Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Backyard Chickens in Albany, NY?

Almost three weeks ago, the "All Over Albany" blog had an entry called "Changing Albany's Chicken Laws."  A couple in downtown Albany are trying to change a nine-year-old law that bans the keeping of "farm" animals, including chickens, in the city of Albany.  The couple in question had been keeping chickens in their backyard for ten years and had been unaware of the law until code-enforcement officers showed up at their house.  The chickens now live at the Albany Free School, which is next door to the couple and is allowed to keep chickens under an "educational" variance.

The article lays out a "case" in favor of chickens and one against them.  However, the "against" segment focuses only on the potential "nuisance" factor--neighbors who don't want the smell or sound of chickens next door.  No one says a word about the ethics of animal use.  In fact, one of the comments contains the following.
Owning domestic animals for the purpose of harvest is not like owning a dog or cat or ferret. The moral contract is different -- though no less solemn -- but not everyone understands it. Those hens will age and at some point need butchering. Do you know how to do that? Maybe there'll be a guy at the farmers market to help. Still, expect a Chickens' Rights movement. Really.
"Need" butchering?  Really?  And then he's incredulous about a "chickens' rights" movement. Oh, those wacky "animal" folks, caring about chickens having rights.  Yes, as a matter of fact, I believe that chickens have the right not to be used or eaten.  I believe that non-human animals are not ours to use.

I also saw a local-news feature on the couple who want to go back to keeping chickens.  They seem nice; I'd expect them to be fellow travelers on lots of issues, such as sustainability.  But this part distresses me:
For Jen and Mike, keeping them increases their own self sufficiency and helps teach their kids where their food comes from. "We involve our kids in cleaning the coop and getting the eggs. You know, people are so far removed from where the food comes from. The only thing they carry is salmonella, and all you need is a little education about washing your hands and washing the eggs."
It saddens me that they are perpetuating in their children the idea that animals are ours to use and that they need to consume animal products.  (As an aside, I am glad that we decided against sending my son to the Albany Free School, which we had considered.  I really hate that they keep chickens.  Not only do I disagree with the message they are sending to their students, but as the parent of an egg-allergic child, I can only imagine the place to be a nightmare of cross-contamination.)  I am teaching my son the opposite.

When I first read about this initiative, I did some searching online regarding advocacy against the backyard chicken movement.  I found this from Farm Sanctuary*, but I was concerned that the message contained in their linked position statement was a little contradictory, in that it contained a part about adopting birds and making sure it is legal to do so in your area. Oppose the movement but make sure it's legal?

I wish the people pushing for backyard chickens wanted to keep them as "animal friends," as the wonderful Jay Wontdart of the "Coexisting with Nonhuman Animals" blog does.  Just check the cuteness of his "chicken" videos.

A question that I've seen come up:  If you keep chickens as companion animals, and they lay eggs anyway, what's wrong with eating the eggs?   Here's the thing.  Laying hens are mutants.  They were bred to lay ridiculous amounts of eggs--more than any equivalent wild bird ever would.  That output is terrible for them physically.  They are susceptible to osteoporosis and ovarian cancer, among other problems.  To help mitigate against such health problems, Farm Sanctuary feeds the eggs back to the chickens:
This dramatically increased egg production is very demanding on the birds’ bodies, using up a lot of nutrients, particularly calcium, which is used to build shells. At Farm Sanctuary, shelter staff collect eggs daily, hard boil them, smash them up (shells and all), and feed them back to the hens to help restore lost nutrients, especially the calcium, which is in the shells. Lack of calcium leads to broken bones, osteoporosis and formation of shell-less eggs (which can be fatal) so it is essential for the health of the birds, especially those rescued from factory farms, to consume the eggs. And, as Susie points out, “It sounds odd to a lot of people, but it is actually not far removed from their natural behavior, as wild chickens will eat broken eggs so they don’t attract predators. Chickens will also naturally eat their own eggs if they are calcium deficient.”
Can you imagine how fiercely the backyard chicken proponents would balk if the ban were lifted but included a stipulation that the eggs had to be fed back to the chickens?

On December 6, there will be a Common Council meeting where comments about this issue will be heard.  I encourage Albany vegans to contact their Common Council members to share their anti-use perspective.  For more information about Common Council, and to find your member, visit hereUpdate: In case you are not sure which ward you are in, ward maps are here. This page has a list of Common Council members listed by ward on the left-side menu.

*While I applaud the work Farm Sanctuary does in rescuing and caring for animals, I have misgivings about their support for single-issue "welfarist" campaigns--those that ultimately give a stamp of approval to certain types of use and slaughter, thus making people feel more comfortable with their exploitation.  See the "Animal Rights: The Abolitionist Approach" site and the "Humane Myth" site.

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