‘It’s Impossible Not to Feel Like I’m Part of the Flock’ | Civil Eats

‘It’s Impossible Not to Feel Like I’m Part of the Flock’

In an excerpt from her new book, ‘Under the Henfluence,’ Tove Danovich discusses her ongoing fascination with chickens and the challenge of reconciling the backyard trend with today’s industrial practices.

Excerpted from Under the Henfluence by Tove Danovich, which went on sale March 28, 2023.

When I told my grandma I was getting chickens, the first thing she did was ask me how many. “Three,” I said proudly. “Three?!” she repeated. “Three!” I was sure that she was shocked by how amazing it was that I was adding so many chickens to my family.

Grandma laughed. “You can’t just get three chickens,” she finally said. “You have to get 25—at least.”

I tried to explain that things had changed since she last had chickens, that most people in cities often only had three to six because of local laws.

She scoffed, “I’ll believe it when I see it.”

“They’re coming next week! I’ll show you. Three is plenty.”

In farm households, women’s income was often called “egg money” because it so commonly came from raising chickens.

Before my grandma was born, my great-grandma Gyda got a wedding present from her new husband. They lived on a farm in North Dakota where farm wives worked just as hard as the men, though they usually had no control of the household income besides what the “man of the house” deigned to give them. Instead of an allowance, my great-grandfather and his brother, another newlywed with a farm nearby, cooked up the idea of building henhouses for their wives.

The husbands would provide money for feed and chicks so the women could “raise as many chickens as they wanted,” as my grandma recalls, and avoid one wife getting jealous of the other for having a bigger income. (It’s unclear whether the women would have wanted to raise any chickens at all if given the option. But I digress.) My great-grandma kept white ducks and white leghorn chickens that she sold to people in town. “She’d get orders and butcher them, and I would have to stand there holding them while they were bleeding to death,” Grandma remembered almost fondly, a childhood memory that’s slightly less common today.

This chicken money paid for my grandma’s and great-uncle’s piano and music lessons. Gyda, like other farm women in the early 1900s, sold chickens and eggs to city folk for cash or in exchange for credit at the local grocery store. In farm households, women’s income was often called “egg money” because it so commonly came from raising chickens. It was treated as separate from real farm income even though it kept the family fed, clothed, and educated and paid for memorable items like musical instruments or class rings.

That all started to change after World War II. Extension programs began to suggest men get involved in the chicken industry and modernize it. Chicken farming had been looked down on as women’s work but now was advertised to men as a good way to make a living. New production breeds were developed that gained weight faster or laid more eggs. Extension programs recommended chickens be raised in modern warehouses, where they were confined 24/7, rather than backyard coops like the one my great-grandmother used. Outside truly rural areas, a flock of chickens in the backyard became an oddity.

My family was proud enough of their farming roots and the old dairy they used to own that I always felt comfortable around farm animals and the realities of farming—at least the realities of how farming used to be. My grandma remembered her role in her mother’s chicken business. A generation later, my mom and her sisters all told the same story about visiting the family dairy and having to hold the cows’ tails during milking (“or else,” their uncle warned them, miming a chopping motion to make the girls scream).

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I knew from a young age that everything on a farm had to have a purpose, whether it was the draft horses pulling heavy wagons or the chickens laying eggs. But we’ve lost touch with the bargain early farmers made with their animals—that these creatures would have easy, safe lives free from predators except for us humans.

Today, there’s never been a worse time to be a chicken. Since 1992, Americans have eaten more chicken than any other meat. (Chicken became more popular than pork in 1985 and went on to wrest beef out of the No. 1 spot a few years later.) In 2020, over 9 billion of these birds were raised for eggs or meat on industrial farms in America alone. (Globally the number is 65 billion.) More chickens are killed for food every year than there are people on the planet. By weight, 70 percent of all birds on the planet are the poultry that humans raise for food. We’ve bred chickens to produce more eggs and grow faster.

If allowed to live a “natural” life, these birds’ genetics are so unnatural that they often die from heart failure or become lame because their skeleton can’t support their weight.

Some scientists have even dabbled with the idea of creating a meat chicken that never develops feathers just so we can save a step between slaughter and the grocery store. Broiler chickens, raised to gain weight quickly, are slaughtered before they’re even 2 months old. If allowed to live a “natural” life, these birds’ genetics are so unnatural that they often die from heart failure or become lame because their skeleton can’t support their weight.

Chickens on industrial farms live their lives in cramped cages or perhaps in cage-free facilities, stuffed together on a dusty floor where at least they can spread their wings. The Humane Methods of Slaughter Act, passed in 1958, requires all animals be “rendered insensible to pain” before being shackled or killed—all animals except for poultry.

I was in middle school when I read about the realities of the meat industry for the first time. It was so different from Old MacDonald and the family farms that I’d heard stories of growing up. There were no childhood hijinks with the animals. No roosters chasing kids across the yard. In industrial farms, the only people who interact with these animals tend to them like machines—giving food and water or shoveling waste.

I was horrified by the information. I stayed up all night on the internet, watching undercover videos and reading every article I could find. I made a plan with a few of my other animal-loving friends to sneak into school an hour before classes started. We taped fliers about meat and farming to everyone’s blue lockers. I wanted them to know what I knew. Why wasn’t everyone outraged? I was only 13 and I knew, immediately and without question, that what was happening to animals on these farms was wrong.

Chickens were domesticated over 3,000 years ago and have been living in our yards—more or less—ever since. They’ve been pets, a valuable source of household income, the expensive subjects of adoration, and a calming influence on the sick or elderly.

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Walking around Brooklyn in the late aughts, I never heard chickens over the noise of the city but often did a double take when I spotted a coop tucked into the front yard of a stately brownstone. The birds are trendy enough that it has become hard to find a profile of the many celebrity chicken keepers, like the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, Kate Hudson, Jennifer Garner, Ang Lee, or Isabella Rossellini, that fails to mention their pet chickens and fancy backyard coops. Chicken leashes, diapers (so your chicken can live indoors), and even tutus have all become popular accessories. There are companies dedicated to chicken sitting like you might find for dogs or cats, and, if you’re watchful, you can spot a nervous owner holding a bundled-up chicken in some veterinary waiting rooms.

Looking at my hens, all distant relatives of the Tyrannosaurus rex, it’s easy to see the predator’s gaze in their eyes. They move differently from mammals. So much about their bodies marks them as decidedly “other,” from their feather-covered bodies to their scaly reptilian legs. But when they waddle-run up to me for treats or allow me to pick them up and stroke their silky feathers, it’s impossible not to feel like I’m part of the flock.

I was touched and surprised when I found out that my grandma, who scoffed at my flock of three chickens, had been printing out photos I’d posted of the birds on social media. When I went to visit for her 85th birthday party, I watched as she showed them to her longtime friends and neighbors. I wasn’t the granddaughter who was a journalist; I was the granddaughter who raised chickens. In fairness, I talk about my flock all the time. Over the years, my girls have helped me make friends with people all over the world. When we connect with the chickens in our backyards or neighborhoods, we often connect with members of our own species, too.

Tove Danovich is a journalist based in Portland, Oregon. You can follow her @TKDano or read more on her website. Read more >

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