Urban Homesteading’s Dark Side
Wayne Geiger fields up to 10 calls per week about hens and roosters in need of new homes. When Geiger founded Lighthouse Farm Sanctuary in 2002, most of the calls he received involved horses, sheep and cattle that were victims of neglect or cruelty. There were almost no requests to help chickens. Geiger blames the increased demand on the popularity of urban farming.
“We get a lot of desperate calls, people scrambling to find homes for their unwanted hens and roosters,” says Geiger, founder and president of the 54-acre rescue near Salem, Oregon. “It’s become a huge problem.”
For many urban agrarians, chickens and goats are the perfect addition to a backyard farm, providing eggs and milk to complement bumper crops of tomatoes and peas. But when the novelty of having a chirping chick wears off or adorable kids turn into grownup goats that eat the landscaping, the animals are often surrendered to rescue groups or abandoned.
A few weeks ago, Geiger got a call about 13 chicks just three weeks old and still featherless in a plastic container left beside a dumpster with a note that said, “Please love us.” He rescued the birds. These kinds of calls are not uncommon, Geiger says. In fact, abandoned and unwanted chickens pose the biggest challenge for animal rescues.Woodstock Farm Animal Sanctuary WFAS, a 23-acre refuge in upstate New York that rescues, rehabilitates and cares for farm animals, has also seen a spike in the number of calls about chickens and roosters in need of homes.“People get caught up in the trend without thinking about the responsibility,” says WFAS co-founder and director Jenny Brown.In Minneapolis, Minnesota, Animal Care and Control has impounded more than 330 chickens since 2008. The staff relies on local rescue groups to provide foster care and facilitate adoptions of impounded chickens. Minneapolis-based Chicken Run Rescue (brittonclouse.com/chickenrunrescue) has seen a 780% increase in requests to rescue and place domestic fowl, including chickens.
Like most shelters, Minneapolis doesn’t have the facilities to accommodate chickens that arrive at the shelter as strays or owner releases.
“Most urban shelters were not designed to house livestock,” says Stephen Zawistowski, Ph.D., executive vice president of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. “The infrastructure isn’t available in shelters and there are not a lot of rescue groups dedicated to helping farm animals.”That includes sanctuaries to address the growing problem of unwanted goats in urban areas. Cities like Portland, Oregon, San Francisco, Seattle and Charlottesville, Virginia, allow residents to keep goats within the city limits. Other municipalities including Minneapolis and Northampton, Massachusetts, are attempting to overturn ordinances banning goats in urban areas.“We are always concerned about these kinds of trends,” says Zawistowski. “What happens [to the goat] when its milk production slows? I’m not sure everyone who gets a goat for their backyard has thought these issues through.”Noting that female goats need to be bred on a regular basis to produce milk, Brown also worries about overpopulation. The fate of male goats, unable to produce milk and often prohibited by city ordinances, is also a concern.“We get a lot of calls to take in unwanted goats, especially male goats,” says Brown. “A lot of people think it would be fun to have goats but after a while they change their minds.”
The goats at WFAS range from kids that were separated from their mother at birth and scheduled for the auction block to a homeless goat found wandering around an urban park in Brooklyn, New York. As shelters and sanctuaries struggle to manage increasing demands to find homes for livestock, responsible owners also fret over the fate of their flocks. According to Brown, hatcheries are only 90% accurate when sexing newborn chicks. When chicks turn out to be roosters—prohibited by most city ordinances—their owners have no choice but to find them new homes.
“We get more calls for roosters than any other animals,” says Brown, noting that Woodstock Farm Animal Sanctuary currently has 50 roosters in residence.
When sanctuaries are full and municipal animal shelters lack the facilities to house hens and roosters, the birds are often euthanized. Knowing the fate of these animals rests in their hands, animal shelters and sanctuaries feel increased pressure to take in unwanted farm animals
“It puts a tremendous burden on sanctuaries,” says Geiger. “As the need grows, we’re faced with figuring out where to find the funds and the space to help.”