Pets vs. livestock: Cracking open the myths about backyard chickens

cm_chicks_-1Last spring I decided that this was the year I was going to finally get some chickens. On a snowy Saturday in March I brought home six tiny cheepers that I bought at my local ranch store in Livingston, Montana. Two of them died right off, which didn’t entirely surprise me: those fluffballs didn’t look like they’d really committed to life on the planet. My carpenter boyfriend recycled a big packing crate into a nice tight coop, and we put up a fence. Long story short, the fencing was inadequate and just as they got to laying age, two of my hens were dispatched by the bird dog. Sigh. I was down to one rooster and one hen.

So I made a deal with my milk-and-egg rancher — she took my rooster in exchange for a broody hen, and I bought five professional laying hens off of her. And the boyfriend added a frame upon which I stapled wire fencing (with some recycled twig fencing for shade), then draped the whole thing in bird netting. Voilà — a chicken coop in the backyard.

However, I must admit, there’s a part of me that feels a little queasy about having become part of a trend. I’m not really a trend person. I’d always wanted chickens, but mostly for the same economic-anxiety issues like the ones described in this article. I had a pretty strong hunch that my corporate job was coming to an end, and I figured with a big veggie garden and a bunch of hens, at least I wouldn’t starve to death. But I have to say, I was sort of wigged out by trend articles like this one about artist Hope Sandrow and this other one about the children’s book author, Jann Brett, in which the chickens are described as something between pets and circus freaks.

People! These are chickens! Don’t you know they will shit on everything? And you let them in your house? On your shoulder? In your car? Yuck.

cm_chicks_-2So, my dirty little secret is out. I don’t love my chickens. I haven’t named them, not even the little brown one who is the only survivor from that group of six I brought home in the spring. I wasn’t particularly sentimental about the two the dog killed, although I was quite annoyed with the dog: he’d offed them just as they’d started producing eggs. To me, they all seem pretty interchangeable. They lay enormous brown eggs, with yolks that stand up and are a bright bright marigold color. They are making me very fine compost.

But they are not pets. They’re livestock. Yes, I distinguish between the two. Perhaps it’s growing up on farms, and around people who breed animals for a living, but I do think there are degrees of separation. Call me a species-ist if you want, but I don’t love them, I haven’t named them, and I do not want them in my house.

I have pets. Two spoiled bird dogs who are allowed on all the furniture and upon whom I have lavished much affection and thousands of dollars of veterinary care. The chickens are not pets. They live in a coop out back, and granted, they’re sort of adorable sometimes when they all chase me across the yard in the morning — I’m not taking it as a sign of affection, they know they’ll get kitchen scraps and scratch grains if they return to the coop when their free-range recess is over. But I just don’t get the sentimental attachment that so many people seem to feel for their chickens. What, praytell, are all these people who have chickens running around in their house doing about the shit? Do they have servants to follow the chickens around? Please tell me they’re not outfitting them with chicken diapers?

To each his own, I suppose. If you want your chickens to be pets, then who am I to judge? You want to diaper your chickens… well, people do all sorts of odd things. But don’t go all cranky with me because I think there are livestock animals, which live outside, in barns or coops or sties or whatever, and won't be bringing mine inside.

cm_chicks_-3I do like my chickens. But mostly I do my duty by them. They have a nice life — a cozy coop, a big run, an hour or so free range in the garden every morning, food, a heated water thingy for winter. They now have sturdy fencing to keep my dogs, the neighborhood cats, and that skunk I’ve smelled in the alley out of their enclosure. I clean the shit out of their food and their water. I keep their run and the coop mucked out and make sure they have clean straw in their area and shavings in their coop. Despite all that, despite the nice rhythm they give to my day, and the astonishingly good eggs that I’m using for barter all over town…they’re just chickens. Nice chickens, but still, just chickens.

