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The Problem With Backyard Chickens

November 28, 2011

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”?

  1. November 28, 2011 10:15 pm

    Brilliant piece, Debra. Absolutely a must read!!

  2. November 28, 2011 11:24 pm

    Great article. I’ve been watching in horror as this trend grows. I live in the country surrounded by people who keep chickens. Chickens that get constantly predated upon, or run over, or slaughtered by amateurs. I’ve followed some discussions online about the most ‘humane’ way to kill a chicken, and there isn’t any consensus…most DO agree that it’s less stressful for the birds not to see each other being killed. I shudder to think about the increase in suffering this trend is creating. And abandoned animals. Thanks for posting. Good article here by James McWilliams if you haven’t seen it…

    • November 29, 2011 9:20 am

      Thanks. Yes, I read James McWilliams regularly — thanks for sharing the link.

  3. Anonymous permalink
    November 29, 2011 10:17 am

    I think everyone city councillor should read this article before voting. Fantastic article, clear and to the point.

    • November 29, 2011 11:22 am

      Thank you. This may very well form the basis of a letter sent to city councillors. Several of us will be working together to do our best to see that the ban stays in place.

  4. Alison permalink
    November 29, 2011 1:44 pm

    Thank you for writing about this. I have been alarmed that this is being proposed in the City of Toronto and that many seem to be jumping on the bandwagon thinking that this is a great idea. It is so wrong on so many levels! Hope you don’t mind me sharing your article.

    • November 29, 2011 1:48 pm

      Mind? I’m thrilled; thank you. Share away!

  5. Jerry permalink
    November 30, 2011 1:24 pm

    You raise many good points, however, many other jurisdictions worldwide allow having backyard hens. US cities such as New York, Chicago and LA are some of the major urban areas that allow it. The city of Houston will even allow you to keep chickens, turkeys geese, ducks, peafowl and rabbits as long as you have a minimum lot size of 65 x 125 feet.

    Raising hens is never a problem in those cities. Sure every now and then an issue will creep up, but that can be said about raiding any kind of animal.

    Let’s clean the slate. Suppose dogs and cats were outlawed in the city, and someone brought in an idea to legalize them, people would be raising these same kinds of issues. There are dogs biting people every year in this city. Cats go missing and form feral colonies. Does it mean they should be banned?

    In the end only a few select people will end up wanting to raise backyard hens, because of the work and commitment involved. And if the city does the laws right, it won’t be such a bad thing.

    • November 30, 2011 2:55 pm

      Hi Jerry,

      Thanks for your perspective. You too raised a number of points I’d like to address.

      Yes, New York, Chicago and L.A. allow backyard chickens; they also allow guns, but that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea.

      It’s not true that “raising hens is never a problem in those cities.” Improper storage of feed attracts rats and other wildlife and predators are a problem. There are innumerable sites and forums on the Web detailing myriad problems, including chickens contracting diseases and harbouring parasites that their “owners” don’t know how to deal with.

      Comparing it to cats and dogs is, well…apples and oranges. Cats and dogs are domestic pets; just because chickens have been domesticated doesn’t mean they are viewed as being on par (frankly, I wish they were). In addition, you say that few people will actually want to raise backyard chickens because of the work and commitment involved. There’s work and commitment involved in having pets too, but that doesn’t stop people who aren’t interested in that work and commitment from having pets…or neglecting or abandoning them.

      Every farm sanctuary and humane society in any proximity to a city with backyard chickens has had to deal with chickens that well-intentioned urban farmers no longer want. We live in a disposable society, and sadly, that’s how many people view animals too.

      You seem to have missed the point of my post, which isn’t about the chickens causing a problem for the city — it’s about the welfare of the chickens. Because most chickens have been bred to produce an unnaturally high number of eggs, among the many other health problems people may be confronted with in their chickens, the hens can also become “egg-bound” (an egg is trapped inside her body which isn’t functioning properly because of her manipulated biology) or suffer from a prolapsed uterus — this means that in the process of laying an egg, her uterus comes out with it. This is not that uncommon.

      It’s interesting to me that you read the entire post and not one of your comments was related to the welfare of the chickens. It’s easier to prevent a problem than to try to fix it after the fact.

