A couple of weeks ago at the Underhill Playground, amid the three-wheeled plastic cars and other nearly played-to-death toys scattered about the rubberized safety surface, I saw a chicken.
That's right – a clucking, strutting, pecking chicken. At first I thought it might be a mutant dog or rabbit on steroids, because it didn't resemble any farmyard fowl I had ever seen. With fluffy grey feathers and a bluish cast to its waddle, it looked like a bird crossed with an Ewok.
The thing ambled around in the shade of a tree pit, contained by a rainbow colored fence about six inches high. A gaggle of kids had gathered around it under the watch of a blond haired woman in casual clothes. What looked like a cat carrier – the chicken's home on-the-go – lay at her feet.
At one point the chicken produced a brown egg, which the woman held up for the kids to see.
My toddler son raised his hands in an exaggerated shrug, as if to say “what the heck is that?” He grabbed my hand and pulled me toward it, but I held back, unsure. My mind jumped from chicken to egg, then salmonella, bird flu, avian apocalypse, cats and dogs living in sin ... you get the picture.
I told my son we had to go, and distracted him from the wildlife with talk of lunch. As I strapped him into the stroller, I had to laugh. Where else can you take your kid to an urban playground – its asphalt drenched in sun, its wrought iron fence surrounded by brownstones, a bodega, and a monolithic public school building – and find a free-range chicken?
My wife has wanted to keep chickens since reading Susan Orlean's account of her small flock in The New Yorker (The It Bird, September 28, 2009). “They don't need much room,” my wife told me. “We could put an Eggloo (a prefab coop) right on our patio!”
As she said this she surveyed our pocket-sized backyard, and I could see her envisioning fluffy little peeps hopping amongst our small patch of vegetables.
“Chickens are filthy animals,” I replied. “And can you imagine getting woken up by a rooster? There are reasons I live in the city.”
Actually, when I first moved to Brooklyn I was sometimes woken before dawn by a rooster's crow. I lived in Flatbush, and a few of my Caribbean neighbors kept birds, perhaps for Santaria rituals. (Turns out these were contraband chickens – owning a rooster was and is illegal in New York City.)
Though my wife finally agreed that our backyard wasn't the place for a flock, she won me over to the thought of keeping chickens someday. We love growing as much of our food as we can. Adding fresh eggs and the occasional roaster (heh, heh) to our stab at subsistence farming would be pretty cool. And it would justify getting a hard working dog to help round up the chickens and keep them safe – something I've always wanted.
What can I say – we're a part of the crafty, do-it-yourself, food centric, environmentally responsible, agrarian-minded Brooklyn bourgeoisie. Call us Brobos, with apologies to David Brooks, who coined the term bobo to describe the liberal “bohemian bourgeoise” of the Clinton Era.
My wife and I might be happy on a farm if only we didn't love the smorgasbord of restaurants, the energy of our tightly packed community, the thrumming electricity of life in Gotham. And the fact that we can get everywhere via public transportation, foot, or bike.
So I'm not anti-chicken per-se. But when confronted – as I was several times over the course of a few weeks – with a chicken outside of the safe confines of the zoo with its hand washing station, knowledgeable staff, and health inspections, my protective parenting instincts came to play. No way was my son going near that thing.
Besides, there seemed a huge injustice here. I once saw my neighbor's cute Pomeranian chained outside the gate because the playground has a no pets policy. How could that rule apply to canines but not poultry?
That chicken was shedding feathers and defecating in dirt that kids would later play in. What if one of those kids puts dirty hand to mouth and ends up ingesting poop?
No, as much as my hippy-dippy heart wanted to embrace the creature, logic and reason revolted. I decided to do some research, to determine which part of me had it right.
I had the opportunity to talk to the chicken's keeper, the blonde woman I saw hold up the chicken's egg. She's a pre-k teacher at , and though she at first gave me her email, she later spurned my requests for a formal interview. , PS 9 is in the middle of a brouhaha about whether it will expand or become home to a charter school. The principal, the teacher explained when I saw her on the playground, has become gun shy of the press.
Still, she answered a few quick questions while watching her students tear around the play equipment, hurly-burly. The chicken is a Japanese Silkie, hence its unfamiliar appearance. According to Wikipedia, the name Silkie comes from the soft feel of its plumage, and the generally docile species makes it an excellent pet, especially around children.
