Tuesday, July 9, 2013
Animals are not a trend
Your urban farm chickens will not do this.
So last week my friend Dina went away for several days, and I was in charge of feeding and watering her chickens (and her cat).
This was fun, actually. I am up pretty early in the morning, so I went to her place first thing. She told me I could keep the eggs as a thank you. She has nine chickens, and I gave them corn and chicken feed (pellets), as well as any vegetable scraps I had on hand. (They are also fond of bugs, but I really don't want to find bugs in my house to give them. There are plenty outside to be found.) "Hello, chickens," I'd say as I would venture into the coop to get their water dispensers. "You all look like little dinosaurs."
And the chickens were all like LADY WE DO NOT SPEAK YOUR HUMAN TONGUE. GIVE US FOOD AND WATER AND GET OUTTA HERE.
And I'd bring them the refilled water dispensers and say "Okay, can you ladies please refrain from knocking this over?" And they were all like HAHAHAHAHA STOOPID HUMAN! WATCH US KNOCK IT OVER WHAT ARE YOU GOING TO DO, LOCK US UP IN THE COOP?
(Actually, they just knocked them over one day. But they were really insolent about it, or as insolent as a chicken can be, which, upon more thought, isn't very insolent at all. Actually, I think "The Insolent Chicken" would be the best name ever for a diner or a pub.)
I got eggs. They were delicious, with huge, firm yolks. Breakfast was heaven. I woke up earlier than usual in anticipation of breakfast. Dina--and our friend Freddy, who has something like 18 chickens and a rooster--are always quite happy to share the bounty with me.
I would lie if I didn't admit to harboring fantasies about raising my own chickens. Heck, at one point I had a starry eyed fantasy of having my own goats and making yogurt and cheese from the milk. But I came back down to earth. I am not a kid, where I will promise to take care of something (like, you know, a pet) and then end up leaving it to someone else (like my parents) to keep it fed and clean and content.
Raising chickens--or any sort of livestock--is work. And it's a huge responsibility. Before you get them you need to have a place for them to live--a good coop that has a nesting area, a roost, and if it's possible, a run. (Or you can let them out for a little while but you want to make sure predators don't get to them.) You need to have food for them. You need to know that they will sometimes get sick and need veterinary care. You need to know that after two or three years, they will stop laying eggs.
If this news story is any indication, most people who have come aboard the urban farming train have not truly understood this.
Chickens can attract pests (like rats). My friends who raise them have to contend with that. And if you cannot handle the thought of slaughtering a chicken (or having someone else do it) and eating it*, you'll have to be okay with having a lot of non-breakfast producing pets. (I know people who are just fine with that and who love their little egg-producing dinosaur impostors.) Because after they stop laying, that's what hens will be. Either dinner or pets.
*By that age, chickens tend to be tough meat-wise, but they are good for stewing and I imagine you could do well with them if you have a slow cooker and/or if you make something like coq au vin.
I don't have chickens because, well, right now I rent. And I doubt very much I will get them when I buy a house. I'm too busy. If I do decide to get them, I'll make sure I know what to expect and I will prepare for every eventuality. I think the gardens I'd like to have will be more than enough for me. (Though chicken poop is a fantastic thing to till into your garden plot. Seriously. My friend Dina's vegetables are huge now thanks to all of that stuff she had tilled in to her plot.)
I think a lot of people have starry-eyed, faux-nostalgia about life on the farm, and that helps motivate them to get chickens. But. . .life on the farm (especially back in the old days) was not some idyllic and wonderful thing. It was hard. It's one thing to choose something knowing that if you get tired of it, or if you aren't good at it, you can just quit and/or go to the store and get your eggs and vegetables and meat. It's quite another to know that if you get tired of it, that's just tough luck and if you're not good at it, you're in deep trouble.
I'm not saying don't do it. My cousin has chickens and loves it. Two of my friends have them. One of my friends where I used to live had them (when she sold her house, the buyer asked if they could keep the chickens). If you can handle it, if you really know what goes into it, have at it. My friends all know what goes into it, they are good about caring for the animals, they have friends who will help take care of them when they're away. They are sanguine about chickens getting older. They're not shocked by it. Some people plan on delicious soup and coq au vin, and others dote on their older, bug and snail eating chickens.
What I am saying is that if you want to do this, think very carefully about what it entails. If I ever decide I don't want to garden anymore, it's easy enough to stop. If I had gardens at a house I bought and decided I couldn't do it or didn't want to do it anymore, it would be a matter of taking down the beds and re-sodding the plots. I wouldn't need to find a refuge for my vegetables. You do for livestock if you cannot stomach the thought of eating them and don't want to take care of them anymore. Livestock is a whole other thing.