Cal & Brooklyn after capture

Backyard Chickens and the DIY Mentality

In generations past, chickens were a common sight in rural and urban settings alike.  With the advent of intensive animal agriculture, chickens largely disappeared indoors and out of sight.  In recent years, increased interest in local food has brought chickens back into people’s backyards.  Proponents of the backyard chicken movement argue that it is a sustainable and humane alternative to commercially available eggs and chicken meat, and that it allows people to reconnect with their food.  Unfortunately, the ignorance and inexperience of many backyard chicken farmers, as well as a view of their chickens as simply a means to an end, can lead to cruelty and neglect.

While there are people who view their chickens as part of the family, have learned from them, and truly prioritize the birds’ best interests, there are others who see their chickens as little more than production units and may engage in a number of Do-It-Yourself projects that lead to animal suffering.  When people view their chickens as disposable, they are more likely to have a cavalier attitude about the birds’ treatment.  Wanting to save money, some people turn to Internet forums rather than veterinary advice when it comes to their chickens’ health.  After all, if the birds don’t respond to treatment, “culling” (slaughter) is always an option.

Newly hatched chicks, usually sent through the mail from a hatchery or bought at a feed store (which in turn, purchases them from a hatchery), may arrive at their destinations sick and weak after 72 hours without food or water.  Instead of paying a veterinarian for the necessary medical attention, inexperienced farmers wanting to save money may either cull the sickly chick or provide minimal support until the chick dies on its own.

Many neighborhoods are zoned for hens only, or people are only interested in raising hens for eggs; however hens and roosters hatch in approximately equal proportion.  While most males are killed upon hatching, sexing is not 100% accurate.  Additionally, hatcheries generally add extra chicks – often males – to mail orders as “packing peanuts” to provide additional warmth and to keep purchasers happy in case some of the chicks die en route.  Some people may try to rehome their unwanted roosters on Craigslist (where their fate is grim) or through a sanctuary (most are overrun with unwanted roosters and unable to accept more), others choose to caponize or slaughter them.



Caponizing is one example of the DIY mentality taking precedence over the animal’s well being.  A capon is a castrated rooster; without testosterone, he is generally more mild-mannered and sedentary than an intact rooster, meaning he becomes a heavier bird with more tender flesh.  Caponizing has been in practice since Ancient Rome, but the advent of year-round intensive broiler production, where birds are slaughtered before sexual maturity, made caponizing unnecessary.  While capons are generally not produced on a large scale, the practice has seen resurgence in the backyard chicken world.  When backyard farmers end up with an unexpected young rooster—often considered useless if a light breed—they may decide to caponize him, with guidance from a YouTube video or an explanation on an online forum. 

While on the farm castration without anesthesia is common (if still cruel) when practiced on cows, pigs, sheep, and goats, the testicles of chickens and other birds are located inside the abdomen, rather than externally.  This means that their removal is a major abdominal surgery.  The surgery is generally performed while the rooster is tied or held down, with no anesthetic or pain medication.  “I did it finally!” a new farmer announced on a backyard poultry forum.  “I caponized the partridge rock packaging peanuts I received from Ideal Poultry exactly 1 month ago to the day… I had no idea what to do with [the birds], so I did what any rational human being would do, I knifed em'!” 

This caponizing kit from the NMAS collection is an antique; however, caponizing kits can still be purchased from livestock and poultry catalogs today.

People still use the same methods to caponize today.



Most backyard chicken farmers—whether they raise the birds for meat or eggs—deal with slaughter at some point, either when meat birds reach slaughter weight or when egg layers’ productivity drops.  Many farmers send their birds to slaughterhouses, where they receive the same treatment as industry birds.  Others take advantage of mobile slaughterhouses.  And some farmers choose to slaughter their flocks themselves. 

Like caponizing, DIY slaughter can be horrific, especially when performed by an inexperienced, nervous, or incompetent hand.

Anyone can purchase equipment to slaughter and process chickens online or from a feed store without any proof of competency.  As with caponizing, many first-time slaughterers refer to videos or online forums, and then hope for the best.  “So, yes, hens and roosters are good friends and pets,” one chicken-keeper posted in an online forum, “but there comes the time when they just have to say goodbye to the world and get eaten.” 

