August 4, 2013

All bawk and no bite: Hens as friends

Increasingly, aging urban chickens gain a second life as beloved family pets.

By ZACH MURDOCK McClatchy Newspapers

KANSAS CITY, Mo. - As the urban chicken fad grows up, so do the chickens.

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Avian veterinarian Julie Burge says 10 years ago, her office could go a year without seeing a chicken. Now Burge says she gets a couple of chicken-related calls each month.

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Nationwide, the trend of keeping backyard chickens is growing. Because chickens lay eggs regularly for only two or three years, the question is becoming this: What happens to the birds who are past their egg-producing prime?

And that has become a snag for some urban farmers who jumped on the bandwagon for their own supply of fresh eggs: Most hens lay eggs regularly for only two or three years.

So what happens to those urban chickens that have become almost part of the family once they're past their prime laying years?

Yes, some get eaten. But others get traded to other farmers, who may end up doing the eating.

"I cannot eat anything that I've made eye contact with," said Teresa Kelly, a Roeland Park, Kan., council member who advocated for an ordinance allowing backyard chickens in her city almost three years ago. "I wouldn't dream of eating one of my own chickens."

And some chickens hang around as pets.

In fact, Susie Arnold says they make great pets.

Arnold raises chickens in her backyard in southeastern Kansas City, Mo., and chickens have been part of her life since she was a little girl raising them with her parents in Merriam, Kan.

She even brings her hens to her weeklong summer school class, "Are You Chicken?" at Pembroke Hill School. The half-day class introduces chickens to kindergarten and first-grade students.

"Chickens do have personalities like all animals do," Arnold said.

Some chickens are smart pets, and some, well, not so much. But that's just like cats, dogs or other more typical pets, said Katie Nixon, a small-farms specialist with Lincoln University's Cooperative Extension program. She has even seen chickens that come when you call their names.

"It depends on the chicken, but they can be quite good pets," Nixon said.

Kelly said she has considered her hens as pets, too. She still has pictures of her sons holding their barred rock hen, Phat, who was one of her first chickens. After Phat died, Kelly and her family put some of Phat's feathers in a glass Christmas ornament with a little red ribbon.

"We still have Phat feathers on our Christmas tree every year," she said, laughing.

Different rules govern backyard hens in different areas, and some municipalities don't allow them at all.

Recently the Lee's Summit, Mo., City Council narrowly approved a revised ordinance that will allow residents to house six hens 10 feet from a property line and 40 feet from another structure.

In Roeland Park, urban farmers can have six hens after applying for a $100 special-use permit. In Kansas City, the ordinance allows up to 15 chickens, but they must be housed 100 feet from any other properties. But in many cities you can't (legally) keep chickens at all.

Nationwide, the trend is growing. And in some spots around the country, animal shelters are dealing with more chickens that people either don't want or can no longer care for. But local shelters, like the KC Pet Project and the Great Plains SPCA, haven't seen an increase in the number of hens they're asked to place in new homes.

"If you're going to get any animals, it doesn't matter if it's a goldfish, you have a responsibility to take care of it," said Sheri McNeil, a Roeland Park council member and chicken owner.

McNeil's chickens were the original spark behind creating Roeland Park's chicken ordinance. Since it passed, McNeil and Kelly have worked with City Hens in Roeland Park, or CHIRP, to educate residents interested in raising hens.

From their experience, the folks who are raising chickens know what they're getting themselves into.

"People aren't being impulsive about getting chickens," Kelly said. "They're being practical and thinking through the responsibility."

That includes taking care of sick or injured chickens, and that's where avian veterinarian Julie Burge comes in.

Burge works with exotic birds, but she has recently taken on treating local chickens. Ten years ago, her office and rescue would get almost no chicken-related calls, and it wasn't unheard of to go a year without seeing a single chicken. Now Burge gets a couple of chicken-related calls a month, she said.

But as the backyard hens fad grows up, she thinks she'll be seeing more and more poultry patients.

"Call me a couple years from now, and I'll probably be running a new chicken adoption service," she said.

 

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