The Dark Side of Urban Farming
The Woodstock Farm Animal Sanctuary gets weekly calls from people looking for new homes for their roosters, goats and other animals. Founded in 2004 with just a few chickens and a rooster, today the 23-acre refuge in Woodstock, N.Y., is home to more than 200 animals. While most of them are the result of investigations into farms and slaughterhouses, “a surprising number” are rescued “from the streets of New York City,” according to the sanctuary’s website.
“We get calls all the time from people who don’t want their animals or can’t afford them. We get emails about roosters found in the city or goats being neglected or pigs that are going to be killed if we don’t take them,” says Elana Kirshenbaum, programs coordinator at Woodstock.
As the local food movement takes hold and urban homesteading gains popularity, more people are giving backyard farming a try. The prospect of fresh eggs and milk inspires them to bring home adorable chicks and goats — but when chicks grow into roosters or goats begin eating the landscaping, these animals are often given to animal sanctuaries or simply abandoned.
“People have a romantic view of farming, but it takes a lot of time, energy and money to care for animals. Here, we take our chickens to the vet, and when they’re sick, we give them antibiotics. People need to ask themselves if they’re ready to take on that kind of responsibility for the life of the animal,” says Kirshenbaum.
The popularity of raising chickens is one of the greatest challenges for farm animal sanctuaries. Hatcheries are only 90 percent accurate when sexing newborn chicks, according to Woodstock, so when urban agrarians bring them home, there’s a chance they’ll end up with a rooster or two.
Roosters are prohibited under most city ordinances, so owners release them or try to find them new homes. Kirshenbaum says Woodstock currently has 50 roosters, but not all states have a sanctuary capable of caring for the birds. Most municipal animal shelters can’t house roosters, so the birds are often euthanized.
“No one wants roosters. People want to keep hens and take their eggs, but when you buy chicks, you’re often supporting violence because the male chicks are killed immediately,” Kirshenbaum says.
But chickens aren’t the only problem. Farm animal rescues say they’re also seeing an increase in the number of homeless goats. Cities like San Francisco, Portland, Ore., and Charlottesville, Va., allow residents to keep goats within city limits, and other municipalities, including Minneapolis and Northhampton, Mass., are attempting to overturn goat bans.
What many new urban farmers don’t realize is that female goats need to be bred regularly to produce milk, which makes the fate of male goats, which are unable to produce milk, a particular concern for farm animal rescues.
Debra White, president and founder of Winslow Farm in Norton, Mass., says the breeding and slaughtering of goats is becoming a problem in the city of Boston, which is located 45 minutes from her animal sanctuary.
“Goats are becoming more and more vulnerable to the hands of certain ethnic groups who will take them and breed them only to be slaughtered in someone’s backyard for a quick $60. I get calls from neighbors who tell me there are sheep kept in dog crates in the sun with no food or water and goats tied tightly to fences unable to lay down until someone buys them to slaughter them,” she says.
Most cities’ animal shelters aren’t designed to house livestock, and while there are farm animal sanctuaries, many states don’t have one. Kirshenbaum estimates there are fewer than 15 well-funded ones in the United States.
“There are so few farm animal sanctuaries and they only have so much space. We’re rescuing animals that don’t even exist in the wild anymore, but there’s no federal government or state government funding to protect them,” she says.
If you’re considering raising animals in your yard, Kirshenbaum recommends visiting a farm animal sanctuary first and learning about the animals and their plight. Woodstock offers tours April through October. If you decide to bring home goats, chickens, geese or any other animals, first make sure city ordinances allow them. Then check with local animal shelters or sanctuaries about adopting animals instead of supporting breeders.
“Get them in pairs as these are herd animals,” White advises. “Talk to your local farm and feed stores to feed them a proper diet. Vet bills can get expensive if something goes wrong, so have a little nest egg set aside for medical bills.”
But Kirshenbaum cautions people against raising farm animals and suggests that those interested in producing their own food stick with gardening.
“If you want to get involved in backyard farming, have an organic vegetable garden. I know a lot of environmentalists are all about sustainable farming, but you can’t sustainably raise an animal in captivity.”
If you know of a farm animal that needs a home, visit farmanimalshelters.org to find the sanctuary nearest you.