other animal products consumed (Tidwell).
In terms of federal animal welfare, birds are not legally considered to be animals (Hodges). Therefore, as documented by the Michigan State University College of Law “…chickens, turkeys, ducks, and other birds may be ‘shackled, hoisted, thrown, cast, or cut’ while being fully cognizant of pain.” (Hodges) People are allowed to treat, and kill, their “backyard” chickens in whatever manner they like. As hobbyists become overwhelmed with the difficulty of animal care, or lose interest, there are no legal protections for the animals under their care. The few sanctuaries that will even accept chickens report being overwhelmed by donations by disillusioned hobbyists; many of these chickens arrive suffering from gross mistreatment (Chicken Run Rescue; Slaton). The desire to successfully raise “backyard” chickens leads people to kill off all of the “potential” predators in the surrounding area (“Do You Have an Opinion on Killing Predators?”). Joel Salatin, the most well-known advocate for free range and backyard chickens, records killing foxes, endangered eagles, and neighborhood dogs in order to protect his free-range chickens (Salatin). The killing of predators to protect backyard chickens leads to more animal death and suffering, not less.
The majority of chickens purchased for backyard slaughter are purchased from industrial hatcheries, the same hatcheries that factory farms use and own. Many of the animals have been genetically bred so that their own bodies give them pain. Since sex selection is always fifty-fifty, for every female chicken purchased, a male chicken had to be killed, usually by being ground up alive. (McWilliams; Messina; Wells). Certain advocates and owners of free-range chickens, such as Catherine Friend, admit that a large share of their diet still comes from factory farms (240) and tell others that it is acceptable if the same is true for their diet as well (238). Because of the environmental effects, the support of factory farms, and the inherit cruelty in the process, our goal should be to eliminate the consumption of all animal products, regardless of their source.
Animal Protection Institute, “Free Range is Still Factory Farming.” Animal Issues, Volume 32 Number 4, Winter 2001.
Chicken Run Rescue “Increased Demands on Chicken Run Rescue for Placement of Urban Farm Animals” 2013. Friend, Catherine. The Compassionate Carnivore, or, How to Keep Animals Happy, Save Old Macdonald’s Farm, Reduce Your Hoofprint, and Still Eat Meat. Cambridge, Mass.: Da Capo Lifelong 2009.
Hodges, Cynthia, “Detailed Discussion of the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act.” Michigan State University College of Law, 2010.
Leinonen I, Williams AG, Wiseman J, Guy J & Kyriazakis I. “Predicting the environmental impacts of chicken systems in the United Kingdom through a life cycle assessment: broiler production systems.” Poultry Science, 91 (1) 8-40. 2012.
McWilliams, James. “Five Reasons Why Owning Backyard Chickens Is For The Birds” Forbes. November 21, 2013.
Slaton, Joyce “The Dark Side of Backyard Chickens” Chow, February 1, 2012.
“Do You Have An Opinion On Killing Predators?” BackYardChickens.com. August, 26, 2012. Salatin, Joel. Everything I Want to Do Is Illegal. Swoope, Va: Polyface, 2007.
Steinfeld, Henning, Pierre Gerber, Tom Wassenaar, Vincent Castel, Mauricio Rosales, Cees De Hann. Livestock’s Long Shadow: Environmental Issues and Options. Rome, Italy: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. 2006.
Schader, Christian, Adrian Muller and Nadia El-Hage. “Sustainability And Organic Livestock Modelling (Sol-m), Impacts of a global upscaling of low-input and organic livestock production” FAO , April 2013.
Tidwell, Mike. “The Low-Carbon Diet,” Audobon Magazine. Last Accessed April 1, 2010. Wells, Christine. “What’s Wrong with Backyard Eggs?” Chow, March 31, 2012.
Additional Commentary by Robert Grillo
I am the founder and executive director of Free from Harm, a non profit that promotes farmed animal rescue, education and advocacy. I was frankly surprised that Animals & Society thought it appropriate to represent views about chicken keeping that simply reinforce the age old assumptions and prejudices about these animals as having value only to the extent that they serve as a human resource (eggs and meat).