The bird plays a part in her curriculum, though I was unable to find any information about chickens in New York City Public Schools, aside from those of the nugget variety. The teacher has cared for the bird since it was a day old and had it tested for salmonella. I didn't even know salmonella was something you could test for – if so, then why aren't all chickens tested? Why do outbreaks still occur?
Anecdotal accounts on chicken forum websites posited that factory farmed eggs and improperly prepared chickens are far more likely to cause Salmonella than chickens raised in backyards. That said, these same sites – like BackYardChickens.com– recommended using common sense, such as supervising children while they interact with the chicken, and having them wash their hands after touching it.
The CDC's website agrees with these measures. In an online pamphlet entitled “So You Want to Raise Chickens?” the CDC warns against keeping chickens with children under five. This sounded a little extreme to me, and typical. Of course the government is going to tell you not to mix children and chickens.
But what about kids who grow up on farms? That Mongolian kid in the documentary Babies, who at one point is shown with a chicken strutting about on his bed, seemed healthy and happy, more so to my eyes than the richer, citified tots in Japan and the U.S.
As much as I hated to say it, being a propagator of internet content myself, my online reading didn't lead me to any firm position. I decided to talk to someone who has both chickens and children.
For advice I turned to none other than the aforementioned Susan Orlean. She's been a staff writer for The New Yorker since 1992, and her bestselling book The Orchid Thief was made into the acclaimed movie Adaptation. An animal lover – which she explores in her latest e-book Animalish – Orlean keeps a flock of chickens on her farm in upstate New York and also has a 6-year-old son.
Over e-mail, Orlean wrote that while she's not obsessive about exposing her son to germs, she does make him wash his hands after visiting the chicken coop. When I asked if she thought chickens had been unfairly maligned by the press, made out to be harbingers of plague and pestilence, she said yes. Birds get diseases by migrating and interacting with other birds – something most chickens don't do. “People have lived with chickens for so long that it's hard to imagine that they would be really dangerous; otherwise, we'd all be dead,” she said.
She went on, “My concern about keeping chickens in the city? Not the chickens at all, but the vermin that would be attracted to the food and to the chickens themselves. We definitely have mice in our shed, who love the chicken feed. We've had possums in the coop. We had to shoot them because they wouldn't come out and they were nasty and scary – in the city, this would be, uh, problematic. In the country, all in a day's work.”
But as for having my son near the Silkie on the playground, Orlean didn't think it would be a danger.
Erika Howsare, who lives in Virginia and keeps the Green Scene blog for the Charlottesville News & Arts Weekly, agrees with Orlean. She doesn't let her 1-year-old daughter in their coop. “The chickens poop a lot, and well, it's poop. I wouldn't let her play in the cat box either.”
But she also didn't think that interacting with a chicken for a short time at the playground was such a big deal.
After hearing two intelligent people with far more experience in this realm than I saying not to worry too much, my inner-voices of logic and reason – still clamoring for me to keep my son away from the chicken – were starting to sound a little paranoid.
What I've realized is that those voices aren't so rational or reasonable.
They had been perverted by our over-protective culture – spoiled by petting zoos with their omnipresent hand-washing stations, scared by our media into associating animals with disease and danger, and advised by our government, ever fearful of litigation, to leave well-enough alone when confronted with a “wild” animal such as a chicken. These are the result of a very recent form of the American dream, the post-war ideal of a clean, well-lighted home free from dirt and beasts – a break from the Old World, where farm animals and people might have interacted on a more regular basis.
In short, they led to me expect that my child's safety is other people's concern, that the problem lies in the chicken and not me.
Because what's the big deal if my son pets the Silkie and then I wash his hands? Albeit, I still don't think it's great that the chicken's poop gets left behind in the dirt under the tree. That seems rude to me, like not cleaning up after your dog. But if the bird was tested for Salmonella, and only at the playground for a short time, then it's not a life-threatening hazard.
Just yesterday I had the opportunity to put my new attitude into action, when the chicken – named “Chicken Little,” I gathered – made another appearance at Underhill. I eased between the surprised nannies and excited children with my son in my arms, ready to advise him on proper chicken-touching etiquette.
Turned out I needn't have put so much thought into this whole matter. Because when I crouched down in the dirt of the tree pit, my son only stood between my legs, watching the bird with a slight smile on his thin lips. I asked if he wanted to pet it, and he said, “No no no. Bagel. Home.”