A Peck of Trouble: Farm Animals in Suburbia

A few weeks ago I read an article in the local paper touting the value of home-grown food that incomprehensibly segued into a tirade about laws that prohibit the keeping of chickens and other farm animals in suburbia. That surprised me because keeping farm animals in more complex suburban and urban environments isn’t a good idea for multiple reasons. It’s not good for the farm animals and it’s not good for the area’s companion animals and wildlife, to say nothing of the people who live in those areas. But while the reasons for this seem pretty obvious to me as a veterinarian with a long standing interest in the interaction of health, behavior, and the human-animal bond, apparently they’re not so obvious to others. Consider this my attempt to breach that gap.

I personally enjoy farm-fresh eggs and think chickens are very cool birds. And because chickens seem to be the farm animal currently in vogue for suburban dwelling, I’m going to use them as the primary example.

As we’ve become more remote from nature and our knowledge of normal animal behavior dwindles, it’s tempting to view ordinances that forbid the keeping of chickens and other farm animals in populated areas as old-fashioned. That same naiveté may even cause some folks to view them, and especially chickens, as the perfect pet. They’re novel in suburbia—anyone can own a dog or cat but how many chickens do you see wandering around in the average neighborhood or development? Then there’s the fuzzy baby chick-Easter holiday connection. And we also can rationalize that chickens are a lot cheaper than a dog, plus they provide us with eggs and maybe even an occasional meal. Sounds like a winner, doesn’t it? And given that mindset, you can see why laws that forbid this may seem discriminatory and even flat out stupid.

However, in some ways the need to enforce these laws today is more critical than it was in the past because:

  1. Chickens are prey animals. As such, they attract predators. You may consider that a “Well, duh!” sentiment, but a surprising number of people don’t realize how many predators normally reside in the average suburban environment. For starters and although some may want to deny this reality, cats and dogs are predators. While the average cat probably wouldn’t go after a full grown chicken, the same cannot be said about chicks. As far as dogs go, of the 85 breeds on which DNA analysis has been done, virtually all of them carry the genes associated with hunting and a fair number have a lot of them, including breeds as different as the Old English Dogs, Chihuahuas, whippets, Cavalier King Charles Spaniels, and golden retrievers.

    Consequently, any chickens will serve as a constant temptation to any cats and dogs in the neighborhood. If the birds are allowed to roam freely, as many times they are, those birds will serve as a constant source of stress to those confined,  naturally predatory companion animals who will see, smell, and hear those birds. If the companion animals belong to the chickens’ owners, those folks often must evolve time-consuming rituals that ensure pets and birds aren’t out at the same time.

    From the chicken side of it, these birds have been bred for thousands of generations to lay eggs, to reach table weight quickly, and to taste good roasted, stewed, or broiled. They have not been bred to protect themselves from predators. Unlike wild birds many chickens lack the protective coloration that allows them to disappear into the background. And while domestic chickens do come in a wide array of colors and feathering, all of them stick out like sore thumbs if they’re wandering around a uniformly green lawn.

  2. As more people are trying to bring the country into suburbia, more wild animals are getting used to doing their wild thing around people as we increasingly expand our suburbs into what was once their habitat. As a result, the presence of those non-predator-savvy chickens and their eggs will attract an assortment of wild predators looking for an energy-efficient meal or snack. Depending on where the suburban chickens roam, these may include foxes, skunks, raccoons, coyotes, feral dogs and cats, and even reptiles and snakes in some areas.

    Additionally rats and other grain-eating vermin will be attracted to chicken feed. And because many of those are small mammals who also serve as meals for larger predators, they will further support the growth of the predator population.

  3. Sad to say, just because they’re entering a nice human neighborhood won’t guarantee that they attracted predators and vermin won’t carry diseases and parasites that may be harmful to human and companion animal life. And while reptile and snake predators may possess the highest creepy rating, all of the predatory mammals (foxes, skunks, raccoon, coyotes, feral dogs and cats) also may carry rabies.

    True, we can always vaccinate our own dogs and cats to protect them from exposure. But that won’t help any kids or adults with cuts or other wounds on their hands who automatically pick up a spit-covered bird mangled by a rabid animal. And it most certainly won’t protect the person who surprises a rabid predator in the act of targeting a bird who then turns on that person instead.

