More and more Americans keep chickens, pigs and other farm animals in their backyards. And while many of them are raising their livestock responsibly, a growing number are finding the venture too burdensome. As a result, many farm animals are being abused, abandoned or killed. However, for some mistreated pigs, goats and chickens, the future is not so grim.
In a quiet suburban neighborhood just outside Washington, Ali Mirsky raises chickens in her backyard. But she’s not a farmer in the traditional sense. The self-proclaimed homesteader is one of a growing number of Americans choosing to raise their own food in an urban environment.
“I like the idea of seeing and caring for animals but also having access to fresh, healthy produce like eggs or meat,” she said.
Mirsky says she uses a common-sense approach to caring for her backyard chickens, who roam freely in an enclosed den on her property.
“For me it’s providing fresh water, fresh food that’s nutritionally balanced and healthy and also access to the outdoors,” she said. “So it is a commitment and it is a responsibility when you care for a living thing.”
But not all urban farmers are as responsible.
Urban farming pitfalls
Terri Littlejohn, assistant associate director of the Prince George’s County Animal Management Division
in the state of Maryland, says in addition to the dogs, cats and other pets they take in, her department is getting more and more calls to rescue farm animals.
She’s noticed a trend not only in Prince George’s County, but nationwide, not just in farming communities but also in residential areas.
“We’ve picked up pigs that are in someone’s backyard, we’ve picked up goats, we’ve picked up chickens, we’ve picked up hens,” Littlejohn said. “We’re seeing a lot of animals that have been abused and a lot that have been neglected.”
Since the animal shelter where she works is not set up for farm animals, Littlejohn has been transporting many of them to the Poplar Spring Animal Sanctuary
for abused and abandoned farm animals and wildlife, a 400-acre refuge in rural Maryland.
She recently helped transport two pigs to the quiet refuge. They will be quarantined for a short period of time before joining the 200 other barnyard residents.
Terry Cummings co-founded the sanctuary with her husband Dave in 1996. They work with humane societies up and down the East Coast who call them when they take animals in from cruelty cases or find them abandoned.
Terry Cummings with one of her rescued animals at the Poplar Spring Animal Sanctuary for abused and abandoned farm animals and wildlife, a 400-acre refuge in rural Maryland. (Julie Taboh/VOA)
The animal residents include horses, pigs, goats, sheep, cows, chickens, turkeys, and a variety of water fowl; ducks and geese. The animals live out the rest of their natural lives in a safe and peaceful setting, all of which is funded entirely by donations from the public.
Cummings believes most urban farmers are not aware of the responsibilities and all the time and money that goes into properly caring for farm animals.
“There’s been this whole back-to-the-land movement and some people call themselves homesteaders or sustainably raising animals and they want to grow their own food in their back yards and that includes animals," Cummings said. "So there’s been a real increase in this over the last few years and we’ve seen more and more problems associated with it. They think that they are going to be able to cheaply raise animals for meat in this manner and it really ends up being an abusive situation for the animals because they don’t have the knowledge or the desire to do it properly.”
She describes a batch of chickens that recently arrived on the farm.
“They were purchased from a hatchery for somebody to raise in their backyard and the person had a change of heart at the last minute and didn’t even open the box that came in the regular mail from the hatchery,” she said. “Just literally threw the box out on the street in a busy intersection, and it was picked up by animal control.”
On this sunny day at the refuge, an assortment of birds -- among them roosters, turkeys and chickens -- roam free, take dust baths and sun themselves without any fear from humans.
Down the hill from the chickens, a special pair of pigs have found a safe haven here after arriving at the farm earlier this year.
“Emilia and Felix, they are very cute little Guinea Hogs who were being kept in a horrible place in Maine," Cummings said. "The owner had them in a wire cage where they had no shelter, no roof of any kind, and it was negative 10-degrees and they were kept without food or water…the owner just didn’t have the desire to spend the money to give them a proper shelter.”
Cummings knows each of the animals by name.
“We are the happy ending for the farm animals,” she said. “They come from these awful situations where they’ve been treated terribly, not given proper food or water or any kind of shelter at all and then they get to come here. We have 400 acres, they can roam around, they can do whatever they want to do.”