The Problem With Backyard Chickens
You may have noticed a lot of talk lately about “backyard chickens.” Seems a lot of city folks want to stay in the city, but they have this quaint, back-to-the-land notion of raising their own chickens for eggs. It’s a romantic idea – “We’ll raise chickens! We’ll have fresh eggs and know where they came from! What a great thing to expose our children to!” – and a trendy one, stemming from the locavore movement. What could be more local than your own backyard? The reality, though, may be quite different than what many of these people imagine.
Keeping chickens is legal in many places, and as it becomes more popular, it’s becoming legal in many more. In Canada, you can raise chickens in Vancouver and Victoria and a good handful of other smaller cities. In the United States, an astonishing number of cities from San Francisco to Portland to Raleigh and Buffalo have embraced urban egg farming – in fact, by one count, some 86 American cities allow backyard chickens.
In Toronto, where I live, there is currently a ban on backyard chickens, though it’s rumoured that a small number of people have them anyway. Proponents of the ban usually argue that the smell and the noise would be objectionable. Barnyard sounds and smells don’t bother me in the slightest, so I’ll leave that for someone else to write about.
What concerns me is that there’s a movement gaining momentum here to reverse the backyard chicken ban. Two Toronto city councillors plan to bring a proposal before the municipal licensing and standards committee in February in a bid to overturn the ban. (This makes me wonder if one would require a license in order to raise chickens. If so, what would be the requirements for obtaining one? Could a license be revoked? Under what circumstances? There are no cruelty laws regarding animals that are not pets. And the scant protection offered to farm animals? It excludes chickens.)
A chicken is a living, breathing, sentient animal and it has needs; I question whether all those who are eager to get their own chickens have taken this fully into account. Here are some things that potential urban egg farmers should give some thought to before acquiring a few chickens.
- Chickens, like anyone, occasionally get sick. They’re prone to a variety of viruses and other illnesses. Your local urban vet is probably not well versed in them. In fact, she may very well not even see chickens in her practice.
- You will likely get your first chicks from a hatchery. By some estimates, sexing errors occur 25% to 50% of the time. What if you wind up with a rooster or two? Roosters are not legal in the city and there are no plans to allow them, so what will you do with them?
- How will you heat your henhouse in the winter? Do you have the time and inclination to clean it every day, ensuring that the hens have fresh straw and clean water?
- Who will look after your chickens if you go away on holiday?
- How will you protect your chickens from predators? If you’re one of the people who thinks we have a problem with coyotes and raccoons in the city now, wait till you’ve got chickens in your backyard.
- The average lifespan of a chicken is seven to 10 years, though they can certainly live longer. However, hens lay eggs only until they’re two or three. What will you do with your hens when they are no longer “productive”? Will they become someone else’s problem (a shelter, a sanctuary, or simply left somewhere out in the country to fend for themselves), or will we be talking about amateur backyard slaughtering too?
This is a much more complicated issue than I can easily cover here, even leaving aside the ethics of eating eggs (for the record, I don’t). What I am saying is that chickens are living creatures, not fundamentally different than a cat or a dog. Just like a cat or a dog, they have physical, psychological and emotional needs, and caring for them is a serious responsibility and a commitment; you should be prepared to do your very best by them for the duration of their natural life.
Overturning the current ban on backyard chickens would be a mistake. Too many people do not take their responsibility to their pets seriously, which is why our shelters are perennially full; what will become of chickens they view as “less than”?