First: a disclaimer: I would love to have hens in my backyard (currently prohibited in my city) but if I had hens, I would not eat their eggs. Not because they will become “baby chicks” – they won’t be fertilized without a rooster so there would be no likelihood of that – but because I am fully committed to a plant-based diet and I have no desire to eat eggs. So, why do I want backyard hens? Hens add an important dimension to a human-created urban eco-system. I know I can provide a pleasant, long life for an animal that generally lives in utter misery because my urban permaculture eco-system is based on cooperative relationships – mutual flourishing – between people, non-human animals, and plants. I also really like chickens: they are funny, interesting, and full of personality.
As a life-long animal advocate, I believe all animals have the right to flourish based on their own needs and wants. I am opposed to the commoditization of animals and to their exploitation for human profit. However, I am not an ‘animal abolitionist’ if one defines animal abolitionism as being opposed to humans living with domesticated animals. I believe that humans and some animal species have co-evolved alongside each other and that these relationships can be mutually beneficial. Don’t get me wrong: the human-animal relationship has mostly been highly exploitative of animals especially with the advent of capitalist-industrial agriculture. The amount of extreme animal suffering that currently occurs especially within the agricultural system is staggering and heart-breaking – at any given time there are 19 billion chickens alive on Earth and about 50 billion are slaughtered each year (probably more). The vast majority of these chickens live lives of misery.
I do think that some species – mainly modern, domesticated dogs, cats, chickens, goats, cows, horses, honey bee (apis mellifera) – have co-evolved with humans. They need humans, to a certain extent, to meet their daily physical and, in some cases, emotional needs. This is truer for some animals such as dogs and not for others that can exist quite happily in a feral state (honey bees…possibly cats). Some domesticated animals clearly flourish when they live with humans who meet their physical and emotional needs. Domesticated chickens are very different than their wild counterparts. Not only that, they have been geographically removed from their original habitat and now live around the world under human care (and mostly, abuse/exploitation). I doubt they would live long as feral animals – and I believe we have an ethical responsibility to them since we created them as a domesticated species.
In our current society domesticated animals (with the exception of some dogs, cats, and horses) mostly suffer immensely. But I do believe we can create a society in which these animals live with us in mutually beneficial relationships – where we don’t abuse, exploit, or eat them but do live together as companions, mostly in the co-creation of hybrid eco-systems in which we all flourish. Even some wild animal flourish when living alongside human-created urban ecosystems. For example racoons, skunks, many species of bumblebees, coyotes, and – the one we love to hate the most – rats – all seem healthier and exist in greater numbers in human-created spaces. For all these animals (well, I don’t know about the rats), we can create regenerative urban ecosystems that allow for mutual flourishing.
Which brings me to backyard hens. I believe they have the potential to dramatically change the way humans think about so-called “food” animals. Currently the animals that people eat are considered property – an object that can be owned and hyper-exploited – and a commodity that can be sold, bought and consumed. The millions of chickens alive today live lives of unbelievable misery. Not only that, capitalist-industrial chicken farming is a disaster for the entire Earth. Chicken farming and – especially – slaughtering operations are known to be some of worst places to work in North America. Much of the workforce is made up of super-exploited migrant workers who suffer physical and emotional harm as a direct result of their work. Chickens are brutally treated: the male chicks are routinely killed and discarded upon hatching; they live in cramped cages or huge cramped barns filled with shit, harmful pathogens, dust, and chemicals; and their bodies are designed to grow meat quickly, deforming them in the process. In industrial operations, they are in no way allowed to live anything approaching a ‘normal’ chicken life. Chickens are subject to the therapeutic use of antibiotics because it makes them grow bigger and faster and antibiotics counter some of the pathogens in their disgustingly dirty living conditions. This is leading to increased antibiotic resistance in humans which will be a complete nightmare. And chicken farming is implicated in the release of carbon gases, the pollution of water systems, and the oceans of monoculture driving native bees into potential extinction. In short, industrial chicken farming is awful and it’s expected to rise dramatically as a source of “cheap meat” over the next few decades (check out the ‘further reading’ for further info).