I worry about all those people who are jumping on the backyard chicken trend, expecting them to be cute and affectionate — to be pets, in essence. What’s going to happen when they’re confronted by the considerable amount of waste those chickens produce? What’s going to happen the first time one of their kids gets fwapped in the face by a panicky chicken? Or steps barefoot in a big squishy free-range pile of chicken shit? What’s going to happen when they decide they’re bored with chickens, that their daily care is too demanding and they aren’t really that cute after all?

Is the backyard chicken trend going to show up in a spike of chickens abandoned at shelters? Backyard chickens are great, but the reality, at least in my backyard, is not the romantic pastoralism as served up by most of the newspaper trend stories, but rather a more quotidian reality. Eggs, feed, water, poop, with some companionate clucking. Livestock. Like a 4H project, complete with duties and responsibilities, and in reward, I’m eating lots and lots of big, brown eggs with bright yellow yolks.

That’s what I expected from them, not love, not companionship: just eggs. And for that, I really, really like my chickens.

31 Responsesto “Pets vs. livestock: Cracking open the myths about backyard chickens”

  1. connie says:

    Thank you for this article and you are brave to put into print that you dont consider your chickens as pets. Hooray for you. My chickens and I have a deal- I feed them and give them shelter- they lay eggs and let me take them from them. End of discussion.

  2. duane marcus says:

    I agree with you 100% about the difference between livestock and pets. We had been thinking about getting some hens for egg production for over a year when someone offered us 6. We already had a coop built in our barn with a large covered run outside. When we got them we did name them. Besides the eggs (they are not laying now, 1 is broody, 2 are molting and 3 are just slackers i guess) we do find entertaining. But good god, they will never be let into the house! And when there productive lives are over we look forward to making a nice stew out of them, replacing them with new producers. We have a friend who raises pastured poultry commercially. He has offered to teach me how to kill them humanely and butcher them properly. We know many people in the city who have hens and have no plans for them once they are no longer laying. We plan to offer to take them and either butcher them for the owners for a fee or put them in our freezer (as soon as we get one). We will be totally up front about what we plan to do with them. We definite will not be running an old flocks home for chickens.

  3. Robin says:

    I like my chickens. And that's it, I'm just in like with them. They aren't pets and don't have names. They live in the hen house. They feed me so I feed them. When they stop feeding me they'll make nice compost. Have you ever tried to play fetch with a pet chicken? I'll stick with my farmcollies for pets.

    Great article!

  4. It's okay, you're not following a trend if you were going there anyways. We have a lot of hens. I taught the roosters to not crow - they were delicious. Our hens, and the roosters while they were learning not to crow, have free run of our farm. The eggs are a definite bonus and delicious but the big reason that we have so many birds is they are a natural pest control. They keep our gardens, compost piles and livestock free of bugs, break up poop patties in the pastures and rake down the bits of turned up soil from the pigs. When their day comes, they'll stew slowly, those tough old birds and I'll enjoy them in one more way. It's a system. I enjoy looking at them but they're a different level than a pet. They benefit as do we.

  5. bruce king says:

    The folks at most animal shelters seem to think that an "adoption fee" of $40 is appropriate for chickens, which is why chickens languish at shelters all over the country. 

    A chick is $2, a chicken of indeterminate age is probably worth around $6 -- bagged and oven-ready.   

    Try mentioning to the shelter that you're interested in adopting dinner and they'll show you to the door.   

    Weird.  Supermarkets are fine, but eating livestock?  Nope.  Not in our enlightened society. 

  6. Martha says:

    I agree to a certain extent in that I wouldn't let my chickens in the house either, but you say that they shit everywhere and that's gross. But then you say: "I have pets. Two spoiled bird dogs who are allowed on all the furniture and upon whom I have lavished much attention and thousands of dollars of veterinary care." Dogs not only shit but they also eat shit and then want to lick your face... now that's pretty gross if you ask me. I know what you mean about the chicken trend, although I live in rural Italy and it's certainly not a trend here, but rather a necessity to have your own chickens. And in my opinion, there are a lot more abandoned dogs than chickens, no? I think they are many more spoiled children who just HAVE to get a puppy and then can't deal with it after that...

