As summer turned to fall this year, two items of news particularly captured my attention. One was the sudden increase in chickens at humane societies and other organisations providing animal care and control to communities. Why all the chickens? Because hipsters with backyard chickens were discovering that chickens can be more work than expected, and they weren’t willing to commit, especially when hens were on summer molt (an issue with older hens) and not producing large numbers of eggs. Suddenly, chickens weren’t as fun anymore.
Some of these hens were just abandoned without any attempt to rehome them or find an appropriate facility to take them in, requiring animal control officials and animal welfare organisations to track them down, capture them, and transport them to safety. Other chicken owners were more responsible, and surrendered their hens on their own. Perhaps some of them were even a bit sorry to give up the chicken experiment, but likely many more of them were just relieved that the burden of caring for chickens was over; this, of course, casts chickens somewhat as inanimate objects, rather than living beings, things to be dealt with rather than animals who require loving care.
At the same time, a chicken rental service was making the news. For a fee, the owners of the service would drop off a complete package of chickens, coop, and feed, and then pick it up for winter to care for the hens during the winter molt and cold months. Rather a novel idea, although of course it draws upon a long history of livestock leasing; you can lease horses, cattle, sheep, and goats, so why not chickens? In all of these cases, the point of leasing is to have the animal, without the full responsibility of ownership.
I honestly have mixed feelings about chicken rental, though. While on the surface I like the idea for a number of reasons, it has some issues, too. On the plus side, it allows people to see if they are ready for and really want chickens, and if they aren’t, they can call the service to have their hens picked up, which is good. The service also reduces the likelihood that chickens will be abandoned, by creating a system of accountability and making sure renters understand that they can turn their birds in at any time. Picking the birds up in winter also means that owners don’t have to consider winterising their coops, and they also don’t experience the drop in egg production that happens in the winter when hens molt.
Of course, it also encourages people to think of chickens like a commodity, rather than living beings. The administration of large animal livestock leasing services is a bit more complex, and given the corresponding sometimes considerable commercial value (one appeal of leasing a horse, for example, is that you can lease a horse you could never afford to buy outright), people have an incentive to treat their animals with respect and give them the best care possible. Not just that, but larger animals in general are considered with more respect; many people think of chickens as an undifferentiated mass of birds without personalities and wouldn’t say the same of, for example, horses.
By putting chickens up for ‘rent’ there’s kind of an implication that they are rentable objects, rather than animals that require caretaking. In this case, renting spares people some of the responsibilities of ownership, but at the same time, it may not teach people about the responsibility of care and honour they owe to other living beings; when you don’t winter over with chickens, for example, you don’t see them at both the best and worst of times, and you come to regard them as egg producing machines rather than animals that need to rest. And if your lease next year involves a totally different pair of hens, you’ve learned that chickens are interchangeable and to some extent disposable.
There’s something else that renters are spared that bears discussion: when chickens stop laying eggs, there’s a bit of a crossing point. Some people put their hens into retirement and allow them to live out their days, but that’s a luxury you can really only afford if you have a pasture for them to run around in and room in the coop for new hens, as well as funds to keep feeding the old ones. For other people, when a hen stops laying for good, it’s time for a humane and compassionate death followed by chicken soup. If people renting chickens never really face that experience, and that choice, head-on, they can’t really be prepared for chicken ownership, which means that if they decide to get their own birds, they still aren’t going to be ready for what may lie ahead down the line.
I don’t begrudge people who want chickens in their lives. Chickens are fantastic, and more than that, they’re wonderful characters, with bright, colourful personalities. But they are animals, and having animals around requires work, just as living with animals also requires treating them with the respect they deserve. The larger ethical issues surrounding animal rental must be explored just as those of us who eat animal products need to be able to talk honestly about where our food comes from, and our role in abusive and exploitative systems.