Pets vs. livestock: Cracking open the myths about backyard chickens
Last 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.
So, 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.
I 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.
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