Raising chickens: misguided fad or timely solution for a starving world?
For years we have been assured by the food industry and government that they our best interests at heart. Ad campaigns such as "The Faces of Farming," that use photos depicting wholesome families, posing with contented farm animals, have succeeded in making us feel closer to the foods we choose.
Canadians obligingly and unwittingly have handed over the reins and put money and power in the drivers' seat! Few of us even keep a vegetable garden, let alone the half dozen or so backyard chickens which were once quite common. We've come to rely on multi-million dollar corporations to satisfy our appetites. From genetically engineered and modified soy, corn and grains, to antibiotic and growth hormone-laden meat - we have consumed without even asking questions.
In recent years, eye-opening documentaries such as Food Inc. and Earthlings have cracked the exterior of the farm industry. People are beginning to be concerned about their health but they're also starting to wonder about the inhumane treatment of food animals. What seems like a growing trend to enjoy humanely grown, antibiotic-free meat, organic fruits, vegetables and grain without chemicals has led to a collective push to find alternate sources of food.
Like the folks in Vancouver who successfully demanded a bylaw allowing them to raise their own chickens, people in other so-called urban areas are asking for the same. Why are so many municipalities saying 'no'? Do we not have a basic right to produce food ourselves, or must we be reliant on these factory farms for our sustenance?
In the wake of Vancouver's decision, many chicken advocates in various Canadian communities have picked up on the call to have a bylaw in their towns. The question has been asked, where is all the food going to come from that our growing population needs? And how do we find healthier food for ourselves and for our families.
Allowing a backyard flock may be one answer to our problems.
Many people spoke out against the Vancouver bylaw in city council meetings before it was adopted, citing possible mistreatment and neglect of chickens. If you know anyone who keeps a small number of chickens, you would see a virtual Chicken Hilton, compared to conditions commercial poultry are kept in. Water and food are available at will, and the chickens can walk around pecking the dirt for bugs and other treats. These chickens are living in luxury which can't be underestimated when compared to hens spending their lives in crowded cages, heads stuck between bars pecking at a communal trough, barely able to move or lay down.
Of course it hasn't been long since stories of species jumping, mutating viruses and superbugs have dominated the headlines. Fear of Zoonotic diseases that can transmit from animal to human, bring to mind epidemics like the Spanish flu, but sometimes media sensationalism can obscure facts. Some poultry farms have more than 100,000 birds, mostly in battery cages. This is the enormous size of some of the operations in which 17 million birds were destroyed during the avian flu scare of 2004.
Citizens against the bylaw also talked about the smell and noise chickens make. While roosters can be loud in the morning, hens are not. They squawk a little bit when they lay eggs, but besides that, they make a soft clucking noise and, by sunset, are fast asleep. Residents were anxious about drawing unwanted pests like rats and racoons to the neighbourhood, even though these creatures already exist in downtown Vancouver drawn by garbage, compost and garden.
When I was a child, my dad converted a shed into a chicken house for a half-dozen hens. We always had a lot of fresh eggs. I fondly remember the soft warm feeling of the chickens' feathers on my hands as I reached under them and took their eggs. They were gentle and could be petted and held like any domestic animal. A natural fit with children, backyard chickens don't need much space and the soft chattering of a few chickens goes unnoticed in a world filled with barking dogs, boom boxes and traffic.
When you compare the smell and noise of keeping dogs, I would say keeping hens is more beneficial.
Even if you wanted to boycott factory eggs, the government makes it difficult for you to employ another option. Chilliwack urbanites aren't able to keep chickens, and organic free range farmers are subject to so much red tape they can't compete.
It appears to me the issue is about profits.
Just as the dairy industry and health authority refuses to let independents sell raw milk, bureaucrats and the growers seem to be in cahoots to control our food.
Why do they care? The threat of avian flu? We know it started in - and thrives on - overcrowding. Is it the welfare of the chickens? Which is better, a few well cared-for hens in my backyard or 100,000 featherless, sickly hens with their beaks cut off? Is it the noise and the smell? Somehow I doubt it when the din of urban life drowns out everything natural and the smells of factory farms are as close as your open window.
According to the City of Chilliwack, I can keep three dogs and two cats in my city yard no matter how large the dogs, or how small the yard. But I may not keep one solitary chicken.
In Vancouver, New York and Portland, O.K. But not in Chilliwack?