No Clucks Given for Backyard Birds

RACHEL PAUL / COURTESY

A UC Davis study found regulations for keeping, maintaining chickens are lacking in many areas

A recent UC Davis study showed that, while more people are getting backyard chickens, there are very few structures in place to protect them as well as a shortage of resources for flock owners.

“Very few of the cities required basic care in terms of food, in terms of water, veterinary care or vaccination,” said Jacqueline Kingsley, the main author of the study. “And [chickens] were only protected from cruelty in 2 percent of the municipalities I studied. And 98 percent of the municipalities don’t even have a regulatory structure to prosecute for cruelty against chickens […] if abuse and neglect is happening there’s no intervention strategy currently possible in a lot of these places.”

The study was done in Colorado due to laws requiring animal rescues to their make data available to the public. According to Kingsley, urban agriculture was nearly banned after World War II and cities have had to change the laws amid backlash from animal shelters.

“[Keeping chickens] is really a response, especially in urban areas, of wanting some control and knowledge about where their food comes from,” said Richard Blatchford, an assistant extension specialist for poultry at UC Davis. “And for poultry it’s really easy. Most people don’t have space for a cow. If you can take care of a dog or a cat you can pretty much take care of a chicken.”

Animal rescues argue that chickens will end up at their shelters and most places are not equipped to handle poultry. According to Kingsley, people who do not want chickens anymore  often dump them, and the chickens end up in shelters when people later come across them. Kingsley says that about half of the birds may have been abused and the other half look like they were well taken care of. However, those numbers are influenced by cockfighting, which is illegal. Very few legal protections have been put in place for backyard chickens because they are seen as food animals, not pets.

“And I say ‘pets’ because a lot of people report getting chickens for eggs or for food, but then a lot of people also report that they come to love these animals, that they become members of the family,” Kingsley said. “You see all of these fringe things popping up, like cottage industries around luxury designer chicken diapers, where you can bring your chicken into the house.”

Seeta Chaganti, an associate professor of English at UC Davis, has chickens. She does not let them into her house, but does see her chickens more as pets than food producers.

“I also thought it would be fun to have eggs, which it is, but at this point, the chickens are really pets, and I don’t care about getting eggs,” Chaganti said.

Ordinances have been put into place regarding the noise level associated with chickens and how smelly their coop can be, but there is not a codified way for chicken owners to receive information on how to care for their birds.

“Partly I have relied on other friends who are experienced keepers,” Chaganti said. “And partly I have relied on the social media site BackYard Chickens, which I recommend to anyone who is thinking about keeping poultry.”

Unfortunately, the internet does not work for the more serious issues that chickens might face. Chickens can get attacked by many different animals and can also get sick. Finding a veterinarian that will see these birds is difficult.

“Most small animal veterinarians will not see poultry,” Blatchford said. “So the big issue with lack of veterinary care isn’t so much disease issues, it’s what happens when you have a bird that needs to be euthanized.”

Without the proper training, flock owners can accidentally make their chickens suffer more while trying to put them out of their misery. Also, without mandated vaccinations, diseases can spread from backyard chickens into commercial farms, such as what happened in California in 2002 and in Egypt from 2006-2009.

Blatchford does not want to dissuade anyone from getting chickens, but he does want them to know that there are associated risks, such as salmonella and lead exposure. According to Blatchford, 10 multistate salmonella outbreaks occured last year from backyard chickens, leading to one death. The CDC has issued statements that warn people to be careful handling chickens.

“I think the problem in what [the CDC is] giving out is that they’re thinking chickens as food animals and not thinking about it as pets,” Blatchford said.

Researchers are also finding that chickens in urban areas seem to have more exposure to lead and that the birds will often not show symptoms of lead poisoning.

“It’s just a consequence of where we have the birds,” Blatchford said. “Urban areas especially have high concentrations of lead in the soil just because of what’s been the environment and what’s been there before.”

Concerned flock owners can get eggs and dead chickens tested by California Animal Health and Food Safety Laboratory Systems for a fee. There is a lab in Davis or the CAHFS website has instructions on how to ship eggs and birds.

Despite the risks, flock owners say keeping chickens is worthwhile. Blatchford has had chickens before and really enjoyed them. He said the birds can recognize people and have different personalities. Chaganti has been so moved by her experience raising chickens that she is planning on writing a book on how keeping chickens reshapes one’s senses.

“The process of learning about chicken-keeping necessarily involved learning about the poultry industry […] and that changed my eating habits and my general attitude toward animals as products,” Chaganti said. “I personally don’t think there’s a way for them [poultry farms] to be humane, and I don’t think animals are here to be commodities and conveniences for us. I feel very humble and grateful to have my two chickens, and I hope that I am giving them the comfortable, loving life that I think every chicken, every animal, deserves.”

 

 

Written by: Rachel Paul — science@theaggie.org

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