  7. patty rasberry says:

    ok, I've got to admit I think alot of my poultry. I have twenty some guinea keets in a cage under a light on my sunroom floor. No,I'm not going to give them the run of the house and when they get old enough to go outside to the chicken house out they go. I have no problem with frying up the young roosters. I know they had agood home were not fed a bunch of hormones and antbiotics that I would not care to eat. I have a pair of peacocks and a tri of Royal Palm turkeys.none of them are on the menu. I also have a small  flock of Silkie chickhens beautiful little feather dusters I wouldn't think of eating them because their flesh is black. I have six standard size hens that I hatch their eggs in an incubator to raise the chicks for fryers. I also have a flock of  Nankin Banties  what I am saying here is I have poultry that is livestock and earns its keep but they are also my PETS!!!!

  8. mochapj says:

    I imagine it will be somewhat similar to the trend with potbellied pigs in the late 90's-early 2000's.

  9. Mochapj, can you explain more about what happened with the potbellied pigs back then?

  10. mochapj says:

    Certainly Walter. 

    My comment referred to how back then (in Toronto specifically) when news of certain celebrities keeping them as pets emerged (George Clooney and Luke Perry I believe) all of a sudden they became the hot new pet to have. 

    Average consumers started to keep them as pets, not realizing that they grew to be so big and required a certain level of care.  This led to many abandoning them, and humane societies having to repatriate them out to farms and such, which eventually led to the municipal government outlawing them as pets in Toronto.

    As it is in Toronto now, chickens and all other livestock are strictly verboten, but there is a silent group breaking the laws and keeping them anyway.

    I obviously can't speak for the rest of the world, but I imagine it wasn't specifically a Toronto phenomenon.

  11. Sam Spade says:

    I don't name my chickens, generally, except maybe "Big Chicken".  But eggs on the other hand?  Why of course, there's Fluffy, Creamy and Yummy...

  12. Tara says:

    THANK YOU!  Those articles drive me nuts.  My favorite thing is the idea that people will keep backyard chickens and still have a beautiful pristine lawn.  Chickens will turn any patch of grass into a lunar landscape within a matter of days.  You could probably preserve the grass if you were really diligent about moving them every day or two, but the lawn would still be covered with poop and feathers. 

    That said, I like having chickens, but they are definitely LIVESTOCK.

  13. Corina says:

    I have 3 wonderful cats as pets, and I have four chickens. When I bought the day-old chicks, I was thinking that it all would be strictly utilitarian. I wanted home-produced eggs, just like I wanted to eat only home-produced tomatoes and greens. But as they grew and their personalities (yes, they have distinct personalities!) developed, I got more attached to them. One of them LOVES people, likes to be held, and wanders into the house on summer days if the door is open. Yeah, she'll sometimes leave a little poop (luckily we have hardwood floors...), but it's no big deal. When I go out into the garden, she comes running like mad and makes a little chicken "hello" sound. I can't help it, I'm charmed. One of her sisters, on the other hand, is mean and if I ate meat, she'd go into the pot first. I think if you have a large flock, it's easy to let them do their own thing and not get attached. But having a small flock in your yard is rewarding for both the eggs or meat, and for the companionship of the animals. And chickens are WAY easier to keep than cats or dogs!

  14. Sheila Z says:

    Most of my 15 chickens have names.  Goldie, Big Bertha, Bearded Lady (these are the 3 Easter Eggers) are a few of the names.  I don't set out to name them, but somehow it just happens.  Still won't stop me from making stew when their laying days are over.  They are having a good life while they live.  Like Walter, I've already taught a few roosters how not to crow (these were sold to me as pullet chicks- I wonder who they are getting to sex them when I could buy straight run and get about the same rate of pullets)    Made some good eating and I'm sleeping much better in the morning.   So for me it  is possible to name and enjoy animals and then make them into dinner.   I grew up on a dairy farm, so maybe that makes the transition from hoof to the table easier.  I do thank the animal and tell them goodbye when they die.   Once they are dead though it's just a carcass like any other.  Although, out of respect I also make use of the whole animal and waste none of it.  It's the least I can do after they gave their life so I can eat.

