Thursday, 17 April 2014

Have You Hugged your Chicken Today? The Continuing Urban Chicken Debate

I admit, watching this video  brought back some pretty fond memories for me.  As a kid, there was no animal that I didn't try to turn into a pet.  Kittens were easy; chickens required a lot more work (they aren't very smart); calves (you can ride them); piglets (nothing cuter particularly when dressed in pink); magpies (extremely smart); mice and gophers (short-lived--my parents kept feeding them to the cats). I'm currently reading Bryce Courtenay's The Power of One, about a small English boy is South Africa.  When very young, his best friend was Granpa Chook, a rooster hypnotized by a great Zulu medicine man.  My sister, brother and I often 'hypnotized' our chickens, though with less success.  Perhaps our medicine wasn't quite strong enough?
With Easter on our doorstep, one just might have the urge to present their children with a couple of cutely colored baby chicks to start their own personal foray into urban chickenery (that's a word, right?).  The truth is, like any other mammal, chickens can become a pet; it's just a matter of ensuring they understand who provides the food.  But food is only one ingredient to being successful at keeping backyard chickens.
Backyard chickens is by no means a new concept.  Keeping livestock of all shapes and sizes, just a few short generations ago, was not only common practice but a necessity.  My father told a story about returning from overseas after WWII and being very uncertain of his future.  In only a few short years, the country had mechanized.   No longer would he be hitching the horses up to the plow; tractors had replaced them.  Alas, he had never driven a tractor.  Granted, my father was a farmer and in those days there was no such thing as a farm without livestock.  My mother, however, was raised in the city and not only did her family have a horse, they had chickens, pigs and cattle too.  So how did they do it?
First and foremost, families were introduced to the caring of livestock at a very early age.  While their initiation may have started with sprinkling a bit of feed, collecting eggs from the hen house or brushing the legs and underbelly of their horse, it wasn't long before they graduated from small tasks to chores which almost always encompassed the less pleasant aspects of animal husbandry, including cleaning the pens, learning the fine art of composting aka building and maintaining a manure pile.  That's right folks, I said art.  As with any compost, a properly layered and maintained manure pile doesn't smell much different than your average household waste.  And if you think manure is the worst thing to be experienced, think again.  When referring to chickens, there is always the slaughtering, gutting, plucking and all those other aspects of food preparation that many of us remain blissfully aware of before it reaches our dinner plate.
Don't get me wrong; I'm not advocating for the reintroduction of horses, cows and pigs into our communities.  But I do think many of us have lost our connectivity to our food production system, starting with the most basic levels of animal husbandry.  There is sufficiently little thought given to getting a puppy or a kitten that our communities struggle to contend with all those that are abandoned.  Not only do our animal welfare agencies have to contend with dogs and cats, but rabbits, ferrets, guinea pigs and, on occasion, reptiles.  Are we now going to expand these facilities to care for poultry?  
Making the acquisition of a few chickens is not a short-term commitment.  With proper care, a chicken's lifespan is not much different than a dog.  As with a dog, all breeds are not equal.  Some are bred specifically for laying eggs, while others are for meat production.  Some breeds are hardier than others.  If you have a breed with relatively few feathers, it will not only need protection from sunburn, but may not fair well in cold climates.  You  might want to check out local (much hardier) heritage breeds.  Chickens adopt their own 'pecking order' which can easily get out of hand.  As the more dominant peck their way to the top, 'first blood' can trigger a pack mentality, ultimately ending in one dead chicken.  Just like your dog, chickens are susceptible to certain diseases and parasites:  coccidiosis, scaly leg, an impacted crop, bumble foot, mites, lice and worms.  Are you ready for this?
This is not meant to discourage communities from adopting policies to allow the keeping of backyard chickens.  In fact, I firmly support urban chicken programs and applaud my own urban municipality, the City of Red Deer, for endorsing and monitoring its pilot project.  That being said, I'm also a strong advocate for education before you jump in with both feet.  I truly wish everyone were required to take a crash course in animal husbandry before they were allowed to keep any animal, including cats and dogs.  While we will never eradicate deliberate mistreatment and cruelty to animals, I would like to think we have a chance at exterminating or at least reducing stupidity and ignorance.  If people understand what they are getting into when they take responsibility for another life, be it animal or human, they may think twice.
Anyone seriously considering venturing into the world of backyard chickens should first arm themselves with every bit of education they can.  Here are some opportunities to do just that:
There are many success stories on this subject.  Unfortunately, there are also many failures and it is these examples that dampen the spirit and enthusiasm of lawmakers and regulators when it comes to trying something new (or in this case, trying something old).  We can do it. . . it just needs to be done responsibly. 

Good luck, and remember, never count your chickens before they are hatched!