Backyard chickens are being pitched as an alternative to “factory farms.” But there is something else at work here. Here is what the current draft of the Denver backyard chicken ordinance requires per chicken:
1 square foot of space in the coop
10 square feet of space in the pen
All right, this is a better than factory farms, which have about 1 square foot of space for caged laying hens all the time, among other terrible things. But here is what the Humane Society of the United States and other humane organizations dealing with chickens have endorsed as the minimum:
4 square feet of space in the coop
10 square feet of floor space in the pen
174 square feet of floor space for the exercise yard
The only thing that the Denver draft gets right is the pen space. There is no provision at all for an exercise yard, and the space in the coop is no larger than a battery cage. “Over crowding chickens is the most common mistake,” says Mary Britton Clouse of Chicken Run Rescue.
Some people, intent on maximizing their “returns” on their backyard chickens, may conclude that “being humane” to their chickens is more trouble than it’s worth. They are going to throw the birds together in the smallest possible area and kill them when they stop laying eggs. Is this something we want in Denver’s backyards?
There is a certain amount of cruelty built into the normal process of acquiring chickens, as well. Most people are not going to adopt abandoned chickens! They will get them from hatcheries. Hatcheries will kill the male chicks and sell only the hens, so half of the chicks are killed right at the outset. But it’s easy to mistake the sex of chickens, so sometimes people who order “hens” are going to get “roosters.” What will happen to roosters acquired by mistake, as it is illegal to keep them under the proposed ordinance?
The Denver ordinance is just a way of normalizing the practice of keeping unhappy chickens. And in the long run, cruelty is not sustainable.
UPDATE April 7: at the City Council committee meeting considering this ordinance on Tuesday, April 5, the current draft ordinance was somewhat revised. The pen space was increased from 10 square feet to 16 square feet. Chicken Run Rescue’s recommendations (endorsed by the Humane Society of the United States) say that 16 square feet of pen space is adequate in the absence of an outside run. This leaves only the coop size as an issue so far as space is concerned.
UPDATE April 11: added a paragraph about the killing of male chicks at hatcheries, which is also a “normal” cruelty.