As I have already confessed, I love animals a bit too much. My husband and I, primates that we are, are minorities in our household. We have two dogs, a cat who believes she is a dog, and two maned pork tenderloins guinea pigs. And just this past Thursday, we came home from the feed store with six new additions.
Whoops! We now own chickens.
And from a financial perspective, we really couldn’t have done anything stupider.
Chickens are a terrible idea
I’m losing money
One of the ways our global economy has responded to a glut of competition is by becoming remarkably specialized. And specialization has a way of making things remarkably cheap. A farmer who raises hundreds of thousands of only one kind of chicken destined for only one kind of purpose is going to do so with incredible efficiency. A graphic designer bumbling her way through raising six birds in her suburban backyard? Much less so.
The six breeds we’ve obtained (Black Copper Maran, Barred Holland, Silver-Laced Wyandotte, Speckled Sussex, Easter Egger, and Golden Comet) are all primarily egg layers. The amount of money we will spend to support them will far exceed the cost of a similar amount of eggs from the grocery store.
From the perspective of a cost-benefit analysis, raising my own chickens makes no sense whatsoever.
They’re a burdensome commitment
For the price of my eggs, I will sacrifice a not-immodest amount of labor, food, equipment, bedding, and other expenses. I will fret over any illnesses or unhappiness my chicks suffer. I will hear noises in the night and wonder if a predator has thwarted the avian Fort Knox I’ve built. Pet sitters will be a must any time we want to go out of town. And if a job offer or family emergency required us to move, chickens would certainly add a lot of complications.
What’s more, they require daily care. Chickens rise with the sun. That means my lazy ass has to be up early every morning to feed them and let them out into their run. And I have to haul my lazy ass home every evening to let them back inside at sundown. Plus, our skies are lousy with raptors, so if I want them to forage freely, I’ve got to park my lazy ass out in the yard and make sure none come swooping down to snatch up my little investments.
It’s a lot of goddamn work for a biological product that is reasonably substituted by flaxseed and water.
Someday I’ll have to kill them
Some people say chickens aren’t pets, but I think this is splitting hairs for someone in my situation. They are animals who live under my care. That’s pretty much how I define “pets.” I don’t see the value in drawing a distinction between those whose primary purpose is companionate versus utilitarian, because all animals give me varying degrees of both.
Once our chicks get to be about six months old, they will lay their first eggs. They’ll produce an egg every day, or every other day, for about three years. Around this age their laying will slow down a bit, but they’ll still produce regularly for about seven years. After that, they’ll lay only sporadically. Their total lifespan is about ten years.
Fresh young chicks are only $5 a pop. Feed and bedding are fixed costs, and I’ve already invested in the necessary equipment to sustain them. As with wives, it makes good financial sense to kill them when their supply of eggs dwindles and replace them with fresh young things. Lol #misogyny!
That’s not the route I plan to take with mine. I’d like to know they lived the fullest lives I can give them. But some day, I will butcher the chickens I’ve raised. And I will do it with a sharp knife and my own two hands.
… So why the hell am I doing all this?
Why do something that’s needlessly expensive and incredibly ethically and emotionally burdensome? Why not just go to the store and buy eggs and meat like everyone else? Or why not go vegan and avoid the question altogether?
Why I’m still glad I got chickens
I want ethical food, goddamnit
I have so much respect for people who are vegetarian and vegan, especially those who do so for ethical reasons. Those reasons resonate very strongly with me.
While not a vegetarian per-se, I prefer to view meat and other animal products as special treats. I don’t add meat to things unless doing so significantly enhances my meal. And when given the option, I’ll choose the more environmentally sustainable meats (like chicken and turkey) over resource-wasteful stuff (like beef). I don’t eat pork at all, unless I can get it from a local farm. Pigs are awfully smart.
All that said, I’m still killing chickens every day. I’m just outsourcing it to people who do it very, very efficiently—and very, very cruelly.
If I could design the world from scratch, animals would not need to eat each other to survive. Unfortunately, no one has seen fit to put me in charge of such things.
I do not need meat to survive. Technically, my dogs don’t either. But my little cat does, even though she is the gentlest creature I’ve ever met. When she burrows down into my lap, purring, she does so with a belly full of dead animals. It sucks, and I wish it weren’t so, but butchery is a vital component of how our planet’s ecosystem functions.
What horrifies me isn’t really eating animals (and their byproducts). They’re dead by that point, so who cares? What I’m bothered by is how those animals are treated while they are alive. If I must be eaten by lions upon the Serengeti, let them be lions who house me in comfortable, air-conditioned accommodations and bring me sandwiches and video games for fifty years before delivering the killing blow. There’s no reason that consumption after death should mean misery in life.
I will do everything I can to make sure my chickens have long lives, enriched with every joy life can offer a chicken. And my final gift to them—as it is to all my pets—will be a good, quick death.
I want to use my privileges for good
Given all of that, I want to make sure that I’m living my life in the most ethical way I possibly can.
I have certain advantages that other people don’t: disposable income, time, a house with a large backyard, supportive neighbors, and favorable town bylaws. Thankfully, even my spouse is DTF (down to farm).
Given my ethical priorities and all of these advantages, it would be ridiculous of me to not get chickens. Not everyone can. But I’m lucky.
I can leave my tiny patch of planet less shitty than when I found it
Eggs are one of the the most versatile and nutrient-dense foods on the planet. Despite this, a modest number of laying hens can be very nearly self-sustaining.
My chickens will have food and water provided, but they’ll gather most of their food themselves. I’m planting fruiting shrubs and trees that will provide them forage. The chickens will aerate the topsoil by scratching at it and provide it with essential nutrients by 💩ing all over it. They eat pests like ticks, mosquitos, and invasive beetles. We’ll do everything we can to prevent predators from getting them, but if they do, perhaps they’ll bring a drumstick home to their own babies, and life will go on.
Sometimes the ecologically sound choice is expensive and burdensome. But it is our species imperative to make those choices whenever we have the ability to do so.
I drive to work, I install solar panels. I buy fruit out of season, I use a rain barrel. I fly for work, I don’t buy fast fashion. I eat meat, I raise chickens.
Nobody can make ethically perfect, ecologically sound choices every time. But for me, this is an easy win.
It’s just so fucking fun
Finally, I believe with all my heart that raising animals is fun. Chicks are fucking cute. Chickens are fucking weird. I can sit and watch them for hours, because they’re so goddamn entertaining.
Life is about more than financial optimization. Financial optimization frees you to make interesting, irrational choices about how to spend your time on Earth. One day I will lay upon my deathbed (hopefully in the air conditioned apartment with a good wifi signal supplied to me by those thoughtful lions). I will look back across my life and think of all the choices that I made.
It is possible my last words will be, “Oh! I can’t believe I spent $1,857 dollars on chicken keeping. If only I’d invested that money… in… my Vanguard account…” And the lions will be like, “She sucks. Let’s eat her.”
But I think it’s far more likely that my last words will be, “Lions, come at me! Never forget that I once owned a chicken named Bayonetta!” And the lions will be all like, “There goes the coolest woman who ever lived. Let’s eat her.”
(Incidentally, all of our chickens are named after famous witches. I did this so that I could train them to come to me by shrieking “MY CRONES, MY CRONES, COME TO ME MY CRONES!” For pictures of Bayonetta and the rest of the crones, follow us on Twitter!)