  15. Beth Dees says:

    I have two cats, one dog, one husband and no chickens. My life is less for not having a few chickens--as both pets and livestock. I grew up on a farm but now live in the city. Although I wouldn't do it anymore, I know how to wring a chicken's neck. I've heard of covert operations involving keeping chickens in the city. Unfortunately I've called the law on my neighbor's non-stop barking dogs before and I'm certain he would call the law at the first cluck coming out of my backyard. I would not put diapers on them but I would name them Loretta, Bernadette and Coretta. Probably within the next year or so I will move out to the country where I can keep them and get a goat and few other critters.

  16. Guy says:

    I live to far into the city and planning laws wont let me keep chickens, sad to say. I guess the neighbours would complain :(

  17. Caroline says:

    I have three chickens. They have names and personalities and are kind of cute, in a feathered-dinosaur sort of way. They haven't laid eggs in more than two months, because first they had to molt, and then it got cold out (and we've been lazy about outfitting them with a heat lamp). Today, as I was watching them peck around their run, I realized I was thinking like a farmer, calculating the comparative costs of keeping them alive with feed and a heat lamp in the hopes that they'll start laying again versus having them butchered and stashing them in the freezer for making stock. Wait! These are my chickens! I slapped myself. But no, they're just chickens. One day we'll probably eat them. And that will be sad, but also OK. At least for us.

  18. Tracy says:

    I find it interesting when people blog about their selfishness.

  19. Ember says:

    This isn't much different from people who love pit bulls, or pugs & bulldogs with hideous squished-in faces, vs. people who love normal dogs. I just don't get the former. Why are people still breeding those gene pool rejects? Ew.

    On the other hand, I am inexplicably charmed by guinea fowl & chicken. I find them adorably dopey. Their clucks are cute to me. Dumb as bricks they are, but in a darling way. And they give you eggs, no less--I LOVE EGGS. I don't eat meat anymore (my digestive tract & aging metabolism do best without), so I probably would either give them away or maybe just keep the poor goofy dears after their egglaying years, if they're pleasant old bitties. Karma, you know. Someday  I won't be productive either, & I might not be a nice old bittie.

    Diapers on a chicken?! I am ever amazed by the ingenuity of my fellow man. Or woman--this was woman-designed, no man would ever diaper a chicken on purpose, I'm certain of it. Only a woman would mother a chicken like that.

    And you who think of them as soulless food-stock, it's a big world. To each his own. I won't call PETA on you if you don't harrass me about my Chickie Pampers. :D

  20. H. Houlahan says:

    Meh.  Fancy chicken fanciers (hey, that's what they call themselves) have always blurred the lines between livestock, pet, and deranged hobby.

    People shampoo their chickens before taking them to a poultry show.

    Many of the fancy breeds are poor layers, delicate, and virtually impossible to breed "to the standard."  That's what the fanciers like about them -- they are as challenging and useless as hothouse orchids.

    Our chickens are livestock; a few of them have names and are "pets" in the original sense of being "a favorite."  They don't come into the house (unless I leave the back door open -- there have been invasions) or wear diapers.  Excess roosters are coq a vin.  Eggs are mandatory, and she who eats eggs becomes stew.  But they are also entertaining, have individual personalities, and we enjoy having them around.

    As the oldest hens move past laying age, I have no doubt that some of the pets will cash in a sinecure and enjoy a retirement in the coop rather than the crockpot.  It's cheap sentimentality in all senses of the term -- an old free-range hen isn't exactly expensive to feed.

