Posts Tagged ‘backyard chickens

The Hidden Violence Behind a Farm Fresh Egg

» April 17th, 2013

When you deem yourself in charge of an animal for the primary purpose of consuming some part of that animal you are automatically establishing the preconditions for some level of abuse. I can already see some of you squirming, sighing, sputtering, thinking, “yeah, McWilliams, but I do it right.” No you don’t. My axiom still applies because what might appear to be innocuous or even beneficial arrangements—such as keeping hens for their eggs—are in fact quietly exploitative in ways most of us never see. Forget for now that no contractual arrangement could ever makes those eggs your eggs, and forget that humans can never know what’s “right” for chickens. The deal is this: when you want the eggs you will play chess with “nature” to maintain access to those eggs. And when you do that, animals become a pawn to your palate.

I was reminded of the darker side of this truth while spending time (what seemed an eternity’s worth) at a website called The site is like a ad-hoc hootenanny for small-scale chicken owners who, do not doubt it, love owning chickens. Spend enough time reading about the quotidian tribulations of poultry proprietors and you quickly learn about the centrality of violence in chicken ownership. In point of fact the chickens, so long as they are pumping out eggs with sufficient speed, are typically treated with a measure of decency, but woe to any creature that comes between a chicken owner and her precious eggs.  ”Farm fresh eggs”—I hate that term—is a reality brought to you by the systematic extermination of raccoons, hawks, snakes, and opossum.  Anything that moves too close to the egg source is ultimately bound to be sighted in the crosshair’s of some chicken owning lunatic or other.

Even dogs. Pet dogs. Neighbors’ dogs. Behold:

Has anyone killed a neighbour’s dog who was killing chickens? If so, how did it work out between you? My neighbours 2 roads away had a husky that got free. My husband didn’t recognize the dog as someone’s pet (we had never seen it before). I wasn’t home at the time. Apparently it was just running from chicken to chicken killing it and moving on to the next. My daughter was out there in the melee, the horses were going crazy, and it’s hard to give a dog the benefit of being a pet and not a feral beast or rabid thing when it is killing without pause and not listening to commands to stop. My husband shot it.

And witness:

A bull dog came up in my yard, killed 19 of my chickens and I had to take care of one other one because it’s back was split wide open. I killed the dog. Shot it dead. I was so mad I was shaking and crying at the same time. I called the sheriff’s office and filed a report and animal control came to get the dog. The owners met animal control at the end of my driveway and animal control allowed them to have their dog back so they could take care of the body.?I lost 20 birds and I have one other missing that I can’t find the body or the live bird.??

Such are the dispatches from the world of humane, small-scale, local, and non-industrial chicken farming. Defenders of egg exploitation will assuredly contend that nature is nature and dogs eat chickens and chickens eat insects and this is the way of the world, etc., etc. and so on. Sure. But does that mean we have to both set the parameters within which animals go after each other (which is exactly what “pasture based” farmers do when they turn their birds out to free range) and then celebrate the death that inevitably results (often at our hands) by making an omelet and praising our “self-sufficiency”?

The Paradox of Backyard Hens

» September 7th, 2011

I live in Austin, where people keep a lot of chickens. Nobody’s knows exactly how many Austinites currently keep backyard chickens. We do know, however, that this movement is more than a passing fad. Asked about the upsurge in local demand for chicks, the manager of Callahan’s General Store responded, “It’s phenomenal.” Phenomenal it might be. But a critical assessment of this wildly popular trend is sorely lacking.

“Most food,” writes Dartmouth geographer Suzanne Friedman, “is sold with a story.” This is certainly true for backyard chickens. Local media has responded to this do-it-yourself renaissance with a celebratory narrative of hometown empowerment against an overly-consolidated chicken-and-egg industry. Writing in 2006, just as urban homesteading was taking root in Austin, Statesman writer Molly Bloom noted that “H-E-Bs and Super Wal-Marts have made it easier to pick up a dozen eggs at the store than grab them from the backyard coop, but in recent years, Austinites  . . .  have rediscovered the joys of backyard chicken husbandry.”

I’ve no doubt that ample joys have been discovered through backyard chicken husbandry. Judging from the accounts of my own hen-raising friends, eggs produced by their “girls” are gastronomically orgasmic, miraculously disease-free (one friend drinks the eggs raw), and come from birds that are loyal “members of the family.” When Addie Broyles, one of Austin’s most critical food writers, took the backyard hen plunge earlier this year, she went all wobbly. “Even though I didn’t have a clue what I was doing,” she wrote, “I knew we’d made the right decision within minutes of getting both birds home.”

But if ample joy is evident in the task of keeping backyard chickens, considerable abuse is quietly obscured. Search popular media accounts of backyard chicken keeping and you’’ll encounter little more than agricultural pornography (soft core). Why this uncritical glorification persists is hard to say. What I do know, though, is that several disturbing aspects of this sad fad deserve due consideration before you drink the Kool-Aid, run out to Callahan’s, and moonlight as a farmer.

A major problem involves hatcheries. Most backyard chicken owners get their birds from hatcheries.  But hatcheries–which are essentially puppy mills for chickens–don’t give a cluck about that half of the bird population incapable of laying eggs: males. Male chicks are killed–often in a mechanized grinder– as a matter of course. Other males are shipped to a retailer or consumer, either purposely as “packing material” (to keep the hens from knocking around in the shipping container) or due to “sexing errors”– mistaking males for females, which happens anywhere from 10 to 40 percent of the time. In either case, because male chicks are considered useless by anyone with high hopes of poaching a backyard egg, they’re more often than treated worse than household waste.

