Animals Image credit: Lost Albatross, via Flickr.

Published on May 25th, 2013 | by Justin Van Kleeck


Grow Plants In Your Backyard, Not Chickens

Image Credit: Lost Albatross (own work), via Flickr. 

As the tide of locavorism continues to rise around the world, more and more people are looking closer to home for their food with the idea that, by reducing food miles, they are solving the world’s problems. Instead of seriously questioning the eating of animals, and taking the compassionate approach of veganism, people simply shift the source of their consumption habits instead of actually changing them for ethical and environmental reasons.

One of the most popular components of the local foods movement in recent years is backyard chickens in urban settings. Not contented with buying the flesh and eggs of chickens from local farmers, people of all sorts are setting up flocks in their backyards. And city ordinances are changing to meet the demand — in big cities like New York, Denver, Seattle, and others, as well as countless smaller cities and towns throughout the United States.

The many debates around backyard chickens usually follow the same script, focusing on health and disease, public nuisance, separating “country” activities from “city” life, and so forth. None of these debates, or the ordinances that result from them in cities that do allow urban chickens, really questions the ethics of keeping and using animals primarily for food purposes. Looked at in this way, one can easily see that there are a number of reasons not to open up additional opportunities for people to exploit chickens by “going local” and keeping them in their backyards.

Whatever the practical and policy issues associated with backyard chickens, there are a number of ethical problems with approving animals to be kept for use as food. One concern with backyard chickens is inadequate welfare protections. As it is, a LOT of people have a hard enough time providing their dogs and cats with proper care, including shelter and medical attention. Wherever one travels, one finds dogs who are left tethered outside for hours as if they are lawn ornaments. My local shelter has one of the highest euthanasia rates in the state, and there are a number of rescue groups in the Shenandoah Valley (much as everywhere else) trying to help with the deluge of unwanted pets in need — while there continue to be signs along the street or advertisements online for newly bred puppies and kittens.

Some people argue that we still allow people to have kids, dogs, and cats even though some individuals treat them badly, so why not chickens as well? The problem with this argument is that dogs and cats are protected under federal, state, and local animal welfare laws, but chickens are not. Chickens are kind of oranges to the pet-species apples because culturally they are viewed solely (or primarily at least) as food animals, not as members of the family. This is why city ordinances rarely, if ever, include welfare regulations meant to protect chickens against abuse. Local welfare regulations such as these, if they existed, would be going beyond any federal or state regulation on animal welfare. The federal Animal Welfare Act excludes all livestock and other farm animals from its definition of “animal,” meaning that they have zero protections from abuse and negligence. This is also true of the federal Humane Methods of Slaughter Act, which excludes fowl while covering other livestock. States make the same omissions and bow to “standard industry practice” — meaning that industrial practices set the “norm,” including debeaking and other frightening practices. The backyard chicken ordinances I have reviewed all deal mostly with nuisance issues rather than humane treatment. (I should clarify here that, even with welfare provisions added into a city ordinance, I would still not support backyard chickens; I think the lack of welfare protections is only part of the problem… and indicative of the root problem.)

This attitude towards chickens is also evident when it comes to vet care. For most people (other than animal rescuers and sanctuaries), the idea of spending hundreds or thousands of dollars on vet care for a sick chicken whom they are keeping merely for eggs or meat is an absurdity — as would be spending hundreds or thousands of dollars on adequate shelter, high-quality feed, and proper protection from predators.

Another concern about backyard chickens is that many owners get their chicks from hatcheries, just as most industrial “growers” do. If they are egg-laying hens, the hatchery they came from almost certainly engaged in the practice of male culling — meaning that any male chicks were separated and then killed. And the chicks are usually shipped by mail in boxes, sometimes enduring the better part of a day or more in transit….

Third, chickens can easily live for eight years or more (some sources say up to twenty). Backyard chickens live longer than their industrial kin in most cases, but their lives are still only a fraction of their natural lifespan. One useful example of this reality is from a famous local farm. Polyface Farms, run by Joel Salatin, slaughters its “broiler” birds at 8 weeks of age; industrial birds are usually killed after 6 weeks. Polyface’s egg-laying hens are slaughtered, as “stewing hens,” after about two years, when their productivity declines. Not surprisingly, many backyard chicken-keepers follow these “standard industry practices,” most alarmingly DIY slaughtering. All of us should be horrified at the idea of untrained people slaughtering live animals next door. We should be equally horrified at the idea of getting live chicks delivered and then kept as food animals or other anthropocentric purposes.

Of course, there is always the question of avian influenza issues — passing from chickens to local wild birds, or even from chickens to humans. Many sources say the risks of transmission are low, but outbreaks are occurring now in China. Also disturbing in this regard is the fact that the measures to prevent infection are largely related to proper housing — which, in most city ordinances, is not spelled out whatsoever. The Center for Disease Control also has some interesting information about the potential health risks from backyard chickens for salmonella infection (see links below).

While all of these problems with backyard chickens should lead to serious questioning of this trend, the central issue here is the ethics of eating animals. No matter how “well” they are treated or the strength of regulations covering their production, animals cannot be viewed as means for human ends — whether that end is a morning omelet or pest control in the garden. Just because the eggs or meat come from a nearby farm does not make them more ethical, more sustainable, or compassionate than industrial (“factory farm”) products — and this is just as true if they come from your backyard.

Image Credit: Justin Van Kleeck.

Fortunately, the opportunities that urban residents have to grow vegetables, fruits, herbs, and even grains and legumes in city limits are ample… and growing. Cities such as Seattle, Chicago, Baltimore, Portland, and San Francisco (to name a few) are revising their city codes to allow urban horticulture and the growing of plants for personal consumption or for sale. More and more towns are creating community gardens, and people are growing plants in containers, on green roofs, and even on public property via “guerilla gardening” methods.

