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Casualties of the Coop

Thousands of abandoned roosters and past-their-prime hens have landed in animal shelters across the country since urban farming took flight.
(Photo: nosonjai/Shutterstock)

(Photo: nosonjai/Shutterstock)

Jodi Kettler Hesse fondly recalls her pet Lucy. Lucy followed her mistress like a shadow, watching over the gardening chores, tapping at the door to be let into the house, and nestling in Kettler Hesse’s bed awaiting her return to her home in Carver, Minnesota. Despite Lucy’s common pet behavior, she was an uncommon pet: a red hen Kettler Hesse adopted from friends who were relocating and could no longer keep chickens.

Chicken adoptions have occurred without much notice for years, often facilitated by rescue organizations to find homes for birds surrendered by factory farms or seized during cockfighting raids. Lately, though, farm animal rescues and sanctuaries have become more vocal in advocating chicken adoption. The reason? Rescue groups report a surge in chicken abandonments in recent years, coinciding with the growth of backyard chicken farming.

“We receive hundreds of calls annually for chickens needing placement from backyard flocks once they are no longer producing eggs,” says Susan Coston, national shelter director for Farm Sanctuary in Watkins Glen, New York. Coston adds that shelters have become inundated with roosters, left there by urban chicken keepers when supposed female chicks turn out to be males.

"They look at life with the wonder of a three- or four-year-old child. You just literally feel the love they exude for each other and for us."

“I’ve been cursed at over the phone because we couldn’t take someone’s unwanted rooster,” says Kay Evans, founder of the Chocowinity Chicken Sanctuary and Education Center in Chocowinity, North Carolina. Evans receives at least one call a week from someone trying to place a rooster. “Some of the people are very sad, as they were assured they had all young pullets and grew really attached to them, only to have one or more start crowing,” she says. Because most cities zoned for chickens only allow hens, urban farmers are compelled to give up their roosters.

A coalition of farm sanctuaries and animal advocacy groups have responded with a Collective Position Statement on Backyard Poultry. The document cautions municipalities against rezoning for backyard flocks and urges individuals to adopt chickens.

Carrie Harrington, spokesperson for the Marin Humane Society in Novato, California, acknowledges that chicken adoption is not “the first thing in people’s minds” when they arrive at the shelter looking for a pet. But visiting the chickens at the Marin Humane Society, where they live in an on-campus barn, gives prospective pet adopters a new perspective on poultry.

“We can educate people about factory farming and all the cruelty that hens endure,” Harrington says. “And then at the same time we can educate them about how they make great pets.” That education resulted in 220 chicken adoptions from the Marin Humane Society in 2013.

Harrington says some adopters are backyard farmers who raise chickens for eggs and also enjoy their companionship. Nationwide, backyard chicken keepers are opening their coops to homeless birds. Nancy Bray established her flock in rural Grifton, North Carolina, with three leghorn hens adopted from the Chocowinity Chicken Sanctuary. Deborah Gray, who keeps chickens in Claremore, Oklahoma, added an adopted rooster to her flock after learning of the need for adopters. She contacted her county shelter and soon took home a bantam rooster she named Napoleon.

“He was happy to be among the girls,” Gray says. “He thought he was in heaven, I think.”

Rescue organizations say the need for adopters still far exceeds the supply of available homes. Kay Evans of Chocowinity Chicken Sanctuary says backyard farmers favor more exotic breeds than the birds that typically arrive at her shelter. And rescue groups’ adoption requirements preclude candidates who are unable or unwilling to provide adequate shelter and veterinary care.

Cynthia Fetzer, a veterinarian who treats chickens at Camden Pet Hospital in Minneapolis, says neglecting vet care is a common mistake among chicken keepers.

“There are viruses, there are diseases, there are parasites both internal and external,” says Fetzer, who has adopted several chickens herself. Fetzer says continuing education courses on backyard chickens have cropped up in her field, and a Wall Street Journal article reports that chicken care is a growing concern within the veterinary community.

In addition to providing shelter and medical care, some rescues stipulate that adopters must not breed or slaughter the chickens or sell or barter their eggs. Adopters may eat the birds’ eggs within their own households, but vegan adopters eschew even that. Instead, they might hard boil the eggs and feed them back to their flocks.

“The first and foremost reason for adopting needs to be the companionship,” says Mary Britton Clouse, founder of Chicken Run Rescue in Minneapolis. Clouse says that’s not a tough sell once people visit Chicken Run and come face-to-face with the birds. She describes the experience of holding a chicken for the first time as transformative. “What used to be a menu item all of a sudden is a living creature that is full of life, full of joy, full of beauty and intelligence,” Clouse says.

People who adopt from organizations like Chicken Run share Clouse’s affection for the animals.

“Every one is different. Some are comical, some are really sweet, all are completely adorable,” says Lori Kyle, who lives in Minneapolis. Kyle has adopted more than 25 chickens from Chicken Run, including a rooster named Rocky. “When Rocky gets a new hen added to the group, he really puts on a show. He shows her where the food is and lets her know what a great provider he is,” Kyle says.

Katie Lynne Young is another Chicken Run adopter living in Minneapolis. “They look at life with the wonder of a three- or four-year-old child,” Young says of her flock. “You just literally feel the love they exude for each other and for us.”

While many adopters argue that chickens are no less deserving of love than dogs or cats, they appreciate the unique behaviors of chickens as well. Christine Heppermann of Highland, New York, adopted two birds while writing the children’s book City Chickens. She recalls watching her rooster take dust baths.

“Yeti was this big fluffy white bird, and he would just really get into it,” Heppermann says. “He would go into the garden and start kicking up the dirt and rolling around. And then he would kind of flop around for a while and then lie there, just in an ecstatic state.”

Suzanne Proudfoot, an adopter from Minnetonka, Minnesota, says caring for chickens is restorative. “The personal interaction you can experience by getting to know a completely different species is incredibly good for the soul and is therapeutic,” she says.

In fact, some adopters have taken their chickens into therapeutic settings. Pauline Hruska, a Canadian currently residing in the Czech Republic, saw the potential when her adopted rooster, Joey, helped her feel less alone living in an unfamiliar country shortly after her parents died.

“When I am sad, he is the first of my animals who comes and sits by me, inclining his head and letting me lean on him, so to speak,” Hruska says. Drawing on her experience with therapy dogs, Hruska began taking Joey to nursing homes and on one-on-one visits to children with autism. “People can either pet him, feed him, or just look and ask questions while I hold him,” Hruska says. “He always puts a smile on people’s faces.”

Back in the U.S., Sonja Wingard engages adopted chickens in her work with at-risk youth at Animals as Natural Therapy in Bellingham, Washington. Wingard recalls how a boy who had been in foster care all his life put his hand beneath a chicken’s wing when he learned how mother hens protect their young. “He held it there for so long it almost made me cry,” she says.

Wingard believes anything that helps people feel their feelings and revere life has therapeutic value. She adds that kids who have never seen eggs outside of egg cartons gain awareness when they encounter live chickens. They are astonished to learn that a chicken has thousands of feathers.

“You can get them to look at one of those feathers, to separate their feathers and just kind of have wonder and awe,” Wingard says. “That’s how we use chickens: to help people have wonder and awe and not take anything for granted.”