Another poster went online for help in the middle of a slaughter attempt, after failing to find an artery to sever. Frustrated and feeling increasingly ill, the poster “grabbed the machete... hit [the rooster], he screamed, hit him again… he did his death throes.... only to come to again… [the rooster] kept his eye glued on me, whacked him again and he screamed, again and death throes again....this time he went completely limp.”  Updating his status on the same forum later the poster relayed that he had returned to the bird for processing, only to discover that he was still alive. Drowning and decapitation finally ended the gory fiasco. Another more experienced slaughterer admitted to laughing out loud at the above description while others on the forum congratulated the shaken poster on his first slaughter, and encouraged him that subsequent slaughters would be easier. Others jokingly invited themselves over for dinner.



Backyard Chickens: Sustainable for Whom?

By: Mary Britton Clouse, Founder, Chicken Run Rescue

Chicken Run Rescue (CRR) is the only urban chicken rescue organization in the US. CRR has an approved rescue partnership with Minneapolis Animal Care and Control and the Animal Humane Society's five Metro Area shelters.

Since 2001, Chicken Run has provided 862 chickens, ducks and other domestic fowl (plus a few goats, pigs and sheep) with shelter and vet care. We locate and carefully screen adopters within 90 miles of the Twin Cities and transport birds to their new homes. Special needs birds remain as permanent family members.

The birds that come to our sanctuary have all come from the inner city and suburbs, in other words, from backyards. 2008 brought a dramatic increase in the number of birds in poor condition needing our help due to the heightened popularity of backyard chicken farming.

Urban animal "farming" is an extension of—not a "humane alternative" to—the institutionalized cruelty of mass production. It supports inbreeding for egg or meat production to the detriment of the animal’s health. 60% of the backyard birds we have taken in have suffered beak mutilation, and all of these backyard birds have been separated from their mothers, have endured mail order shipping, and confinement. Unwanted males are disposed of at birth and many exhausted females are doomed to the same fate once their egg laying has declined. All things considered, we would do well to ask the question, “How much is that dozen eggs really costing the birds?”

Purchased by mail order, "poultry swaps" or from backyard breeders or feed stores, the birds often wind up in the hands of people with no experience with animals, much less birds who require specialized care. Many suffer from inadequate and inappropriate food, shelter and lack of veterinary care.  Birds are routinely slaughtered in backyards and basements, even though prohibited in Minneapolis. Chickens are excluded from protection of anticruelty laws, humane slaughter laws, and laws that regulate experimentation. Local humane agents are not trained or funded to regulate the care of the birds or respond to incidents of strays, abandonment, neglect or cruelty. For many backyard birds, “factory farm” versus “backyard farm” is a distinction without a difference.


Cal and Brooklyn

On March 14, 2011, we got a message about three chickens barely surviving in park. The person had contacted her local animal control who showed up twice, shrugged them off and left them there. Then she found our website. She agreed to meet us and help us try to catch them.

When we arrived, we were not hopeful about capture. The park was a very open with tangled brush, an ideal place for birds who want to evade capture. Brooklyn, a hen, was hunkered down at the base of a tree trying to be invisible. Callander, a rooster, was standing alone and motionless on a snowy bank. He had clearly given up and was ready to perish. The third bird was nowhere to be found, but there were feathers and mammal tracks all around. We feel certain they had recently witnessed their companion's capture by a predator.

As we approached with cracked corn and sunflower seeds and a pole net, they gave feeble attempts at fleeing but it was obvious that they were starving and exhausted and barely able to run on the wet snow. With slow quiet deliberate herding strategy, we closed in from each side. As the net fell over each, they collapsed in resignation. We gently picked them up and carried them to a waiting carrier in our car. We were done and on our way home in 30 minutes.

Both birds were catatonic with exhaustion and fear. They would have perished within a day by starvation or predation.

Callander and Brooklyn became our 751st and 752nd rescues. They were both severely emaciated, feathers threadbare and filthy, nails an inch long and their legs ravaged by scaly leg mites, all signs of a filthy housing. Wherever they came from, they were lucky to leave it behind.


Cal developed severe, painful frostbite on both feet. Over the course of the next several months, he required complete amputation of both feet.  All of our most recent rescues have lost toes, limbs, combs and wattles to frostbite. Backyard shelters are rarely insulated or adequately heated. Below 32 degrees, birds are uncomfortable and cannot maintain body temperature. Below 15 degrees, frostbite begins, and hypothermia increases.  With support, love and the best veterinary care, Cal adapted to walking and running on his stumps. He and Brooklyn are now beloved members of our permanent flock.



In late October, 2012, we received reports from a St. Paul resident who witnessed Jessamine's plight from her window and provided photographs and details to us and to the authorities.

She writes: "I have a Chicken next door... Poor thing lives in hell!"