That brings up to the potential for other collateral human damage when free-roaming chickens invade suburbia. Often when we think of having dogs and chickens in the same small area, the worst problem that comes to  mind is that a dog who has been baited by the scent, sound, and smell of those birds for possibly months  bolts through the door or jumps the fence and totals a bird or two.

However there are other scenarios that are much worse. Imagine the aforementioned baited and frustrated dog primed for a predatory response who encounters an adult or child between her and the chicken. You don’t need to be a rocket scientist to know that the outcome will not be good.

Or consider an adult or child who is taking the family dog for a walk when the dog spies one of those chickens wandering in the yard. Does it seem far-fetched that at least some of those dogs might bolt and topple, drag, and injure their owners in the process of trying to get to that bird? I think not.

And as far as suburban chickens whose owners permit them to get into the street where they create a traffic hazard goes, that such should even be a possibility is mind-boggling. Nonetheless it happens. So now when we travel through suburbia, we may need to be on the lookout for chickens in the street in addition to little kids chasing balls, people driving while texting and/or drinking, patches of ice, potholes, and everything else.

We also must accept that there are now sufficient folks in our society for whom a seemingly minor injury or infection may cause major medical problems. When the over-stimulated black Lab suddenly bolts after a chicken, his twenty-something owner may experience little more than a few scrapes and bruises. But if that person happens to be on some immunosuppressant drug or have a condition that suppresses her immune response, that minor injury may precipitate a serious medical crisis. When the same thing happens to the older person with osteoporosis, the result may be a shattered hip that leaves that person confined to a wheel chair.

And while I’d be the first to say that parents who are terrified to let their kids get the least bit dirty may be doing their kids more harm than good, I wouldn’t  want my grandkids and their friends playing in a yard that’s been “naturally” and continuously fertilized by free-roaming chickens.

Does this mean that under no circumstances can or should anyone have chickens in suburbia? Not necessarily. But it does mean that folks who want to do this need to do their homework first and keep the basics in mind.

  • Check the legality of keeping such animals in that area. Obviously, if it’s illegal it’s a nonstarter and for the reasons previously mentioned. Beware of hand-shake deals or pledges to ignore existing laws from elected or appointed officials. Politicians come and go and a position that’s politically expedient for one individual or group may not be for the next.
  • Talk to the neighbors. Even if no law or ordinance currently covers the keeping of chickens or other food animals in the area, move beyond those visions of fresh eggs to consider obligations to the birds, the neighbors and their kids before rushing out buy some laying hens. Potential bird owners and neighbors who have dogs and cats also need to discuss the ramifications if this prior to getting any birds.
  • As is the case with any animal, don’t buy chickens for kids no matter how much they beg for them unless you’re willing and able (i.e. possess the knowledge, skill, and time) to care for those animals and ensure their and your neighbors’ safety yourself.
  • Build a predator-proof chicken coop and yard and be willing and able to keep it scrupulously clean. Knowledgeable farmers who value their birds recognize that chickens are members of a highly domesticated and thus vulnerable prey species. They also recognize that ensuring a quality environment that meets the birds’ physical and behavioral needs translates into higher quality production. They harbor no romantic fantasies that their birds would much prefer to wander about freely because they recognize all the dangers that exist. Because of this, they build sturdy chicken coops surrounded by predator-proof chicken yards. They prevent vermin by keeping all feed secured and the coops and yard clean.

    Those who want their birds to have access to any insects found in fresh grasses use portable enclosures to protect their birds. But they also recognize the limitations of these and monitor the birds in them. In short, they value their animals and want to do everything they can to protect the birds and ensure their well-being.

Like any other endeavor involving animals of any species, keeping chickens or other farm animals requires time and commitment no matter where we keep them. As with companion animals, farm animals in suburbia may succumb to human symbolism that obscures the animals’ own physical and behavioral needs. And how likely that is depends on the amount of knowledge we possess about those animals and their needs before we get them; the less knowledge, the more likely we’ll perceive and treat them as symbols of something other than what they are. When that occurs and in spite of our very best intentions, we may find ourselves crossing the line that separates a quality human-animal interaction into animal abuse.

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