Seattle’s Experience with Backyard Chickens


Backyard livestock supporters often tout the success of other cities who have allowed backyard chickens or goats. Seattle is often held up as just such a success. But is it?

If you just talked to city officials, that might be the impression you get. So I talked to Tiffany Young, a member of the Duck Rescue Network and backyard fowl rescuer. She alerted me to several things about Seattle that you won’t get from the backyard chicken people.

1. Owners are often ignorant of how to protect their chickens. Seattle Tilth sponsors a “city chickens” coop tour. Tiffany took the tour and reports that “seven out of the ten chicken coops I saw during a Seattle Tilth coop tour were not fully predator-proof.” She added, “Two of those ten homes mentioned losing ducks or chickens to predators and having a hard time keeping them safe.”

The biggest problems, evidently, are doors that don’t fit tightly to their frames, chicken wire used instead of hardware cloth-wire, and no tops on chicken runs. “Chicken wire is bad because raccoons work in groups and scare birds up against one side of the coop,” says Tiffany. “Then they grab them through the wire and chew off the heads through the wire.”

Seattle has a long way to go in educating backyard chicken owners about chicken coops.

2. Chickens will suffer from disease due to the ignorance of owners. If you look at the Yahoo group “Seattle Farm Co-op,” you will find many owners dealing with the numerous health problems that chickens will get.

One chicken had an upper respiratory infection; the owner debated which vet to consult while treating them with an internet remedy. After finally visiting the vet, the chicken was given antibiotics and the vet said that the chicken had nematodes, and the whole flock was infected. Another owner reported a chicken, one year old, which had previously had no problems, suddenly become listless. Thinking she was egg-bound (the hen is unable to pass a formed egg), the owner soaked her bottom end for 20 minutes in warm water, tried to locate the egg, and inserted mineral oil via her vent. Unfortunately, it didn’t work and the chicken died a while later. A third owner dealing with another apparently egg-bound chicken tried various home remedies; another more knowledgeable person on the list advises the owner to consider consulting a vet, or slaughtering the chicken (killing chickens in Seattle is legal).

One thing that chicken owners are often oblivious to is that “natural” chickens do not just spontaneously lay eggs every day. They are descended from tropical jungle fowl who lay a clutch of eggs perhaps every six months. They have been hybridized so that they ovulate constantly. Naturally health problems can easily result from forcing the chicken to churn out eggs constantly, which causes suffering for the chickens. “Egg binding” and a prolapsed uterus are two of the more common problems. “Uterine prolapse” means that the uterus pushes out through the vent area, which can lead to painful infection and a slow, agonizing death. As this forum demonstrates, many chicken owners are unaware of these kinds of issues when they get chickens.

So here is my question: if the current Denver “food producing animals” ordinance passes, is there any kind of cruelty to chickens in our backyards that will be illegal? If an owner willfully refuses to treat a diseased chicken, is that a problem? If an owner leaves the chickens out in the cold to freeze, is that a problem? Inquiring minds want to know.

3. Unwanted animals will proliferate. It is common sense that a lot of chickens are gong to wind up unwanted due to age or disease. “Vegan biker” from Seattle has this to say:

Seattle Animal Shelter already takes in 20-30 unwanted roosters and some hens per year, and local area veterinarians are dealing with an increase in surrendered, sick urban hens from people who don’t want to pay vet bills for “food animals.” Approximately 80% of coop owners are already above the current limit [which at that time was 3 chickens per household].

When I called the Seattle Animal Shelter, the person answering the phone said that they “wouldn’t have any idea” how many chickens came into the shelter each year. Mary Britton Clouse told me recently that many shelters don’t have good records even of dogs and cats that come in, much less statistics on “exotic” animals.

But this doesn’t mean that the Seattle Animal Shelter will be the preferred method for dealing with unwanted chickens. Tiffany adds:

I have personally rescued two chickens this week and an additional 4 ducks for a total of 6 domestic fowl this year, so far. Easter is when it gets really insane, so it’s just getting started. So far this year for me, one chicken was found caked with feces, another was found wandering loose in North Seattle. One duck had an infected, untreated dog bite which left him crippled. Two ducks were dumped at a park and one ended up with septic arthritis — both had serious respiratory infections. Actually THREE ducks were dumped but one died/disappeared before anyone called for help for them.

And this reflects only the chickens and ducks that we can account for. How many others have been lost without the benefit of being rescued? The Animal Shelter is likely not seeing the main brunt of the problem.

So this is Seattle’s glowing success with backyard chickens. There appear to be a growing number of problems with unwanted animals, animals that may (out of ignorance) be neither euthanized nor treated, animals that are abandoned, animals that are as a rule not protected from predators, and owners that have no idea of the suffering they are causing. The city (doubtless with plenty of other issues) has no way of tracking the problems. They would not even know about predators or inadequate shelter or veterinary care.

This is not just a problem for vegetarians. I drive a car and I need my car to be maintained and repaired. But that doesn’t mean I want to live next door to an auto repair shop. The same thing goes for food producing animals. If predators, cruelty, and disease are part of the process of getting eggs and dairy, then that’s one thing; but to have predators, cruelty, and disease next door is another matter entirely.