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When it comes to the particular breed of gluten-avoiding, yogurt-making, back-to-the-land urban yuppie that has risen in prominence in areas like Brooklyn and Oakland over the past several years, there’s hardly a symbol more representative of the trend than the backyard chicken. Since the mid-2000s, when a slew of newspaper articles heralded the age of the clandestine poultry operation, the movement has held steady, as evidenced by the prevalence of online communities such as backyardchickens.com and guidebooks including Raising Chickens For Dummies, published in 2009. I’m not to even mention that $100,00 chicken coop that was sold by Neiman Marcus. And, more recently, additional proof of the endurance of the trend has come from a less likely source: the Centers for Disease Control, which is warning that irresponsible, newbie chicken-keepers—who admit to gross-out practices such as hugging, kissing and sheltering birds inside their homes—are spreading a record number of salmonella outbreaks around the country.
In a section on its website entitled “Keeping Backyard Poultry,” the governmental agency tasked with maintaining American health directs chicken-wranglers to “wash your hands so you don’t get sick!” Since the late 90s, the CDC has tracked infections caused by the germs—which can be fatal if left untreated—and reports that 2012 was the worst year yet, with a record-breaking eight salmonella outbreaks that resulted in a total of 450 illnesses and five deaths, and that one of these was the largest outbreak in history to be definitively linked to backyard—as opposed to farmyard—chickens.
“In the past, it was fairly common to see salmonella infections in children around Easter time, after they had been handling chicks and ducklings,” said Casey Barton Behravesh, a zoonotic disease expert at the CDC. “But since 2007 or so, we’ve seen that things have changed: Now, not only are adults the ones who are more commonly infected, but the outbreaks occur year-round, too, not just in the spring.”
The way salmonella infections develop is pretty easy to understand. The germs live in the birds’ guts; when they shit, it’s in their excrement, too. Then the birds step in their waste, or get it on their beaks and feathers. So when a human handler touches the chickens, it’s highly likely that she’s getting salmonella germs all over her hands.
Sounds like a problem that’s, well, extremely easy to address, right? Right. All you’ve gotta do after a handling a chicken, or its personal effects, is wash your hands with plenty of ordinary soap and some good, warm water. If you don’t, the salmonella germs will eventually—when you wipe your face or have a snack—enter your body via your mouth. But as the CDC’s investigations discovered, backyard-chicken keepers admitted not only to not washing their hands after working with their pets, but also to occasionally bringing the birds into their houses (over 50 percent of those who fell ill) and nuzzling and kissing them (over 14 percent). Sick.
“There are other ways to show your appreciation,” Behravesh said.
All of this talk of salmonella came as news to Robert and Hannah Litt, the husband-and-wife authors of A Chicken in Every Yard and the co-owners of The Urban Farm Store in Portland, Oregon, where the hen-crazy local population can purchase both live chicks as well as Robert’s custom-blended chicken feed (it’s high in alfalfa and fish meal, good for boosting laying and increasing Omega-3 levels in both the chickens and their eggs).
“I would think that salmonella is extremely rare, because we have several thousand customers and I haven’t heard anything about it,” Robert said. “But I guess if you have ten times the number of chicken keepers, you’ll also have ten times as many infections.”
Anybody reasonably educated on the topic would know all the basic hygiene rules of keeping chickens, he said. The trouble is, a trend always attracts at least a few overeager, under-informed bandwagoners.
“Chicken keeping could be compared to the classic example of getting a puppy,” Robert said. “Some people are just like ‘Oooooh, that would be cool, let’s get one.’ Those are the kinds of people who might be taking shortcuts.”
Litt said he was surprised to hear that some poultry owners bring the birds inside their homes.
“Cohabitation, that’s a new one for me,” he said. “That’s pretty funny.”
The couple said that business has surged at their store, which they opened in 2009.
“When I started keeping chickens in 2001 or 2002, I was considered a real oddity,” Hannah added. “Neighbors used to stop and talk to me all the time. Now, though, when you walk around Portland you pretty much hear chickens on every corner.”
Robert said that that some of his customers elevate their chickens to the status of regular domestic pets like cats and dogs, which could potentially involve the kind of snuggling the CDC condemns as likely to transmit disease.
“But,” he said, “you probably shouldn’t be licking your dog’s mouth, either.”