Backyard chickens offer no real solutions to the complex problem of building a sustainable, ethical food system. Only by making the transition to a vegan lifestyle can one address the most damaging components of modern food production. By choosing instead to grow more plants and support urban horticulture, urban residents can combine the benefits of veganism (for animals, for people, and for the planet) with the benefits of going local.


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About the Author

I am an ethical vegan (since 1999), a writer, an educator, an activist, an organizer, and a vegan-of-all-trades. I have a PhD in English but then left academia to work on social change. I focus on veganism, animal rights, local foods, farming practices, environmentalism, and sustainability--starting from the position that humans are just one part of the biosphere, not the center of it.

  • Alex

    Interesting article – but I disagree with the author’s claimed ethical foundation for his point of view. I found this article when casually researching “how to grow backyard chickens for meat.”
    This article reminded me of how explained to my (non-American) wife last night that there exist a group of people called “vegans” in my country that have the luxury of actually deciding not to eat meat, or anything that comes from an animal. Looking at my (breastfed) 4 month old daughter was all that was needed to see why veganism is fundamentally unsound philosophically. No one can be born vegan, and it is proven that healthiest way to start like is with milk consumption.
    I don’t blame people for trying to save the world, treat animals with respect, and all. But, it’s a personal decision. I don’t see why oppose allowing people to legally grow chickens has anything to do with your personal decision to live with unnatural dietary restrictions.

  • Uncensored

    Another vegan telling the whole world that their practice is the best.

    • Chicken Farmer

      I think HIPPIE would be a better word.

  • Heidi Stucki DVM

    This article is an example of a vegan “preaching to the choir” ( other vegans). I am not vegan, I have no problems with veganism except that in this current world – not utopian vegan world – if animals are not a part of humanity – either by being a source of food, clothing, service, or pet or source of comfort- they will become extinct. Man has through the ages, shown that what is not managed (& I acknowledge man’s horrible record of being able to manage/conserve/respect) – whatever is not managed or utilized will be destroyed or simply disappeared . I do not want to see our “domesticated” animals disappear, so I suggest humbly that while veganism is a fine and healthy way of life, the utopian vegan world is devoid of animals. Even though I am a veterinarian by profession, I am retired by reason of disability, so have no dog in this fight( pun intended). My opinion basically is that by getting many people to be closer to how their meat is procured, by education and reality, the consumption of meat will take up less % of the diet, animals will be cared for, more valued and more humanely kept and slaughtered. The goal of total vegan life for the world will not be seen by even the children born today.

    • Zachary Shahan

      ” if animals are not a part of humanity – either by being a source of food, clothing, service, or pet or source of comfort- they will become extinct.”

      – ha, that is a little ridiculous. sorry.

    • Justin Van Kleeck

      Thanks for your comments, Heidi. I think there are some serious problems with your assertions that warrant addressing.

      First, this is not a vegan preaching to the choir. This is a direct criticism of the practice of keeping backyard chickens, and reasons why it is unethical and harmful for animals. Vegans are not keeping backyard chickens for their eggs or flesh…so I am not talking to them.

      Second, your comments are plagued by a misguided belief in the power, infallibility, and necessity of humanity. We are not, repeat, not stewards or saviors. The rates of species extinction and environmental degradation are both higher during humanity’s epoch than ever (except cataclysmic mass extinctions). Our record of “managing” species is laughable at best (think about how we handled most predators in the 20th century in America, for example). And those domesticated species are routinely abused in one form or another, or “managed” so poorly that millions of them are euthanized while breeders and pet stores still operate.

      Dithering over the feasibility of a completely “vegan world” is a waste of time, and professing the idea that a vegan world would be devoid of ANY animals is preposterous. There are very good reasons to go vegan right now, and very clear reasons why “managing” animals is both ill-fated and inherently wrong. As long as you continue to place humans above the rest of nature, and position them as some sort of ecological police force, you are going to continue to exploit and harm other beings unnecessarily, and you are going to miss myriad opportunities to make a real, positive difference for yourself, other animals, and the planet. As long as you place animals as the “others” below you, there is no hope.

      The only thing humans can (and must) do is strive to limit their negative impact on other species, which means placing compassion and humility at the forefront of our thoughts and actions. It is as simple as that.

  • Kelekona

    If you are going to eat chickens or their eggs, having them in your backyard is about the easiest way to guarantee that their life quality is up to your standards. (The only thing easier is to find someone who does backyard-level chicken raising who allows you to view their chickens without warning.)

    And there isn’t much point in backyard hens if they are particularly unhappy. Allowing them to eat bugs and weeds will make the eggs taste so much better.

    Of course, you have to make sure that you have the space, and abused animals should of course not be tolerated.

    Chicken coops don’t need to be particularly expensive, especially if you can scavenge the materials and build it yourself. Vet bills are another matter, but euthanasia is a possibility.

    I am anti-free range, save for supervised playtime outside of their run. There is too much danger of a dog or a car taking them instead of the cleanest death possible.

    The possibility of diseases is a valid concern. The reliance on traditional hatcheries and the culling of roosters is another concern.

    • Justin Van Kleeck

      The key phrase in your comment is “If you are going to eat chickens or their eggs.” Make the choice not to, and if you are going to *rescue* chickens so they can be members of your family, give them adequate care–instead of simply euthanizing them when they get sick. If you make choices based on what makes “the eggs taste so much better,” the chickens remain objects, not individuals.

  • Jim Corcoran

    LOVE this article! Eating eggs isn’t so harmless for the human body either:

    Eggs vs. Cigarettes in Atherosclerosis – One egg a day equals smoking 25,000 cigarettes

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