Then there’s the issue of a chicken’s life-cycle.  Backyard chicken enthusiasts primarily purchase their birds in order to obtain fresh eggs.  Urban homesteaders are frequently surprised to learn, however, that a chicken’s rate of egg production diminishes rapidly after a couple of years, often to the point of complete non-productivity. Chickens can live to well over ten years of age.  What to do with birds when they stop producing those orgasmic-tasting, impossibly yellow-yolked eggs?

Many rock-ribbed urban pioneers have no problem slaughtering hens on site. This act is legal in Austin so long as the meat isn’t sold. But as pragmatic as this solution sounds, it’s actually rife with the very welfare problems that backyard chicken advocates sought to avoid by going local. Just because earnest homesteaders love their “girls” doesn’t mean they have the first clue about how to properly kill them. As Dr. Karen Davis, President of United Poultry Concerns, told me, “Most amateur slaughterers don’t know a carotid artery from a jugular vein.”

The results of this ignorance is horrific for anyone with the least concern for animal welfare. I’ve been following the personal accounts of backyard bird keepers for years (urban homesteaders happen to be prolific bloggers). In so doing I’ve amassed a gruesome database that, sadly, I call “botched slaughters.” Here’s a typical case, one from Heidi, a San Francisco “farmer” describing her first slaughter. The victim was “Pearl,” a chicken:

I drew a deep breath, counted to 3 and twisted. I heard the disturbing crackle of breaking bones and began to relax thinking that my job was done. Like I’m that lucky. Pearl was still breathing. How could that be possible? So I quickly twisted again in a panicked effort to put an end to this. . . Should I get a shovel and smack her over the head? Way too violent. I settled on covering her nostrils with my fingers whilst holding her beak closed. She continued to make efforts to breathe, flapped her wings, then released a foul smelling fluid from her vent and went limp.


For those without the fortitude to self-slaughter, keeping older hens as companion animals is also an option.  This choice, too, has a downside–one that applies to the chickens while they’re laying as well. Backyard chickens are like fish in a barrel for predators. As a quick perusal of any on-line forum for chicken keepers will attest, chickens frequently fall prey to dogs, hawks, skunks, coyotes, foxes, and, notoriously, raccoons. Owners often declare themselves completely helpless to protect their birds. Forcing chickens into semi-secure locations and inhibiting their natural survival tactics is in the same vein as a hunter loading a feeder with corn and sitting above it in a deer blind.  And that’s no way to treat a pet.

Animal shelters have traditionally been a viable last option. But that was before every urban hipster with access to a patch of dirt decided it was time for eggs to go uber-local.  Today, sanctuaries are bursting at the seams with unwanted chickens. An official statement from a coalition of animal sanctuaries declares, “As organizations with limited resources and space, it is no longer feasible to take in even a small percentage of these sadly unwanted birds.”

Many (if not most) consumers, even if they are aware of these drawbacks, will continue to support backyard chicken keeping on the grounds that their eggs are safer. Even on this point, though, ground is shaky. Not only is there no study (to my knowledge) comparing industrial and small scale egg farming on a disease-per-egg basis, just last month Food Safety News reported that the CDC had identified 71 cases of salmonella (more than half under the age of 5) linked to backyard chickens. Eighteen people were hospitalized.

The foodie media generally tends to glorify the practice of backyard chicken-keeping without paying particular attention to its downsides. At the very least, future chicken keepers should be cognizant of the less publicized challenges they face. As I see it, the drawbacks of eating backyard eggs far outweigh the benefits. And, be assured, this is not support for factory-farmed eggs, but rather yet another reminder that, when it comes to the ethics of raising and killing animals and animal-based products, the best answer is to just say no.




Eat Local, Kill Local: Part II

» September 2nd, 2011

Food might inspire passion but–as I have just finished reading yet another disturbing account of backyard slaughtering–I’m also convinced it can bring out the absolute worst in an otherwise well-meaning human being. What is it about raising and killing an animal that taps our deepest capacity for self-delusion?  The particular post that has me shaking with anger ends with this earnest call to arms:

Only consumers can change the market.
Make the choice.
Be responsible.
Feel good about the food you eat and where it comes from.

The post is dedicated to teaching urban homesteaders how to “humanely butcher” ducks. But what, I wonder, is “humane” about shoving a live duck head-first into an upside down cone, holding it still, and slitting its throat? Is it humane that, because this woman has not a clue about what she’s doing, two of the ducks “held out for almost 10 minutes with some thrashing and splattering of duck blood”? And is it humane that her response to this botched slaughter was “Good thing i wore old pants and sneakers”?

Is local meat really worth such human degradation?

Then comes this penultimate dose of righteousness: “Just because you may choose not to think about where that meat comes from, or how it was treated when it was a living animal, doesn’t make the frequent mis-management and disrespect of meat animals any less prevalent.” I read this and I’m left to wonder if the food movement hasn’t gone totally Orwellian.

Here’s the link, and be forewarned, the pictures capture some pretty disgusting atrocities: