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.