As the author of two previous columns in support of the urban chicken, I think it’s only fair that I should alert readers to an unfortunate development in the movement to poultrify the world’s cities. According to the Globe and Mail, an alarming number of city people are mistaking chickens for pets. This misconception is so common that last year deluded citizens dropped more than 500 unwanted chickens off at animal shelters in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
I have kept chickens for years, albeit in a rural setting. Sometimes when I pick up my day-old chicks they come with a sheet of instructions: keep them warm, give them water, feed chick starter for so many days, and so on. The page is short, based I suppose on the assumption that the chicks are going to people who already understand the essential elements of the farmer-livestock relationship.
Now that more chicks are destined for urban homes, the hatcheries may need to consider publishing a complete owner’s manual, with perhaps a bold warning on the face: “Caution, farm animals – not to be treated as pets.” Treating chickens as pets is stupid. Don’t do it. This is not to say you can’t name your favourite laying hen Betsy, or tickle her under the beak when you collect the eggs. Just keep in mind that her appropriate final resting place is the soup pot. The pet cemeteries are already overcrowded.
It appears that neophyte urban farmers may be listening to the wrong advice. Consider the following, from Sayara Thurston of Humane Society International Canada: “A chicken is a pet like any other and they need to be cared for throughout their lives, which people need to take into consideration if they’re thinking of adopting some chickens into their home.”
Is it just me, or is it hard to believe Ms. Thurston has ever actually met a chicken? I’ve known hundreds of them, and I’ve never seen one yet that any sane individual would adopt into their home. As to the assertion that it’s a pet like any other, I suppose if it could reach it would drink out of the toilet bowl, but in what other particular is it like a pet?
On pet rule number one, that the subject must be susceptible of house training, the chicken fails miserably. You cannot house train a chicken. It’s a scientific fact that a chicken has no idea what’s going on anywhere behind its wings. Its brain is too small to reach that far. For a chicken, defecation is an auto-response, like breathing.
On pet rule number two, that the alleged pet ought to return your love, forget it. Chickens, particularly the adult males, are quite capable of hating a human being, but their hearts, which are hardly bigger than their brains, cannot love. Betsy doesn’t love you, and you would be advised not to love her too much, because she will break your heart. Especially when she quits laying and you find yourself feeding her for nothing.
But the real reason a chicken makes a lousy pet is that it lacks the necessary condition of pointlessness. Face it, your pet exists for no good reason. If it was a guide dog or a barn cat or a hunting ferret you wouldn’t call it a pet. But a chicken is by definition a worker, a layer of eggs, a packer-on of edible flesh. To turn her into a pet is to take a good, utilitarian bird and reduce it to sanctified uselessness.
If you try to take your chickens for walkies through town you will create chaos. Even more so at the off-leash park. Not to mention the disorder you will create in your own life if you make the mistake of believing a chicken is a pet. The Globe and Mail reports that Stephanie Brown of the Canadian Coalition for Farm Animals “doubts” urban farmers would be willing to cover the high cost of veterinary care for a sick chicken. I can assure Ms. Brown that urban farmers are not unique in that respect. Even out here in the country, you don’t see a lot of people taking their chicken in for its annual checkup.
For the record, Nordicity continues to support urban farming, and in particular urban chickens, but with the following proviso: urban chickens do not belong in the hands of airheads. Take the following test: are you tempted to cuddle up on the couch with Betsy? If so, give her up, she’s not good for you, nor you for her.
And don’t clutter up the pet shelters with your cast-off chickens. As a public service I am offering a country home for any chicken you want to abandon, so long as it’s either laying or edible.
Al Pope won the Canadian Community Newspaper Award for best columnist in 2013. He also won the Ma Murray Award for Best Columnist in B.C./Yukon in 2010 and 2002.