The Downside of Free-Range Chickens

Caught red-handed: This sleazy possum wrought havoc among our chicken family and was forced to relocate.
It's a truism of animal stewardship: The more freedom you wish for your animals, the greater the risk of compromised safety.

We abide at Better Farm by the words of Edward Abbey, who puts it like this: "Freedom, not safety, is the highest good." With that tenet in mind, we encourage the animals (and humans) here to create their own destinies. For the dogs, that means unlimited space to run around and do dog things. For the chickens, that means 65 acres of land to scratch, peck, and turn over. For the people, that means designing their own curriculum, solving many of their own problems, and taking on individual projects that inspire them without the Big Brotherliness of being micromanaged or corrected all the time like they might be in a traditional classroom.

Sounds dreamy, but remember: There's a price one pays for all things.

Freedom to do largely as you wish means you're susceptible to all the things freedom brings: the ability to fail, the very real threat of putting yourself in harm's way, and the possibility of the Great Unknown; which may be wonderful or tragic. So although we subscribe to the "freedom over safety" rule, it's not always the easiest perspective to live with. This is where the Better Theory comes in; reminding us that each tragedy offers space for growth and understanding.

By choosing to allow our dogs endless space to run, we're always worried they might hang out in the road at the wrong time or run into a herd of porcupines or some other such thing. Allowing chickens to roam freely around the property, we face many potential hardships. Our birds weather the harshest of winters, coming inside only for medical care and R-and-R should they sustain an injury or frostbite—like Penelope here (pictured with her brave guard dog Han Solo), who's almost fully recovered since coming in out of the winter chill to defrost her feet:
We also run a high risk of our flock stumbling upon a host of North Country predators: hawks, eagles, coyotes, vehicles, foxes, raccoons, bobcats, and the list goes on. No time is the threat so large as toward the end of a particularly harsh winter; when would-be predators are just about starved and willing to do any crazy old thing in order to get an easy and satisfying meal. We go out of our way for this very reason to build chicken coops out of thick wood that sit high up off the ground, and we are diligent about closing the coops up tight promptly at sunset every evening.

My heart sank Monday night when I went outside to tuck the birds in and found absolutely none of them in their coops. Zilch. Zero. Nada. After a quick search around the yard I found them, huddled under the back deck and on top of it, letting out nervous coo sounds. I knew a predator was afoot; but couldn't determine in the waning sunlight what had happened. Then, I found our most prized rooster, Big Mama, very well near decapitated and lying in a pool of his own blood. Seems I (or the dogs) scared the predator away when we came outside. The evildoer wasn't able to finish the job.
RIP Big Mama. 2012-2014
Armed only with a so-so flashlight that evening, it was tough to find footprints or blood trails to piece this case together. So the next day, heavy with grief, I did what I could. I found signs of struggles: piles of feathers here and there, spatters of blood. The crime came into focus: whatever attacked Big Mama did so as a last resort. Likely going for one of the slower-moving old or young birds, our beautiful rooster had put himself into harm's way for the good of his hens. (Editor's note: Unsurprisingly, a significantly less loveable rooster, Kiwi, was found cowering with the rest of the hens out of harm's way.) A noticeable detail about the case was the brazenness of a wild animal to come so close to a house on 24-hour surveillance by two large dogs and constant human traffic. I mean, look at how close the chickens hang out to the house all winter long:

I let the dogs outside to sniff around and see what they could find. Their trail turned up cold.
Wednesday afternoon while working in the library, I saw the chickens hopping high up off the ground and making a huge racket. I walked outside and found a possum with several fresh battle scars on his face and tail (good work Big Mama!). Outfitted in a pair of slippers and without any weaponry or appropriate caging materials, I shooed the possum away from the hen houses, ran back inside, and grabbed a Havahart trap from the basement. I set the trap up before sunset, and by midnight we had him:
Don't be fooled by that sleepy/dead act. Possums are famous for it. Here he is yesterday morning when I was loading him into my Fiat (seriously, not the best car for relocating marsupials. Waaaay too close for comfort):
And here he is being released well away from any chickens:

So we all breathed a sigh of relief—until yesterday afternoon, when another possum was found lumbering across the back deck directly in front of the sliding glass doors. Kobayashi Maru dog was all over this, grabbing the possum like a chew toy until she went limp. Again, she was faking.
Here she is, after we saved her from the dog and put her into the trap for relocation:
So the possum wars are on. It's a good sign spring is surely on its way; but it also means lots of trap-setting and hands-wringing to ensure our flock enjoys all the benefits freedom brings—with as few hardships as possible.

If you've got an animal you'd like to relocate, please be mindful of relocation laws in your state. Many states insist you call in animal control or gain a permit in order to relocate on your own. Got a predator issue? Click here to determine what's going after your flock.

Nicole Caldwell

Nicole Caldwell is a self-taught environmentalist, green-living savant and sustainability educator with more than a decade of professional writing experience. She is also the co-founder of Better Farm and president of betterArts. Nicole’s work has been featured in Mother Earth News, Reader’s Digest, Time Out New York, and many other publications. Her first book, Better: The Everyday Art of Sustainable Living, is due out this July through New Society Publishers.