* A bungee cord is tied around her leg to a fence adjacent to a yard with dogs, she has no shelter from the cold wind and rain.

* There are nine unsupervised children in the yard, a 4 year old had the chicken and "was about to throw it over the fence at my dogs." This same child too a stick and started whipping her as hard as he could! He then picked her up by the foot while she was still tied up and "squeezed the crap out of her.” Then started running away with her! “I thought he was going to pull her leg off." A couple minutes later, he ran cross the yard and kicked her like he was kicking a field goal. And then kicked her again.

*They keep the chicken tied up most of the time now on such a short little rope in the corner of the yard. Just noticed that the dog dug a little hole under the fence that chicken stuck its little head through, I hope it doesn't get it's head bit off.

We forwarded this report to authorized humane investigators and St. Paul Animal Control. Only after many complaints and 4 days later, did Animal Control visit the address. No adults were present at the address to speak with the agent, so Jesamine was left there.

It took many more complaints to prompt a follow up visit. A resident at the address informed Animal Control Officer (ACO) that they planned to kill the bird the next weekend. Despite eyewitness account and photographs of cruelty and lack of shelter and the address did not have a permit to keep chickens, ACO left Jessamine there. Humane investigators decided that Jessamine would be considered "livestock," so anti-cruelty laws did not apply. Case closed.

CRR visited the address and bought Jessamine from the resident who was happy for the money and offered to kill her for us. We left with Jessamine safely in my arms as our 852nd rescue.  Her crop was bulging with raw rice, her only food. Jessamine's condition was documented by our veterinarian and ex-rays were taken that indicated possible broken ribs and dislocated femur.

About 30% of our rescues show evidence of having been shackled. When Jessamine first experienced freedom in the garden, she went right to work dust bathing in the dirt with her beak and a soft buk-buk sound. She had never had a perch before and took to that right away. She serenely steps out of her quarters for cleaning and exercise and enthusiastically steps back in when she’s ready to go inside. She picks up her feet in an odd way, a novel experience to walking without a tether.

Two months later, Jessamine passed away after a brief illness. An autopsy verified chronic, stress-related infection and possible immunosuppression. Our vet concluded that poor breeding, shelter, food and stress had irreparably damaged her immune system.

For a brief time, Jessamine knew what is was to be lovingly held and spoken to, and to feel safe, warm, well fed and in the company of other birds. I've never seen such exquisite eyes and face.




Beyond Eggs: Why I Keep Backyard Chickens

By: Robert Grillo, Exectutive Director, Free From Harm

People often ask me why I have chickens. “Is it for the eggs?,” they ask. Now of course, what this question implies is that there is no other value to chickens than the eggs they produce. In fact, I find people far more interested in the fancy colors and sizes of chicken eggs than I do about the birds who lay them. Isn’t that interesting? We’re a culture that is fascinated with objects. And the egg is perhaps the most poignant symbol of fertility in many cultures, including our own. And in a way, this symbol has distracted us from something much more important which I hope to touch on here.

My response to the eggs question is, “No, it’s actually the knowledge I gained, and continue to gain, that has become the most valuable part of my experience in raising adopted chickens.” “Learning what?,” one might rightfully ask. And I respond by explaining how much I’ve learned from these birds, not just about them, but about myself. In fact, raising adopted chickens has been the pathway to becoming a very different kind of person today than I once was.

Knowledge over Eggs

“A different person? In what way?” The experience has forced me to question my most deep-seated assumptions about animals raised as food commodities, like chickens who represent 92% of those animals. And I’ve concluded from my intimate, first-hand experiences with them, that their lives are far richer and more complex than I had ever imagined; that their capacity for inter-species companionship with us far more sophisticated than I had ever imagined; that their awareness of who they are as individuals as well as the roles they play in a group far more evolved than I had imagined; that their emotional capacity far more expressive than I had ever imagined.

And most importantly, by finally letting go of the narrow view I inherited from our culture (that prevented me from seeing them for the individuals that they truly are), I was then finally free to evolve my own thinking. I was able to see how chickens connected with all animals, including the human ones. My mind was freed of the rigid categories that we impose on animals like chickens, freed of the prejudices that we have been taught about food animals, freed of the cultural conditioning that we all grew up with that taught us not to care about this class of animals — that taught us that their value is limited to their utility to us as a food commodity.

Trust and Expectations

As with any relationship based on mutual trust, I also learned that you don’t receive the gift of getting to know the animal’s true nature without two important factors: 1. patience (it can take time to establish mutual trust in any relationship) and 2. the removal of any expectations of getting something from them. It’s really no different than with humans relationships, is it?