  6. December 1, 2011 9:47 pm

    There’s a closet industry with rabbits and squab, too. Back when I worked at Oakville Animal Control, we responded to a cruelty complaint about a guy keeping rabbits in his basement, for food, of course. His slaughter methods were keeping the neighbours awake..
    The ethnic market also has an underground component, as do many private “farms”.

    Great post.

  7. December 3, 2011 7:54 pm

    I totally understand the issues you cite in keeping backyard chickens. But for a moment I will hold a mirror up and tell you of another side:

    I have a small flock of rescued hens – Some came from an industrial factory and were scheduled to be gassed along with 850,000 others… Some came from the local feed store that I’ve made arrangements with to call me if they need to “destroy” a chick for health reasons… As you know, these places don’t/won’t take the time to nurse one sick bird because it’s not profitable. The original pair of hens came from a “shelter” and were due to be killed the next day… And the others came from similar dire circumstances… Birds are subject to such wide spread mistreatment – I’ve seen it all.

    I love these birds and give them the best care I can. I’ve built elaborate pens so that when they’re not free in the yard they have ample space to fly, perch, dust-bathe, etc. There are some hens who haven’t laid an egg for over 6 months and I absolutely couldn’t care less -as long as they are healthy and happy.

    Now here’s the flip side of county/city ordinances… My county is proposing new legislation that would threaten my being able to continue keeping these birds as I do. I may have to move a very complicated housing, electrical and watering system to stay “legal”. I may not even have enough land to fit within the rules of the new code. So… What happens to us all is up in the air. I may have to find a rescue for the rescues… The odds of me finding a person willing to take chicken mouths to feed without getting eggs in return is pretty slim. 😦

    Of course the feed and property is kept as sanitary as possible – The hens aren’t a nuisance with noise any more than a loud dog occasionally is… Yet, I may be in for a huge battle due to new regulations aimed at other people who don’t follow good sense and least of all who don’t treat birds with any respect or care.

    I’m frustrated because I see both sides… I’m hoping you might have a different perspective too – That not all things are cut and dry all the time. Not saying your issues aren’t valid — But me and mine don’t want to suffer fall out from good intentions either. It’s complicated isn’t it?

    • December 5, 2011 1:10 pm

      Provoked, I am *glad* there are people like you caring for chickens. If more people were like you then I wouldn’t have that much of a problem with it. Unfortunately, I don’t think you represent the majority…It sounds like you are basically running your own chicken rescue, which I think is great! I’m assuming your chickens get veterinary care when they need it and that you won’t be slaughtering and eating them at some point in time. Is that right? If so, you’re the kind of backyard chicken person I’d be happy to live next door to. I just don’t think that most of the people who think about doing this are coming at it from your perspective; I think there’s a lot of well-intentioned, uninformed naivte out there. Or worse, a lack of caring. This clearly doesn’t apply to you. I hope you and your girls are able to stay put.

  8. Anonymous permalink
    December 5, 2011 1:52 pm

    Right Debra – No way are these girls destined to be “retired” before they’ve worn out their own bodies usefulness to them: running, foraging, flying and doing whatever they have the mind to do.

    I’ve seen first hand and read enough horror stories about other backyard chicken “keepers” – Also the ones who like to raise their own “meat birds” (disgusted). Wish there was some way to have a license or some permit of sorts given to those who would respect and care for nonhumans – In ways we both know would honor their lives and not the products their bodies created. Working to end ignorance is about the only way I think that will ever happen. Good luck to both of us as we make our gains on that path.

  9. December 5, 2011 1:54 pm

    Right Debra – No way are these girls destined to be “retired” before they’ve worn out their own bodies usefulness to them: running, foraging, flying and doing whatever they have the mind to do.

    I’ve seen first hand and read enough horror stories about other backyard chicken “keepers” – Also the ones who like to raise their own “meat birds” (disgusted). Wish there was some way to have a license or some permit of sorts given to those who would respect and care for nonhumans – In ways we both know would honor their lives and not the products their bodies created. Working to end ignorance is about the only way I think that will ever happen. Good luck to both of us as we make our gains on that path.

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