When Backyard Chickens Become Pets: The growing geriatric chicken population

October 15, 2010

story by Kasandra Griffin
photo by Jessica Niello
This article originally appeared in
Meatpaper Issue Thirteen.

JAMIE REA HAS HAD A ROUGH CHICKEN YEAR. First, the 40-something Portland native found one of her hens disemboweled by marauding raccoons. Then a replacement hen died in a heat wave, and a second replacement “hen” had to be renamed and relocated to a nearby farm when he started crowing. Then Rea’s remaining chicken stopped laying eggs. It may have been a stress reaction to the traumatic events around her, or it could simply have been old age. Lucky (who earned her name after surviving the bloody raccoon attack) is almost six years old, a good four years older than the oldest hens in commercial egg production. “It was sad,” says Rea. “I had to go buy eggs for the first time in five years.”

Rea was an early adopter in the now-booming trend of urban chicken raising. Her ranch-style home in Portland’s Madison South neighborhood sits on the front of a 5,000-square-foot lot. She removed most of the back lawn as soon as she moved in, to make room for a large vegetable garden, and a homemade coop populated with three fuzzy little chicks. “It always made sense to me to grow your own food, and chickens seem like the next step in that. As soon as I found out it was legal, I thought I would get some.”
She got tips from her boss at Kobos Coffee, David Kobos, who keeps a large flock at his rural home in nearby Molalla and gives public lectures on the joys of raising chickens. Unlike Kobos, however, Rea doesn’t have a flock of 50 and the ability to expand it further. Like most urban dwellers, she is constrained by a city code that allows only a few chickens. In Portland, three is the maximum allowed without a special permit.

When Lucky stopped laying eggs, Rea couldn’t bring herself to butcher her, even though that would have made room for another productive chicken. “They’ve been very easy pets to have,” she says. “It’s just heartbreaking when they get killed. I can’t imagine killing one myself, especially not to eat.” In that, she illustrates a new urban problem: People want to get closer to their food, but often that means getting closer to eggs, but not to meat — few want to eat an animal they know by name. When older hens stop laying, the owner runs out of eggs, which were the presumed point of having chickens in the first place.

Her use of the word “pet” is telling. She has a cat and partial custody of a dog, and she acknowledges that those are different kinds of pets, but she doesn’t shy away from using the word to describe her chickens. She named her first flock after characters in Fried Green Tomatoes and gave several others punny names referencing singers, such as Emmy Lou Hennis and Dolly Part-hen. She talks about which breeds are particularly friendly, just like someone discussing poodles versus retrievers: The buff orpington was so snuggly and sweet that he used to sit on her shoulder, whereas the araucanas are always skittish. Asked about the cost of raising chickens, she persists with the “pet” idea. “I see ads for chicken coops on Craigslist for $500, so they do cost a lot, but you spend that much on your dog or cat and they never lay eggs.”

People want to get closer to their food, but often that means getting closer to eggs, but not to meat.

Rea eats meat, and she acknowledges the paradox. “What right do I have to eat meat, if I’m not willing to butcher and process an animal? We’re so removed from what we eat.” But with packaged meat easily available at the grocery store, who would want to eat an animal they know by name?

Chickens in production egg facilities rarely live to their second birthday, because their egg production slows beyond profitability before then. They begin laying eggs at approximately 20 weeks. Their production peaks six to ten weeks later, at which point they lay an egg almost every day. Production then declines for the rest of the hen’s life, with particular drops during winter and the annual molt. Precise production quantity and timing details vary by breed and, more important, by nutrition and living conditions.

When commercial chickens are no longer profitable, they are slaughtered and replaced in the laying houses. Although chickens raised for eggs are different breeds than those raised for the breast and thigh meat found in your local grocery store, their meat does make it to market. They may end up in the chicken pot pie you grab from the freezer case, or in the food you buy for your (other) pets.

Not all urban chicken keepers resist butchering their hens, though. Laura Dalton, the art studio manager at Reed college, tends a large, productive garden on her 7,000-square-foot lot in Portland’s St. Johns neighborhood. She grows asparagus, apples, blueberries, and a range of year-round vegetables. Similar to Rea, she wanted to be closer to her food, so she added chickens to the mix in 2007. Unlike many other chicken owners, she got really close. In the fall of 2009, egg production from her first hens declined significantly. Her husband, David Renner, asked and received her permission to butcher them while she was at work. He beheaded the first one with a hatchet, and the second one with a pair of garden loppers, which he reports are easier to handle for a one-person slaughter job.

That was all perfectly legal, according to the Multnomah County Health Department. Code Enforcement Officer Dave Thompson is responsible for issuing permits to raise chickens and other animals within the city of Portland, and says there are no restrictions on backyard slaughter, “as long as it’s done in a humane manner. If it’s abusive or cruel, then it becomes an animal control matter.” The only complaints
he has received so far regarding backyard slaughter have been about larger animals, such as goats and pigs, which make a lot more noise than a chicken.

Regarding the actual meat, Dalton says, “They were tough, but deliciously flavored and made great stew.” Adds Renner, “They actually taste better when you butcher them yourself.”

The couple is happy to go into a lengthy narrative about how Americans have become accustomed to the plain taste of young chicken. Older chicken has a more complex flavor because of all the things it has eaten. “Chickens eat anything,” says Dalton. “And you are what you eat. If you are a two-month-old bird raised on grain in confinement, you’re going to taste pretty bland and boring, with very soft meat, and that’s what people are used to. But if you get out and run around in my yard, you’re going to accumulate flavor from grass, blueberries, bugs, tomatoes, and all the other things a chicken eats, when given the chance. At that point, the meat doesn’t taste like what you buy in the grocery store. It’s good, but it’s different.”

Like Rea, Dalton gave her first flock names from a novel — Ricketts, Pequod, and Grog, all characters in Moby Dick. Also like Rea, she notices the personalities, and talks about them fondly. “I felt kind of sad about the chickens but not sad enough to not eat them. I got attached to my first batch, but I think I will get less attached in the future. The original intention was to raise eggs and meat, and I feel good that it has worked out.”

As for what’s going on in other backyards, Dalton has this to say: “I will be highly amused to see how this pans out. I’m not in a position to judge others on whether they decide to keep their chickens or not. But I think it’s so American to get chickens for eggs and then keep them as pets, because you don’t have the chutzpah to eat them for dinner.”

Rea maintains a different view. “I won’t ever be killing mine. They bring so much to the garden whether or not they’re laying eggs. And I enjoy them so much. They make little noises, they scratch around, they eat table scraps, and they make great compost. They do put you in contact with your food, even when they stop producing it.”

Yes, they do. But they don’t necessarily become your food. They might just become your pets.

“I think it’s so American to get chickens for eggs and then keep them as pets, because you don’t have the chutzpah to eat them for dinner,” Dalton says.

KASANDRA GRIFFIN’s attempts to raise chickens were thwarted by marauding raccoons and neighborhood dogs, but she remains obsessed with building a better coop and trying again. She has worked on environmental policy in Portland, Oregon since 1997, and is currently finishing a master’s in public policy at UC Berkeley with a focus on sustainable agriculture.

JESSICA NIELLO is a painter and photographer living in Oakland, California. As a lover of chickens both as pets and as sandwiches, she is especially optimistic about contributing to this issue.

This article originally appeared in Meatpaper Issue Thirteen.

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