Yet it’s hard for people to imagine giving back to these birds since our relationship has been based simply on taking, that is, taking their eggs. Many have described to me how their chickens have pecked at them when they try to take their eggs. And they are offended by this. To understand why, we must try to see thing’s from the animal’s point of view. You’re taking away something that’s hers. And it’s something important to her. She perceives her eggs as her potential offspring. Our adopted hen Doris proves this point.

Doris: a Tenacious Desire for Motherhood

Lovely and elegant Doris is one of three adopted hens. She had major surgery over a year ago to save her life. The surgery consisted of removing her oviduct and a mass of infected egg material that was blocked in her abdomen. One third of her body weight was removed during the surgery. It was successful. She will never be burdened to lay another egg again. However, she never lost her desire to be a mother.

Just the other day, I saw her turning with her beak the egg just laid by another hen and laying on this egg for close to an hour. And she’s been doing this regularly and with incredible tenacity for well over two years since the surgery. These actions express an expectation that the egg contains an embryo and will eventually hatch into a chick if properly nurtured. Mother hens are known to turn their eggs in precise positions 30 times every day to ensure the healthy birth of a chick.

Breaking the Family Bond

Today, egg-laying chickens do not raise their young or they lay infertile eggs. Parent birds that lay fertile eggs for hatcheries are taken from these chickens and hatched in artificial incubators. As a result, hens are deprived of something that comes naturally to them: motherhood. Hens have been mothers for at least the same length of time that the earliest known fossils of the chicken’s ancestor that date to some 50 million years ago! Our domestication of these birds, beginning around 7,000 years ago, is a mere drop in evolutionary time when compared to the length of time they existed in the natural world, free of human interference.

The Ultimate Reward

While some see keeping backyard chickens as an opportunity to have fresh eggs and a more sustainable, self-reliant source of food, I see it as an opportunity to give back to a species whose identity we have destroyed, whose most basic interests and desires we’ve relentlessly denied and whose bodies we have manipulated into egg-laying machines. I say that this is a time for healing the wounds of these birds, not looking for more humane or sustainable ways to continue using them for eggs. It’s a shift, to be sure, away from the spirit of taking and toward the spirit of giving. And the ultimate reward comes in the form of deep companionship that can only be won when we lose our fixation over their eggs.

Below is a statement put forth by the Eastern Shore Sanctuary (now VINE Sanctuary), Animal Place, Chicken Run Rescue, Farm Sanctuary, Sunny Skies Bird and Animal Sanctuary, and United Poultry Concerns. In it we list why and how people should contest the growing trend of ordering and keeping backyard flocks of chickens.

Collective Position Statement on Backyard Poultry

In the past couple of years, the practice of keeping chickens in urban and semi-rural backyards has increased.

People keep chickens for a variety of reasons: opposition to factory farming; a desire to eat fresh eggs; a genuine love for chickens as companion animals. Like other fads, this one has drawbacks which hatcheries and chicken breeders don’t want you to know about.

If you truly enjoy the company of chickens and believe that all animals should be treated with kindness and justice, please consider these facts before organizing your own backyard flock:

• Chicken feed and excrement can attract rodents to your house.

• Hatcheries, like McMurray Hatchery, treat chickens no better than factory farms do. In fact, they ARE factory farms. Their treatment of chicks is abominable and comparable to the mistreatment of dogs in puppy mills.

• Sending chicks through the mail is abusive. Temperature-sensitive chicks should not be boxed up without food or water for up to 72 hours and transported through the postal service. Please note: Purchasing chicks at feed stores is the same as ordering them through the mail. Contrary to appearances, those chicks do not come from local farms, but from mega-hatcheries.

• Hatcheries will send you roosters even if you ask them not to. They use roosters as packing material and chicken sexing is more art than science. While cities may be zoned for hens, most prohibit roosters, leaving them to be abandoned or killed at shelters.

• Chickens need proper housing and fenced-in yards to survive inclement weather and predators. They also need easy access to fresh food and clean water at all times, a clean yard and sleeping space and good veterinary care.


If you are not zoned for chickens, keep it that way! There are too many problems with chickens living in urban environments.

If your town or city is already zoned for chickens, check out the specifics of the ordinances and ensure that they are as humane as possible.

If you have read through all of this material and still want to live with chickens, adopt from a farmed animal sanctuary or animal shelter. Note, though, that sanctuaries have strict adoption protocols to protect the animals.