You might have heard about this – companies are renting laying hens to people. I’ve wanted to avoid commenting on it, but it’s in the news enough that I have to. The Boston Globe ran an article yesterday. It’s a typical fluff piece – a supposedly feel-good column, but it made my heart sink.
For a fee, the chicken rental company brings two or four pullets, housing, and feed to your home. You keep the hens for the spring through fall laying season. Then they take them back. If you get attached to your chickens, you can “adopt” them.
Recently, a woman who does chicken keeping workshops in a nearby city said enthusiastically to me let’s get chickens in every backyard! There wasn’t time to discuss this with her, but my response would have been a firm NO. Not everyone should have animals. Not everyone should have hens. If the purpose of having a backyard flock is just have a source of good eggs, then support a farmer that raises hens on pasture. Only get chickens if you actually want to have animals in your life. Get hens if you want to know the bird that lays your eggs. Chickens require care, and care requires time and observation, and that requires a connection to your flock. Not everyone has or wants that. The argument is that this rent-a-chicken program will allow people to figure it out. Maybe they’ll go on to get a larger flock. Perhaps. But I have further issues with this business.
The idea of renting a farm animal perpetuates the idea that you have no responsibility for that creature beyond the short period of time that it is productive. In the case of a chicken, that’s her first year of lay. A real farmer has crucial moral end-of-life issues to deal with. Are the unproductive stock harvested for meat? Discarded? What happens when an animal is sick? When there are predators? In the rent-a-chicken model, the hens are replaced. The customer remains removed from these dilemmas. If you rent a chicken to experience raising your own food, then you are missing out on the real picture.
Along with my qualms about the overall business, I have major issues with the housing and care of the hens once they are dropped off in the customers’ backyards. The coops are little more than boxes (this is the sort of “coop” that is supplied. The runs are small and easily accessible by predators. The food and water is exposed to the elements.
Chicken keeping isn’t as easy as so many of its proponents would like you to believe. No animal is easy – if it is, you’re likely doing something wrong. For example, a rabbit in a wire hutch in the backyard is no trouble to take care of – simply give it food and water daily – but you’re not providing what the rabbit needs to live a decent life. Same thing with chickens. Can you keep two in a small coop for a few months? Yes. Is it what those chickens need to thrive? No. Is it being a responsible animal steward? Definitely not.