The first question we get from people who meet our rescued chickens is “do they lay eggs?” Laying eggs is clearly what defines them for most people. Even otherwise well-informed people are under the spell of contrived and false “egg industry” perceptions of chickens. We often get asked, “what is the harm of eating the eggs of backyard chickens who will just lay them anyway?” In fact, many chicken keepers claim that they have a “symbiotic” relationship with their hens. In exchange for good treatment, they see their “reward” as the eggs that their chickens lay. Sounds like a “win-win,” but we will see later in detail why this logic does not pan out. In order to fully understand our impact on these birds, we must look way beyond treatment. Let’s start where nearly all chicks are born: in hatcheries. When we buy chicks, we are directly and financially supporting hatcheries who are responsible for a whole host of staggeringly cruel practices. Their most egregious offense is the maceration (grinding up alive) and suffocation of billions of baby male chicks – 6 billion globally every year. Those who adopt or rescue backyard chickens instead of buying from hatcheries withdraw their support from the hatcheries but still face several important ethical considerations in answering the question, “what’s the harm in collecting and eating the eggs that our adopted chickens lay?”
The Harm of Breeding
Chickens bred for egg laying are irreparably harmed by the selective breeding that has forced them to lay an unnatural and unhealthy number of eggs – between 250 to 300 a year – resulting in a host of painful and life-threatening reproductive diseases and premature death. Consider the fact that most egg laying hens, even the so-called “heritage” breeds, will only live 4 to 6 years on average (assuming they are allowed to live past their one- to two-year egg laying prime) and will likely die of complications caused by egg laying. In contrast, undomesticated chicken hens living in their natural habitat have been known to live 30 years and more. They lay eggs just like other wild birds do – for purposes of reproduction – and only a few clutches per year; around 10 to 15 eggs total on average.
Benefiting from Harm
Most would agree that gaining some pleasure or benefit from the source of someone else’s suffering is immoral. We would consider it objectionable to, say, rescue a dog used in a dog fighting ring and argue that, since he is already trained and bred to fight, that in exchange for adopting him and providing him refuge, we allow him to fight other dogs and place bets on him. Or perhaps we let him be a guard dog somewhere that could potentially put him in harm’s way. He might as well “earn his keep” since he’s going to be a fighter anyway. But of course we would never use this logic with a rescued dog. Even if we are not the direct cause of the chicken’s suffering, by eating her eggs, we are benefiting from what harms her, that is, her “rigged” reproduction, which would not even be possible without the industrial scale genetic manipulation and breeding practices we already claim to oppose, on the grounds that they are horrifically cruel.
“Plantation” Logic Applied to Backyard Chickens
As mentioned earlier, backyard chicken keepers often portray their relationship with their chickens as a “win-win.” They provide their chickens with a great life and, in return, their chickens provide them with eggs. There are at least two problems with this position. First, it ignores the fact these eggs exist only because of the systematic manipulation and re-engineering of the chicken hen’s reproductive system which forces her to produce an unnatural and unhealthy amount of eggs. Secondly, it is impossible for chickens to give their consent to such an arrangement. It assumes that they desire to make a sacrifice for us, but in reality, their intensive egg-laying – and the adverse consequences that come with it – is simply forced upon them by no choice of their own. But, what if we adopt or rescue backyard chickens? Well, as author Charles Horn points out, “If the desire is there to eat the eggs, did that consciously or subconsciously go into the decision to adopt in the first place? If so, the intention was never just one of providing refuge; it was also one of exploitation.”
An Exception that Invites More Exceptions
By creating an exception for eating the eggs of adopted chickens, we then open the door to other exceptions being made. As Horn points out, “If it’s okay to eat, is it okay to gather and sell? Is it okay to adopt many chickens and make a business out of it? Again, we’re seeing how we still have a mindset of exploitation here and just how easily the slippery slope can lead people toward animal agriculture. If not them, someone else surely will, because the mindset of exploitation is still there.”
