Backyard poultry flocks are growing in popularity all over the U.S. as more and more people decide to try their hand at raising chickens in their urban or suburban yards. Hobbyists may be hoping to cultivate their own local sources of fresh eggs, but animal sanctuaries nationwide are witnessing another product of this trend: homeless, mistreated and neglected animals. Farm Sanctuary has always received calls asking us to take in unwanted chickens, especially roosters, but recently the number of requests to place roosters has been on the rise. There are roosters wandering city streets, roosters stranded in the suburbs, roosters left at shelters across the country – all castoffs of the backyard flock trend and most with no prospects of reaching safe homes.
Compared to the factory farming system that produces most U.S. eggs, backyard raising may seem idyllic, but the practice is generally far from humane. Animal welfare abuses often start at birth for the birds involved. In fact, most chicks purchased by backyard raisers are born in the same sort of facilities as those slated for battery cages: large, industrial hatcheries.
Ideal Hatchery, just one facility of the many, touts its annual sales rate of 5 million chicks. Let’s think about that number. Because roosters do not produce eggs, and because most towns that allow chickens exclude roosters, those who patronize these hatcheries are overwhelmingly ordering hens. Half of all chicks born, however, are roosters. This means that, for 5 million chicks sold, another 5 million are either killed at the hatchery – often ground up alive – or used as "packing material." The majority of hatcheries pack male chicks to cushion the females who have actually been ordered, and customers therefore end up with unwanted roosters who are also often illegal for people to have in their communities. Large numbers of these roosters are dumped at municipal shelters, which are unequipped to handle the birds and usually either euthanize them or send them to farms. Others may end up at live markets, which are becoming increasingly crowded with roosters.
Whether male or female, all chicks sold by hatcheries to homes and feed stores are subjected to a harrowing journey. At one day old, they are shipped through the mail. Industry group Bird Shippers of America has their own lobby team working tirelessly to protect the right of its members to ship these fragile, young animals in this way. The group claims to follow self-imposed regulations that protect the birds, but we have seen evidence much to the contrary.
Fennel, one of our most popular roosters, was among many male chicks shipped from Iowa to Pennsylvania with 100 Jersey giant hens, packed around the females to keep them safe and sound. As we so often see, this strategy failed disastrously. The birds were not retrieved from the post office the day they arrived and so were scheduled to be shipped within 48 hours back to the hatchery – a trip they would never have survived. When a postal worker looked inside the box, he found that more than half the birds had already perished. The kind man called his local SPCA, who then called us. The box, clearly marked as containing 50 white jersey giant hens and 50 black jersey giant hens, contained 53 live chicks and 77 dead ones. The 30 extra were roosters. Of the fluffy peeps who were still alive, 25 grew into hens and 28 into roosters – "packing material" surviving the shipping at a higher rate than the actual "product." This is only one of many stories that every shelter that deals with birds could tell. Fennel and the other surviving chicks were lucky to be discovered by someone who cared enough to find refuge for them. Here with us, their amazing personalities can shine through, and they can educate so many people about the suffering behind backyard flocks – a very high price to pay for fresh eggs.
A coalition of sanctuaries, all of us seeing the consequences of the urban chicken trend, got together and wrote up our position on the issue. If your town is considering allowing residents to raise chickens for eggs, or for meat, please discourage this move by sharing our statement with your community and with town officials.