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.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.