Ah, Uptown New Orleans! What a place. Walking down Maple Street, you see restaurants, bars, businesses—it’s a fun little area, where there’s usually a drunk person or a group of college kids around to make noise. What you wouldn’t expect to hear is the cackle of a chicken, or three. Local residents Chase Applewhite and Cat Clade brought a bit of rural living to this part of town when they started work on their chicken coop last year. I stopped by their place to check it out and ask them a few questions about their feathered friends.
When I get there, Cat leads me to the fenced-in backyard where the chickens are ranging. These animals are hilarious! One targets me right away and pecks at my leg. The groans they make are also enough to get me giggling. We open up the coop and look inside the chickens’ boxed area, where they lay their eggs. It really is a beautiful coop, and probably more put together and complex than most I’ve seen, which is impressive since Chase, with the help of a cousin (both college-age), built it all themselves. About this, Chase says, “I built a really nice coop, kind of unnecessarily nice. I could have used old pallets, but this one is better to look at and I also have a little side shed that I built into it. It’s the real deal. I used all treated wood and put pilings in the ground. I mean, a hurricane could not touch that thing; it’s there for good.” The work was extensive, costly, and it took almost a year to build because of school and work. “I’m proud of the coop, but would have done things differently if I could go back in time. Treated wood is expensive, so I would have probably just gotten repurposed wood,” he explains.
Chase and Cat got the idea to get the birds when they moved in and started gardening, and thereby became more concerned about where their food was coming from. “Chase had the idea in the back of his mind for awhile, but I got on board when we did the New Orleans Eat Local Challenge, where you go 30 days eating only foods grown, caught, or raised within a 200 mile radius of New Orleans,” says Cat. Initially, the two went into it for the eggs and fertilizer, not realizing they would connect with the chickens and care for them just as they do their dog.
Having chickens and maintaining a coop takes a lot of work and costs money, just like owning and caring for any other pet. The coop has to be cleaned weekly, and you have to buy a bag of food each month as well as flea, tick, and worm medications. Noise is a concern too, as sometimes they cackle pretty loudly, whether they are happy or sad. Chase tells me that when researching chickens prior to getting them, he was worried about all the wrong things: “It’s more than the smell and the upkeep; it’s the stress of being in your house watching television and hearing a chicken losing it, and then thinking about your neighbors.” Fortunately, they haven’t had many complaints. In fact, some neighbors have expressed that they enjoy hearing the chickens because it takes them away from the hustle and bustle of New Orleans and gives them a rural, relaxed mindset for a moment. “When you’re in a city like this with a bunch of drunk assholes walking down the street all the time, it’s kind of nice to hear chickens. Their little noises are nice, and even kind of therapeutic in a way. It feels like we live on a farm,” Chase says about the noise. Adds Cat, “It’s very much a perk to have an endless supply of eggs. We pretty much eat them every day, and I bake a lot more. We even started to make ice cream.”
With a daily routine that starts with feeding and letting the chickens out, as well as collecting eggs, it’s easy to build bonds and acknowledge them as full-fledged pets. “I was kind of a novice going into this because I didn’t know that they needed to really range. It’s just like any other pet—you’ve gotta keep them happy or you’re going to have consequences. At first I just saw them as chickens and assumed they required very little maintenance. But then you see that each of them has their own little personality and attitude. It’s kind of like having three stupid dogs,” jokes Chase. Cat agrees and adds that she pretty much has always seen them as pets: “We spoil the shit out of these chickens!”
Although they see them as pets, it’s inevitable that Chase and Cat will have to eventually look to the future and figure out what to do when the chickens stop laying eggs, which usually happens around five or six years of age. No one would ever consider killing their cat or dog, so why should it be any different with pet chickens? When I ask Chase he replies, “That’s the big question, isn’t it? I’ve been giving this a lot of thought. I went through a phase where I would never even think about killing the chickens, but mostly because it is a tedious, challenging process to butcher one. It requires cutting its head off, chopping the wings off, getting rid of every single feather, gutting it… this whole graphic process. If you’re going to choose to connect and relate with these animals, you’re not going to be able to do any of that. Now I’ve come to the point where I think I could man up and do it. It’s sometimes even better than getting rid of them, because then they are just wandering around without any help.”
While I’m not sure I’d be able to butcher a pet chicken, I can see where Chase is coming from. I don’t see anything wrong with giving animals a great life, treating them well and keeping them healthy, and then being able to enjoy each and every resource they can provide, including their meat. It’s all about raising them ethically and making sure they are happy. This is 100% better than anything accomplished by factory farming, which is an issue that Chase and Cat aren’t quiet about. “Not everyone knows this, but factory farming puts out more harmful gases than carbon dioxide from cars,” explains Chase. “You can take on the car and fossil fuel issues way easier than you can take on the American meat industry. It’s actually impossible. You can’t start talking like that in America. You can’t say ‘meat is causing global warming, Americans need to stop eating meat.’ You can’t do it. The factory farms usually put the chickens in a little wooden box with a few holes in it, only feed them really fattening stuff, and get them huge at a young age to where they can’t even flap their wings—then they butcher them. It’s all about efficiency. They aren’t looking to give them a good life or have any sort of mutually beneficial relationship.”
Building the coop and raising the chicks has kept Chase and Cat on their feet and made them more responsible, about which Chase jokes, “I wouldn’t even call it more responsible, but that it just gets you used to a higher level of stress.” There is not too much the couple would caution others against about having a coop, but it does take two dedicated people to keep chickens, especially being young, busy college students. “If you’re going to have a chicken coop, you have to do it right,” says Chase. Some advice to those who wish to have their own chicken coop: start small. It’s easy to build an affordable coop, and you really only need to start with two chickens (with 2 square feet per hen). Chicks can be purchased for around $1.50 each at the Jefferson Feed. Chase advises, “Pallets are the thing to really utilize, because you can get them treated and they are free. You can mount them up to each other and build the structure you want pretty easily. That’s what I wish I could have done, because it would have cost me probably less than $200.” It’s perhaps most critical to have a sealed yard if you want a coop, so the chickens can range safely and securely. And of course, prepare yourself—and your neighbors—for some new noise.