Vegans are accustomed to being asked certain questions: How can you live without cheese? (Easily and with clean arteries); Where do you get your protein? (Ask a gorilla); What if you and a pig were stranded on a desert island? (….what?). But we also get asked just as frequently (though somewhat less facetiously) about backyard chickens being kept specifically for eggs.
Initially, raising backyard chickens may seem to address a number of problems from the perspective of avoiding industrialized farming, buying local, and animal welfare. However, as we look more closely at the reality of the backyard chicken trend, it becomes increasingly clear that it is the same commodification of animals, packaged in niche marketing to appeal to the modern “conscious consumer”.
It’s easy to conceptualize the relationship as one of respectful symbiosis in which the backyard farmer provides food and shelter to her flock in exchange for the “gift” of hens’ eggs. However, this bucolic portrayal ignores several essential ethical questions, not the least of which being the fundamental issue of whether humans have the right to breed other animals for our own purposes, and whether it is appropriate for us to conclude that a hen “doesn’t care” whether someone other than herself decides what happens to her eggs.
Unless the individual in question actually rescues their chickens from exploitative situations, the vast majority of backyard chickens originate from the same breeding industry that provides chicks to large-scale farming operations. As a result, virtually all backyard chickens come from industrial hatcheries that employ the same brutal measures that are standard among factory farms (including debeaking) even though the prospective buyer is encouraged to believe otherwise through careful packaging of the “product.”
Like commercial and industrial egg producers, the backyard farm has considerably less use for roosters than for egg-laying hens. In fact, roosters are frequently illegal in the same municipal areas where hens are permissable. Hence, male chicks, which (as one would expect) make up 50% of all chicks hatched, are considered expendable and are treated as such, including being killed using the most “cost-effective” means (which often involves being ground up alive, suffocation, or simply letting them die of starvation or exposure in dumpsters).
The sexing of chicks is not an easy business, so even with the employment of such callous measures, there are many male chicks who make it through the sexing process, and end up being sold as females, only to later be rejected by the very households who purchased them. These unwanted and frequently illegal roosters end up, at best, in farm animal sanctuaries, or local animal shelters with cats and dogs where they will ultimately be “euthanized”. Hens, too, when their egg productivity wanes later in life and they are no longer wanted, are frequently placed in similar circumstances, unless their owners simply slaughter or sell them for meat beforehand.
We can also look at this issue by widening our scope substantially to consider the very concept of participating in domestication. Domestication is the ongoing process of manipulating another species so that they are more usable as resources for human consumption. In factory farms, we can see this process continued even more invasively in the genetically engineered animals who grow so much and so quickly that their legs cannot support the weight of their own bodies.
We have bred farmed animals into a state of constant dependence such that their continued existence actually relies on our intervention. This is particularly relevant to backyard chickens, as they are very vulnerable to predators, including cats, snakes, foxes, and birds of prey. And if you live in an area where raising chickens is a possibility, it is quite likely that these animals–whose right to life and survival is just as valid–will also be present. And with the staggering number of homeless animals in the world, breeding more into existence under the thin guise of locavorism is a completely unwarranted and counterproductive measure.
If you really care about chickens and have the means to support and protect them—including the cost of veterinary care, which can be considerable–consider getting involved in rescue work. Depending on where you live, traditionally farmed animals are sometimes brought into shelters most generally used for dogs and cats, and are just as much in need of being saved from the gas chamber or lethal injection.
There is no shortage of animals needing refuge and protection. Consider offering the safety of your backyard as a sanctuary to a homeless animal instead of purchasing one as a resource.