  21. Sharlene T says:

    How to humiliate a teen-aged daughter:
    Years ago, when I was replacing a brood of chickens, the local Farm Coop promised me that the eleven chicks I just paid $5 for were hens.  Great. A few years of egg-laying and then some fine stews were on the calendar.  No offense intended, but chickens are a food source, to  me,  not pets.  Well, as my chicks  reached puberty and found their voices, ALL eleven of them developed spurs and full-throated cockle-doodle-doos!  (Hmmm, I thought,  eleven roosters for for five upcoming hen-layers will do as much good as eleven guys diving in the deep end to save one young chick in distress -- if that's possible.) Okay, so, when they hit two or three pounds, my egg-layers are definitely fryers. 

    Having dispatched quite a few hens in my lifetime, I really didn't like the few who got away and beat themselves black-and-blue in the final throes . . . so, I decided to let them bleed out hanging from my, uh, clothesline. Perfect. So, when the time came, I had eleven pre-cut cords in place, set about the task, and had about seven flapping feathered birds hanging by the legs with wings outspread and -- well, you get the picture.  As I picked up the next in line, I heard a noise in the driveway and saw that my daughter was home from school. She had been given a ride by friends who were now standing around the car, just, well, staring at me. There she stood on the porch, hands on hips, head slowly shaking back-and-forth, with that look that only mothers of teen-aged girls who have been totally embarrassed by them can appreciate, and said in a low just-between-us voice, "I don't know why you can't just hang sheets on the line, like other mothers!"

    My Susan passed away from Ewing's Sarcoma in 1981 at just 20 years of age. She left me with many wonderful memories; but, this was the best because of  that look of total embarrassment combined with her own budding wit.

  22. azure says:

    After feeling inundated with articles about people falling in love with their chickens, naming them, petting them, etc.,  it's a relief to read this blog post.    I have a friend who has chickens & I've certainly enjoyed eating their eggs & have benefited from using their excretions as fertilizer in my veg garden, but I'm not fond of them and don't see them as potential pets.    The friends likes almost all birds, & she usually lets the chickens die a natural death, even after the hen has pretty much stopped laying, but otherwise, the birds are there for a purpose and that's to lay eggs, eat any & all surplus or spoiled foods (i.e., live garbage disposals)  & produce fertilizer.   In the winter,  as long as the weather isn't really bad, she picks weeds/grasses for the chickens for "greens."    Their yolks are usually a lovely golden yellow.

    I have learned that chickens will eat anything, vegetables, grasses, grains, meat, insects, small slugs, crab shells, whatever--that includes other chickens.     Occasionally, some chickens will turn on & start harassing & pecking a single chicken, and may do so until the bullied chicken is dead unless the human caretaker notices in time and removes that bird for a long enough period of time for the bird to recover & the others to forget why they started picking on it in the first place.   Perhaps that is not so different from the way humans behave.   

  23. Judy Hudgins says:

    Thank you, thank you.  At last someone else who does not romanticize chickens.  When living in the country I too had chickens.  They were interesting (loved grass clippings when mowing), but they didn't curl up on my bed with me.

  24. sara says:

    I've been keeping chickens since May.  I was a complete newbie, but had done enough research and talked to enough fellow backyard livestock'ers to know that I'd be dealing with lots of poopy litter from the coop and run, that hens are noisy when they lay, and that it's a real adjustment after having critters like cats.  Well, it is an adjustment after just having pets, in general.
    But, I went ahead and did it.  For starters, I am tired of buying eggs at the market.  And I like to have some control over what I eat.  Besides, I am sick of amending my backyard with purchased planting mixes and composts.

    For their part, the girls are helpful beyond the eggs they produce.  When I let them out for recess before it gets dark, they mow down weeds for me.  The poop and then scratch it into the dirt while they're looking for other snacks.  I moved into a house where the yard had never been seriously cultivated, so this is priceless.

