Sunday, November 17, 2013

To 'Have' a Backyard Chicken

I used to be one of those people, who, when they see chickens or a llama, or whatever living critter, say "I would like to have that."

Okay, I'm still one of those people. I'd still like to have some more goats. (I'm crazy that way.)

But now I know what it really means to 'have' animals. Like chickens.

See, I don't 'have' chickens. I am a slave to the chickens. I feed them, dust them for mites, change their water, clean out their enclosure, etc. Which is good and fine on nice days when I'm feeling up to it. It's not so much fun when it's freezing and windy and the waterer is frozen solid and I'm running a fever with chills and a stuffy nose and a sore throat that feels like it's bleeding and on fire at the same time. Luckily I have very few of those days. But I can't skip taking care of my birds even for one day, especially on those horrible days, because if I skip their care on a bad weather day, the chickens will have no water or food when they're most vulnerable. Most people don't think about it, but food heats you up. Calories in the blood help maintain temperature. If they're hungry, they're cold. If they have no water, they're dehydrated, and chickens dehydrate very quickly. If they try to get water through snow, they'll chill even more quickly. They'll be more prone to disease, infection, digestive or vent ailments, frostbite ... the list goes on and on.

All this adds up to suffering. It would be my fault because they're domesticated animals and they depend on me. Human beings bred them to be this way, and so human beings now provide for them.

Same with the goats. Same with the dogs and the cats, though they're a bit easier to take care of as their stuff is all inside the house or in the garage. I can take care of them in my pajamas. No such luck with the chickens and the goats. If there's snow, I'm hiking in it. If there's ice, I'm skating on it. If there's rain, I'm out there in my mud boots holding my hat on my head, wishing I had a free hand for an umbrella.

A friend of mine with horses and I got to talking and I mentioned that I used to play with Barbies, but the Barbies weren't the focus of my play. I had Breyer horses, some really gorgeous ones, and the Barbies were slaves to the horses. They took care of them, groomed them, very occasionally rode them but mostly the horses had adventures and the Barbies were there to take care of the tack.

That's how it really is, my friend told me. Somehow as a small child I discovered the truth in my play.

I read an article in the paper today about how backyard chicken owners are now discovering the harsh reality of keeping chickens, including the fact that the birds stop laying after about three years ... but live to be twenty years old. They put ads in the newspaper. Anyone want my old hen that stopped laying? She's pretty and sweet and follows me around like a dog.

The answer is no. Hell no I don't want your old chicken that doesn't lay. If I'm going to keep a chicken, I want a young one that I can raise from a cute little chick and that follows me around like a dog and who lays for me. If I choose to keep her past her laying years it's because I've developed a bond and I want her for keeps. And if I don't want her for keeps, because she's my responsibility (and because I care about her) I will give her a quick, clean death.

Some of these people turn birds loose in parks or toss them into a random neighbor's dog yard because they don't want to pay for the feed, take care of the birds, or do the decent thing, which is to kill them quickly. Better to eat them, or if you can't bear to eat your pet, bury her rather than let her be savaged by an animal or hit by a car or die from starvation and exposure.

Thus, rescue societies were born. But they're overwhelmed. What are they supposed to do with these birds? The very thing that the owners should have done in the first place. The owners are deferring responsibility because they didn't think ahead and can't face the consequences of their choices. They want the problem to just go away. Well, it doesn't just go away.

Do you really want to 'have' a chicken?

It's great if you like them. I like them. I like to watch them chase each other and hunt for goodies, and I like to carry them around, and I like their eggs and the funny noises they make when they're mad and happy and sleepy. It's great to want fresh eggs. It's okay to be crabby about taking care of them if you decide to become a slave to the chicken. But please, please, as you would (hopefully) consider carefully before adopting a dog or a cat or a rabbit, think carefully about the commitment you're making, and plan for the future. Chickens don't live as long as parrots so you probably don't have to put them in your will should you decide to keep your hens past their laying age out of gratitude for the eggs they provided and because you're fond of them. But be realistic. Will you be okay with your decision a decade down the road?

Abandoned birds don't just vanish into the atmosphere. There's nothing natural about dumping a domesticated animal in someone else's backyard. A chicken is not like a wild animal that can fend for itself. Chickens might be able to scrabble for food for a while, but they have no good defense against dogs, coyotes, or raccoons, none of which kill 'clean'. And they're really not good in the weather. Their ancestors once were. Human beings bred a lot of their survivability out of them in the process of making them bigger, meatier, and faster layers.

Whatever happens to abandoned birds is seldom better than simply slaughtering them. Presumably you want chickens because you like them. I like them too. If you like them, don't let them suffer in utter terror until something kills them. Please don't add to the growing problem of abandoned backyard chickens in urban areas. If it gets much worse, chances are that cities will stop permitting backyard chickens altogether, and that would be a shame. That spoils it for everyone. Backyard chickens are great for responsible owners who take care of them and share the fruits of their hobby with friends, families and neighbors. They're great for pest control, and they're fun. Sometimes they're like pets, and sometimes they're more like the wild birds that people like to feed and watch through their window. Some of them are really, really beautiful birds. Let's keep them around in our suburbs if we can. And if you see someone who's struggling with the backyard chicken thing, remember, offering help and advice is going to go over a lot better than berating them for having a noisy mess or for dumping their bird over your fence so your dog can pin it and slobber on it until it dies of shock. If you can't approach someone, maybe leave some educational materials on their doorstep (usually your local extension service has lots of free stuff) or contact the Humane Society. They're the experts when it comes to education and intervention.


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