by Christie Lagally
Originally published in City Living Seattle
I cringed when I saw the post on my neighborhood website saying, “Free healthy chickens for pets or slaughter.” I quickly posted that it was dangerous to hand off your backyard chickens to the first person willing to hack them up. This situation was a cruelty case in the making, and I offered to help find the animals’ new home.
The owner agreed immediately, telling me privately that what she really wanted was for her chickens, Rosie and Betty, to go into “retirement” — a euphemism for handing off their care to an already-overburdened rescue group.
While several volunteers spent the next week searching for a home for Betty and Rosie, I reflected on the prevalence of chickens cast off from the backyard chicken movement. In November, a neighbor reported an old chicken dumped at an abandoned house, and when I arrived to pick up the chicken, she was skinny, dehydrated and terrified.
Again, last month, a neighbor posted an announcement entitled “Fowl Play,” with a request for help catching a little chicken dumped near her yard after looking for the owner for days.
The complexities of keeping chickens responsibly is more than some people are willing to learn about or manage for the 12-year lifespan of a chicken. The Seattle Animal Shelter, local farm animal sanctuaries and animal advocates report that backyard chickens are being abandoned or surrendered at an unsustainable rate.
Seattle Tilth, an organization that promotes local agriculture, offers classes on keeping chickens.
“In our class, we discuss that, after two to four years, chickens lay less frequently or stop laying completely. At that point, the owners have choices: They can keep the chicken as a pet, which some people do, becoming attached to their ‘girls,’” said Seattle Tilth garden program director Sharon Siehl, adding that Seattle limits flock sizes to eight chickens.
“Another option is to slaughter the chicken and prepare it for a meal,” Siehl explained.
But for those who envision a perfect death for their egg-laying friends, Seattle Tilth refers folks to other organizations to teach this gruesome task. “We do not support chicken owners taking their chickens to the Seattle Animal Shelter as a way of releasing responsibility to others for the chickens’ end of life,” Siehl said.
Yet, Seattle Animal Shelter (SAS) executive director Don Jordan said the agency gets about 20 chickens per year from people who surrender their animals.
“You need to be responsible for your chickens,” said Jordan, who explained that the animals are difficult to place. SAS tries to send chickens to farm animal sanctuaries, but spaces are extremely limited.
“We are full to the rafters,” said Karen Eliasen, who runs BaaHaus Animal Rescue Group on Vashon Island with her partner, Glenda Pearson. Together, the women are caring for 30 hens and 12 roosters on their farm of 175 rescued farm animals. Eliasen said BaaHaus gets about one call per week from people looking for a “retirement” home for their chickens.
“If we took in every hen or rooster, we’d be in the thousands by now,” Eliasen said.
When the sanctuary does have room, Eliasen said it only considers requests from people who aren’t going to perpetuate the problem. Surrendering non-laying hens, only to get new ones, is unsustainable, and rescue groups like BaaHaus bear the burden.
For animal advocates like Lake City resident Killy Keefe, raising chickens for eggs only to slaughter them at age 3 is illogical and inhumane. “I wouldn’t slaughter a friend, so I wouldn’t do that to an animal either,” Keefe said, adding that before you bring chickens home, you need to be prepared to let them live out their lives with you in safety. “There is no magical farm sanctuary to take your failed backyard chicken projects,” Keefe emphasized.
No ‘backyard paradise’
Local resident and chicken owner Jane Moisey explained that people imagine a backyard chicken paradise seen in Sunset Magazine, but the reality is messier and time-consuming. At all ages, chickens require safe housing, careful feeding and veterinary care or even surgery.
Moisey bought chicks once from a feed store, but now all her animals, including her chickens, are rescues. She said she wishes that the feed stores that sell chicks would educate people on end-of-life issues for their chickens. Now, Moisey rescues hens through her avian veterinarian in Seattle, and she enjoys the company and calming nature of her hens.
For Seattleites whose chickens no longer lay eggs (and those of us without chickens), baking and cooking without eggs is easily accomplished using ground flax seeds, applesauce, tapioca or bananas in place of eggs in recipes. Egg-free cooking is a viable alternative for those who truly commit to caring for their non-laying chickens as a valued family member.
Keefe explained, “Chickens have wonderful personalities, and each one is different. They can really brighten your day and be a good friend for life.”
CHRISTIE LAGALLY is a writer and the editor of Living Humane, a news site about humane-conscious lifestyles at livinghumane.com. To comment on this column, write to CityLivingEditor@nwlink.com.