    They have names, but honestly?  They're feathered dinosaurs.  The squawks and bawks and chirps that they emit when I so much as open the patio door (they have bionic hearing, it turns out) are something out of a micro-scale Jurassic Park.  They have unique personalities, and it is entertaining to watch them, but they're just laying hens.  They're laying hens who are feeding my family, taking care of most of my veggie/fruit scraps from the kitchen, eating weeds and pests (they dispatched a couple dozen tomato horn worms in the summer one weekend), and they give me great litter to compost or work into the dirt as side dressing.  I am not supposed to have them where I live, but so far so good; lots of us do it.

    In the house?  Egad.  They're really unique and beautiful creatures in their way, but even if they could be litterbox trained, it just sounds like a disaster. 

  25. Isaac says:

    I love chickens!!  Either as pets, producers (eggs), or as food .... let me count the ways Forest.

    First pet was a chicken.  Not many baby animals are as cute as chickens (biddies).... except puppies and babies. Learn how to slaughter and dress so when you get tired of them, you eat them ...... simple.

  26. iv says:

    I have kids, 5 dogs, 4 cats, sheeps, some goats and chikens!  They are all pets and I actually like them! Named them all (the 12 chiks and the other farm animals as well). They are funny and silly and no, we do not eat meat! :) and they are not allowed in the house, although they tried :)

  27. Jolt says:

    Oh, of course.  Because some animals are friends and others are simply things.  Use some of them as/for food and play with others, totally valid distinction, sure.  Just like some humans are masters and others are servants, that's perfectly valid too.  After all, women/nonwhites are meant to serve Us.  They're different, see, so it's okay.

  28. VanityDog says:

    I find it interesting when humans get "TIRED" of innocent animals lives on this earth, they kill them.  On the other hand, I accumulated many tumors from eating birds, especially chickens, Birds cause tumors, and I quit eating all of them years ago, organic or putrid, big or small, none of them are good for humans to eat. Chickens are already showing signs of their own version of mad cow disease.   Good luck to you all, you will certainly deserve what you get in life.

  29. jess says:

    The 'myth' that you 'cracked' was about hipsters treating chickens like how most people (including yourself) treat dogs? I don't understand - you're annoyed because you don't want to be seen as a hipster? That unlike those stupid naive yuppies, you are special and clever because you treat chickens like 99.9999% of people treat chickens (which is, as womb-making machines)? Gah. I wanted to see some actual myths cracked! False advertising! Maybe re-title this as 'I am totes better than stupid chicken-coddling hipsters'...

  30. splintergroupie says:

    Excising one's naturally empathetic feelings from a relationship other sentient beings in order to kill them is a dubious accomplishment, but the practice is tried and true. Language reveals a lot: we have to consider other people as "dogs", "monkeys",  or "pigs" before we can hurt them without doing harm to ourselves, in the same way this author betrays a need to make the psychological distinction between "pets" and "food" before being able to kill.

    Talk about your pecking orders: men are demoted to women ("ladies" "girls") and women get demoted to animals ("bitches" "dogs"), as a measure of disrespect. Animals get demoted to means-to-an-end in egg laying, pit fighting or horse racing,  or simply thought of as calories. Might makes Right.

    What a great responsibility it is, to be a God; would that so many here were less proud of their smiting abilities, and of their success at letting their palates influence their ethics.

  31. Joi de Vivre says:

    Ah, yes, chickens.  I must admit to having a sort of pet chicken--a Silkie rooster with a flipped foot.  That said, I'd definitely find him a home if I could.  And he lives in the barn and pasture, just like the rest of the livestock. For the most part, I have an agreement with my chickens, who are forever unnamed.  They produce eggs, or they produce meat, but they don't get a free ride.  My goats also produce something on the farm, as do the horses, who pay their way each year by going to camp and earning enough for hay through the winter.  The geese go into the freezer.  That's just the way it is.  Much as I would like to support 1000 animals on my farm, I can't afford it.  I treat them with respect, and they know why they are here.  Their life is good while they're on the earth, and that's a lot better than I can say for anything obtained at the local grocery, including the vegetables.