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February 2006
Move Over Rover: The Urban Chicken Phenomenon

By Christine Morrissey


Emery. Photo courtesy of Christine Morrissey

Courtesy of Foster Farms, Emery was deemed to become one of the many ‘all natural’ chicken breast fillets found in the frozen food aisle of a local Safeway. However, in a string of luck, this plump rooster made an unusual detour from the normal life of a bird raised for meat.

One warm August night, rescuers with East Bay Animal Advocates discovered the disabled four week-old broiler at a factory farm. Clucking the California Central Valley goodbye, Emery relocated to the San Francisco Bay Area. This night changed his life. Emery became an urban chicken.

The ‘poster chicken’ of the broiler industry, Emery has a crippling case of splay-leg (a common limb deformity caused by nutritional deficiencies, trauma or poor nesting surfaces). According to The Veterinary Record, 90 percent of broiler meat chickens bred for rapid growth experience leg problems in addition to heart and lung conditions. Factory farmed chickens suffering from splay-leg often struggle to gain access to food and water and are denied veterinary care.

Welcome Home
Despite his leg condition, Emery (also known as ‘Bowling Ball’) could stand on one leg perfectly and began adapting to his new living situation, a small studio. Sleeping on blankets, gobbling down mash and spaghetti, and sunbathing in the backyard, Emery found a new home.

Wait, a studio? A chicken living in an apartment? This may sound strange, but a growing number of Americans are welcoming chickens into their homes and backyards as companion animals.

From one-pound Bantams and mid-size Frizzle Cochins to ten-pound Giant Jerseys, chickens are misunderstood as being oddly foolish, ‘bird-brained,’ and just plain weird. However, rich with diversity and individuality, chickens really are the cluck-of-the-town.

“People don’t realize that chickens are no different than other companion animals. Chickens combine the best qualities of dogs and cats,” says Cheryl Potter, founder of the Pet Poultry Group. “People assume they do not they have intelligence or personality. They are very charming creatures. They will win your hearts.”

Although the intelligence of chickens is often understated, studies have shown that they can anticipate the future, grasp cause-and-effect relations, and maintain self-control. “Chickens can be trained to do some pretty complicated things,” says Dr. Laurie Siperstein-Cook of Davis, CA. “But intelligence should really be measured by how adaptable an animal is to do well in his or her natural environment. It has been shown that tiny three day-old chicks can recognize one individual chick out of dozens from his or her group. To me, that’s an incredible feat.”

Five years ago, Potter, a long-time vegetarian, acquired her first flock of chickens when she moved to Santa Cruz. Today, she cares for 100 rescued birds, including hens rescued from battery cage egg facilities.

“No matter what has happened to a chicken, they can be happy in the present. A chicken really knows how to get over it,” says Potter. “They have the ability to think that their future will not be the same as their past.” Adding, “They are one of the most optimistic animals I have ever known.”

Chicken Care
Potter hosts a chicken meet-up group ( that currently has 50 members who meet regularly to discuss chicken care. Community groups in Berkeley and Seattle also host backyard chicken care workshops.

Six years ago, Dr. Siperstein-Cook, a graduate of UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, started an avian house call practice. Her clientele includes pet chickens, ducks and parrots. “I have one client who has a rooster she rescued from the street and raised. When she left the room for a minute, he stood there and made little whining noises until she returned. Then he relaxed and followed her around again,” she says. “Chickens can make good companions. Like any domesticated animal, their relationship with people will depend first on how they’re raised, then with how they’re kept,” she explains. Chickens are also appreciated for their weeding and insect-hunting abilities in gardens.

However, before adopting a chicken, caregivers should be mindful of local zoning laws. Some municipalities limit or prohibit residents from having backyard chickens, especially roosters (i.e. crowing concerns).

If a companion chicken lives indoors, however, caregivers must be diligent about cleaning up after their feathered friends. Chickens are notoriously smelly poopers. Oddly enough, chicken caregivers can now purchase diapers ( for feathered friends who live indoors. Dr. Siperstein-Cook also notes that chickens can be house-trained, but it’s a bit trickier than with a dog. And for those who scoop their poop, chicken droppings are a great source for backyard fertilizer.

Although chickens can happily live in urban apartments, like dogs, they should be outdoors at least part of the day as they love to scratch in dirt, take dust baths and lay in the sun. If chickens are left outdoors unsupervised, caregivers need to provide protection from predators such as raccoons, coyotes, skunks, bobcats and hawks. Caregivers should also be mindful to keep dogs and cats separated from chickens.

At her suburban home in Davis, CA, Dr. Siperstein-Cook cares for seven chickens from a variety of rescue situations. She concludes, “They live very exuberantly in their new lives; it’s very gratifying to see.”

Christine Morrissey is Director of East Bay Animal Advocates. Learn more at For more information about the plight of Foster Farms chickens, visit



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