Backyard hens, on the other hand, can give people the experience of interacting with these animals in ways that allow them to be seen as living, feeling creatures with interesting and complex social lives. Many people who keep backyard hens begin to see them as pets or family members not merely as food. I cannot make the claim that people with backyard hens stop eating chicken meat. However, if you have even casually observed the growth of interest in keeping backyard hens in North America, great affection and care is apparent. People name their chickens, hug them, build them gorgeous coops, garden alongside them, and spend hours observing them.
I believe that people with backyard hens begin to see the positive role hens can play in a human created urban ecosystem when they are allowed to live their own lives: breaking down compost, eating some ‘pests’, creating nutrient-rich manure, and, yes, dispelling some unfertilized eggs. In return, humans protect them from predators, provide food, keep them safe from the elements, and can even rescue them from factory farms. Emphasizing the mutually beneficial ways chickens and humans can live together beyond food production may prevent the phenomena of urban chickens being surrendered (a worry of some animal advocates). If they are an essential and vibrant being that exists within a dynamic urban ecosystem, their existence isn’t reduced to some monetary or nutritional value. Maybe this is naive, I grew up on a farm and know that people can live among animals and can not only feel little compassion for them but be quite cruel. My first high school, which was located in a farming community, had a “fundraiser” in which, often drunk teenagers “picked chicken” – grabbing and stuffing chickens into crates for slaughter. I can only imagine the extreme suffering of the chickens.
But I am hopeful that a growth in backyard, urban chickens can improve the life of chickens for two reasons. One, the relationship between backyard chickens and their humans is, in most cases, non-commoditized. In cities in North America, urban people are either not allowed to sell the eggs or can’t have enough hens to make a livelihood. Two, anyone who grew up on a farm with farm animals knows that you have to be trained into becoming desensitized to animal suffering. Most children – and many adults – have compassionate and caring attitudes towards animals. I grew up on a small family farm and can attest that farm children – at least on conventional farms – have to be taught to have little regard for their animals as much more than property/commodities (I have a sad pet sheep story from my childhood if anyone wants to hear it!). People form affectionate bonds with the animals with which they live (and vice versa).
Kids and chickens: a perfect friendship. Pictures courtesy of Gabor Sass, Tinece Payne, and Luis Patricio.
If a backyard hen program is administered in a way that honours the needs and wants of hens – in a ‘hen-centred’ way – I believe it can provide a template for mutual flourishing of chickens and people. I believe that a hen-centred backyard chicken program will lead to people questioning the disastrous, deeply unethical practices of factory farming.
Guidelines for a hen-centred backyard chicken program
- a small flock of 3-5 hens
- an adoption/rescue program similar to dogs and cats (since there are about 19 billion chickens on Earth, most living lives of misery, that should not be a problem)
- housing requirements to allow for warmth and predator protection
- no roosters
- hens are allowed to die natural deaths (no slaughter)
- hen vets are available within reasonable travel distance
- hens are allowed to forage for food and spend time either freely exploring the backyard or in a protected, but movable and bottomless ‘chicken tractor’
- restrictions on selling eggs
I know my fellow urban farmers will not like some of these suggestions, particularly about not selling eggs, but I think those of us who want a fundamental change in the human relationship to non-human nature MUST question the commodification of animals and their bodies/substances. I also urge urban farmers to consider if the commodification of all life/relationships truly serves the interests of food justice/sovereignty. Neo-liberal capitalism has turned as all into hustlers and I don’t think hustling to make money will bring about a better world.
I know these guidelines will never be fully implemented. The most important point, for me, is that backyard chicken programs should be hen-centred. I believe this will allow people to form relationships of care and consideration not only with chickens but other domesticated and wild animals. For these reasons (and more!) I support backyard chickens programs and think that fellow vegans/plant-based eaters/animal advocates should help shape future programs to be hen-centred instead of fighting against their implementation. Let’s use these programs as a way to move people away from a diet that is embedded in the capitalist-industrial animal agriculture system towards a way of living based on the ethics of care and consideration for all beings.
To learn about the disastrous effects of Industrial Livestock on animals, people, and the Earth, I recommend you read The Ecological Hoofprint by Tony Weis.
To learn about how deeply chickens are embedded in the global capitalist system, check out this great article by Raj Patel.