The Myth of the Humane Backyard Chicken Farm

Backyard chicken farming has become a hip New York City trend. Urban farmers raise chickens on their small plots of land to supply their families with fresh artisanal eggs while feeling a deeper connection to the origins of their food. The chickens are treated like household pets…. Or so the story goes.

The baby chicks arrive at an urban farmer’s home as adorable little tweeting fluff-balls. This is the happy new owners’ first experience with their pets. Unless, of course, they open the lid to a pile of dead chickens, a common fate of chicks shipped through the mail.

Chick breeders are worse than the worst puppy mills. Each chick costs about $2 to $4, less than a Starbucks coffee. The cheap price reflects the low value placed on the chickens' lives. The hatchery considers dead chicks the cost of doing business; consumers take little financial risk if the chickens die in transit or while under their care. In fact, some backyard farmers might give it a go without any training in how to care for these breathing, sentient beings, the same laissez-faire attitude they would have about planting fennel or strawberries for the first time. Even the most well-meaning backyard farmers are often ill-equipped to protect the hens from disease, predators, heat waves or freezing temperatures.

The hatcheries that supply backyard coops are no different than the ones that supply factory poultry producers like Perdue or Tyson. For starters, let’s review basic sex ed. The hen needs a rooster to make a baby, and the fertilized egg is just as likely to contain a male as a female. Roosters produce no eggs and are just as expensive to raise as hens with no return on investment. Also, New York City, like many jurisdictions, prohibits backyard roosters. Because there is no market for roosters, hatcheries throw the “worthless” birds away. But, considering the "valuable" female birds are worth only a few dollars, the manner in which the hatcheries dispose of hundreds of thousands of unprofitable birds each day is just as cruel as you would expect. Mercy for Animals shot this undercover video that shows the violent method of killing unwanted male chicks. (Warning: the footage is disturbing).

The life of a hatchery hen is not much better. She typically lives in dismal conditions, not clucking around blissfully, pecking at seeds and frolicking in a dust bath. Her role is to lay hundreds of eggs to sell to urban farmers. When her egg-laying days are over, she is also relegated to the trash heap.

Eventually, the backyard hen stops laying eggs too. Because these birds often live for 10 years or more, the owner must decide whether to accept a longterm commitment to their "pets" — predictably, many don't. A Seattle entrepreneur offers a 5-hour workshop to teach backyard farmers to butcher their hens after they stop producing eggs. No doubt, the horrific mistakes the amateur butchers make while practicing to slaughter the terrified animals inflict the same level of suffering as industrial poultry operations. Other birds are shipped off to no less brutal ends or become neglected. 

The New York Times published an out-of-touch article “In More Back Yards, the Chicken Comes First” — in the Pet City section, no less — that takes a cutesy view of the perils and joys of raising backyard chickens. But, clearly, the chickens don’t come first and they aren't actually considered pets. Can you imagine these same statements in an article about cats and dogs?

“The postman left the cardboard box marked 'Warning! LIVE BIRDS [PUPPIES]' in the backyard. Fortunately, the warning was right.... [The dogs] survived an extra day in transit — the Postal Service’s one-day shipping guarantee turns out not to apply to animals —  from a hatchery [puppy mill] in Polk, Ohio, 400 miles from Brooklyn.”

“Two of [the kitties] died … I don’t know why. Maybe I didn’t give them enough feed. Maybe the hotel room wasn’t warm enough.”

“It’s very easy to lose chicks [cats]. … They are quite a project. What often happens, aside from them getting cold, is they’ll overheat and then die of heatstroke.”

"Hatchlings [Kittens] can come out shrink-wrapped (the membrane of the egg [mother's amnionic fluid] sticks to them and they suffocate)

"Even healthy chickens [puppies] can require a surprising amount of maintenance, as anyone who has ever crouched in a coop [doghouse] in a minus-20 windchill massaging Vaseline into the comb [paws] of a squirming hen [puppy] to prevent frostbite can attest."

Instead of being the subject of a charming article, the urban hipster would likely be the target of an animal cruelty investigation.

Some trends are meant to die. The backyard chicken coop needs to be put to rest like so many other bad ideas. A flowerbed or an herb garden might be a better use of the space. 

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