The dark side of backyard chickens

The Boston GlobeJune 6, 2014 

“No one’s going to eat my chickens.” That’s been my mantra ever since we took a spontaneous trip to the feed store and came home with four baby chicks. And yes, I knew how hypocritical that sounded. We had organic chicken thighs and roasting chickens in the freezer.

But these adorable balls of fluff, grand prize winners in the lottery of poultry life, were going to be pets. They got a home in our bathroom, under a heat lamp, while they grew. They got names: BeBe, Dee Dee, Lanie, and Lou. Our kids would learn about responsibility and animal development.

They’d also learn, sooner than we realized, about the brutality of nature. Three weeks into our chicken odyssey, my 5-year-old son would rush to my husband and announce, in his pre-K diction,“A cat got Woo.”

Some will say we got what we deserved for presuming to bring chickens to the suburbs. Backyard chickens are a growing craze, which some attribute to the scourge of hipsters and a“natural food” movement toward wholesome, inexpensive eggs. For us, the eggs were a bonus; our main goal was companionship. I bought into the pet-chicken idea once I learned that one of the breeds would sit on your lap.

We’d been warned about the risks when your pet is also prey. A friend in D.C. sent me videos of a fox that got into his henhouse, in a multi-stage attack that was dubbed “Henghazi.” We made underground reinforcements for the coop, devised a complex systems of locks, made a makeshift run that was carefully shielded with chicken wire.

We didn’t think to protect against a 5-year-old’s brain. My husband and son brought the chicks outside for fresh air on a balmy day. My husband left my son inside the wire enclosure and went to get something behind the garage – just as a cat that roams the neighborhood ambled up the driveway.

My son, who likes showing off his chicks, decided he wanted to show them to the cat. He took two out from behind the wire.

Poor Lou never stood a chance. The cat was swift and effective; some kids reported seeing him on the next block, speed-walking with a bird in his mouth. Part of me wanted retribution, but really, that seemed unfair. You can’t blame a 5-year-old for being a 5-year-old. It’s almost as hard to blame a cat for being a cat.

So maybe we should blame ourselves for blurring lines. On a real farm, fact is fact; the first line of “Charlotte’s Web” is “Where’s papa going with that ax?” City and suburb dwellers take quaint field trips to see livestock but shield ourselves from the truth of their existence: the determination of predators, the brutality of the food chain, the odds stacked against even animals with names.

With chickens, those odds are enormous. At an event in Cambridge last fall, PETA president Ingrid Newkirk was asked which species of animal she’d most like to protect. She mulled the idea for a minute, murmured something about exterminators, then settled on chickens, due to the sheer volume of the carnage. PETA estimates that 7 billion chickens are killed for food in the United States every year. The USDA categorizes chickens under 13 weeks as “broiler chickens”: name as destiny.

And that doesn’t count the hawks and raccoons and foxes and neighborhood cats. It’s arbitrary, I know, the difference between a disposable chicken and a chicken you love. We’re not quite ready to drop meat from our diets – sorry, Ingrid, call us two-faced, and maybe give us time.

Still, we’ve been walking around in a Louless haze, staring wistfully at her chicken sisters, imagining they miss her, too.

This weekend, we'll probably get Lou 2.

Joanna Weiss can be reached at weiss@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @JoannaWeiss.

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