Identifying as an “Egg Eater”
Connected to the slippery slope we create by making exceptions for eating certain eggs from certain chickens are the many implications of identifying ourselves as “egg-eaters” as a general matter. It often creates a “domino effect” which is fueled by at least four realities that work together to cause the domino effect. 1. We send a powerful message of affirmation to others simply by eating eggs – regardless of their source – even those laid by the hens in our backyard. 2. Egg industry marketing has tried and tested methods of seducing well-intentioned and caring consumers and fabricating feel good brands and stories that will falsely suggest that their eggs come from places like our backyard. 3. Most consumers are still grossly misinformed about egg farming and cruelty to animals, and egg marketers of course use this to their advantage. And finally, 4. consumers have a powerful incentive to believe in the humane myth with which these marketers manipulate us, with their feel-good packaging, signs and advertising at the point of purchase that resemble or allude to the kind of conditions that we associate with backyard settings. The sad reality is that most caring consumers targeted by this marketing buy into the myth, both literally and figuratively. Or they order eggs in a breakfast eatery where happy hen motifs adorn the walls, and they falsely associate this experience with a backyard hen scene, when, in reality, even the most upscale restaurants get eggs from hens raised in absolutely deplorable cage conditions. As author Hope Bohanec points out, “when someone eats eggs from their own hens, they then identify as an egg-eater and don’t limit their consumption of eggs to just the supposed ‘ethical’ eggs from their hens. They will eat other eggs as well in a restaurant, at a friends house, etc., so they are still supporting the cruel egg industry, even though they may identify as only eating ‘ethical’ eggs, it is unlikely that those are the only eggs they are eating.”
Reinforcing the False “Egg Industry” Stereotype
Eating the eggs of backyard chickens also reinforces their egg industry role as “layers” or egg-laying machines, as if to suggest that this is their primary purpose in life, which is incorrect. The fact is that natural egg laying for chickens is no different than it is for many other birds. What’s changed is that modern breeding has forced chickens to produce an obscene amount of infertile eggs. Beyond egg laying, chickens lead rich and complex social lives, have many interests and are keenly self-aware. They have long-term memory and clearly demonstrate that they anticipate future events. They form deep bonds with other flock mates and other species, like dogs and humans. And yet even if they didn’t possess all of these advanced cognitive abilities, they are sentient beings who feel pain and pleasure much like we do. And sentience, not intelligence, is the basis for how we should treat others. By eating eggs, we imply that the worth of chickens amounts to what they can produce for us as a food source, rather than focusing attention where it should be: on chickens’ intrinsic worth as individuals. “Just as we don’t see human beings or human secretions as a food source, similarly we shouldn’t see any sentient being or their secretions that way either,” writes Horn.
The Logic of Not Wasting Eggs
The popular notion that it is wrong to waste chickens’ eggs by not eating them is based on the presumption that their eggs are actually ours to waste, further reinforcing the anthropocentric notion that the eggs belong to us, not them. So, based on this logic, if we discover abandoned and unfertilized turtle eggs or duck eggs or robin eggs, we are also compelled to steal them and make a meal out of them so as not to let them “go to waste.” If we look more closely at this logic, we find that the issue is not one of food wasting, but of cultural conditioning. The reason we perceive only chicken eggs as edible, and don’t insist on collecting the eggs of other species, is cultural conditioning. Breeding hens into existence in order to control their bodies and take the eggs that belong to them has become a socially acceptable practice, just as slavery was a socially acceptable practice throughout our history and up until just a short time ago.
What Do We Do With the Eggs If We Don’t Eat Them?
When we let go of the anthropocentric notion that chickens’ eggs belong to us, then what could we potentially do with the eggs, if we instead wanted to do something to benefit these most exploited of birds? Well, we can hard boil the eggs and grind up the shells. We can add the shells to the chickens’ grit to give them back some of the vast amounts of calcium that is leached from their bones to produce all of those shells. We can also feed their eggs back to them in order to restore some of the protein and other nutrients they lose in the process of laying far more eggs than their bodies were ever intended to produce. Putting harm aside, we might want to stop and think a bit more about what kind of relationships we are cultivating with our backyard chickens as well as what message we are sending out to the world. Must every relationship we have be contingent upon getting something in return? Sometimes we can just show kindness and compassion. Sometimes we can just appreciate others for their intrinsic worth and not base their value on what we can get out of them. And in the case of chickens, this could never be more desperately needed, considering all of the suffering we force upon some 40 billion of them around the world every year for our tastebuds.