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Chickens: Livestock or Pets?

Mar 23, 2010

Gold sex link hen

I have been pondering this question for days now. Are chickens, like Sunflower (pictured here), livestock or pets? Until recently, I had not given it much thought. But when suddenly, I had to give my four hens away, I realized just how attached I was to them. This got me to thinking... most governing bodies consider chickens livestock, but I have a hunch that most chicken keepers, with small flocks, think of them as pets.

When I first acquired the girls, as one day old chicks, I did not really think of them as pets. But as they grew, and we became more acquainted, I realized that they each had their own unique personality. For example, Sweet Pea was the first to climb into my hand when I feed them. Rosie would occasionally peck me when I went to pick her up. And Sunflower was the loner in the group. 

Since my birds were all the same breed they looked almost identical. And if I had had a large flock I am sure they would have been impossible to tell apart. No one else in the family could tell one from the other. But I spent enough time with them to know that both Rosie (pictured above) and Sweet Pea had dark heads, while Sweet Pea was the only one with no white in her tail feathers. And only Daisy had a feather on her neck with a black streak in it. The differences were subtle, like telling identical twins apart.

I first realized that I was becoming attached to these birds last fall. I was racing the clock to get some plants moved before bad weather set in. Since I was in the garden and could watch them, the girls were out of their run. Every time I stuck a shovel in the ground, they came running, jumped in the hole and started pecking around. They had figured out, that when I dug up soil, I also uncovered worms, grubs, and other delicious treats. I should have confined them, but just like when my kids were toddlers, helping me in the garden, the thrill of being with them was more important than quickly finishing my task. 

All this goes to say, these four birds quickly became pets to me. I was just as attached to them as I am to our two cats. Maybe more so, after all my cats never help with the weeding. While the cats do catch the occasional mouse, they don't eat slugs or other garden pests. Not to mention, chicken droppings make wonderful fertilizer, while the stuff left in the cat box has to go to the landfill. Since I had only hens, they made less noise than a dog, and never a sound after dark. And the best part of all, they gave me eggs for breakfast. 

I can see how a large flock would be considered livestock, but I think it is different when you only keep a few birds. And why have we elevated cats and dogs above other domesticated animals? So I am wondering, how do others feel about these issues? How many of you, have become attached to an animal that is considered "livestock"? 


Thanks for asking this question. I've been pondering this and related topics ever since I moved to the country about 6 years ago. One thing I learned soon after arriving here is that most farmers don't think of their farm animals as livestock in the sense that I would use that word. On the contrary, they tend to know the animals individually and can be very attached to them. They usually care a great deal about their welfare, enjoy spending time with them, and may even talk to them. So in that sense, these animals probably don't qualify as livestock. On the other hand, farmers will still kill and eat cows, pigs, sheep, goats, chickens, and ducks when the time comes. Other animals may not be eaten, but they may be killed once they can't perform their designated function. So these animals not pets either. I think these animals are in a third category. Farm animal? Working animal? I'm not sure what the right term would be. They are kept primarily for practical reasons. And when they can no longer perform their practical function, whether it's work or food, the farmer will probably kill them rather than continue feeding them. In the meantime, however, they typically are treated well, or at least fairly well. (This varies, of course, from farmer to farmer.) Mind you, I am not at all sure I could do this. I've seen a hard-bitten farmer almost break down in tears because the truck from the abbatoir was coming that day to pick up his pig. I would not want to go through that (and yes, I know, it's a lot harder on the pig!). However, there is a hard logic behind this attitude. In traditional rural communities, farmers simply could not afford to feed animals that could not contribute. And they couldn't afford to waste edible protein, either. So they did what they had to do. It's also important to note that though this is a hard way to live, no doubt most working animals have much better lives than factory farmed livestock do. I'm still trying to decide whether my ducks are working animals or pets. I'm lucky in that my decision probably won't be made for me by economic necessity. I can afford to keep a few non-contributing animals around. (Just ask my cats.) So for me the decision may come down to emotions: Either I'll be able to kill and eat a duck (in which case, that duck was a working animal) or I won't, in which case they're all pets.
What about Ducks?
Wild Flora, I was raised on a small working farm & you have the relatstionship with the animals & farmer right. The circle of life & it takes a village, are concepts that some people write about as if we have forgotten them, but a farmer in a rural community lives them everyday. Your comments take me back to my child hood. thank you for the walk down memory lane.
Tamra, these are beautiful birds, there is a very fine line between livestock and pets, I think. Why do you have to give them away?
It is a good question you have asked here.People always keep chickens to eat them on some day but very few think of keeping them as pets.
I wish I had room for a small flock. I do have a friend who has a small flock. She calls them her "girls" and is quite atttached to them. However, when they no longer lay, she gives them to a local farmer. I'm sure they then end up in the stew pot, but my friend doesn't have to deal with the butchering herself. If I had chickens, I, too, would pose the question. I suspect they would be pets for me.
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