A dozen or so pet seekers crowded the front counter at an animal shelter in Maryland's Montgomery County on a recent Saturday.
A few feet away, a woman lingered in front of a photo of Felipe the rabbit. Over in the dog kennels, a little girl pointed out a puppy to her father.
But no one asked about Hanz, the orange and white rooster that was pecking at feed in an outdoor kennel in the back. He didn't even have a name card on his cage. And unlike the schnauzer inside, he had no sign that read, "Adopt me! I'm cute!".
Animal Control picked Hanz up in mid-October in Germantown, Maryland after some homeowners found him in their yard, according to Paul Hibler, deputy director of the county police's Animal Services Division.
The question of what to do with Hanz — and other roosters like him — is an unforeseen byproduct of the growth of backyard chicken flocks in the US, which proponents tout as a more-nutritious and humane source of eggs. Recently, efforts to amend laws that prohibit chickens in densely populated areas have gained momentum. Montgomery and Virginia's Fairfax County allow residents to have chickens, with certain restrictions. And there are efforts to legalise them elsewhere in the Washington metro region, including the District of Columbia itself.
But that has meant a proliferation of unwanted roosters, many of which arrive unexpectedly from hatcheries along with the first chicks. They are difficult to keep in urban settings, they crow and many places that allow chickens ban roosters. To get rid of them, some owners turn to Craigslist, sanctuaries and animal shelters.
When that fails, the less squeamish eat them. Others set them loose and hope for the best. In the Washington region, roosters have been found wandering in parks, cemeteries and alleyways.
Russell Crowe was one of the lucky ones: He was found five years ago, crossing Connecticut Avenue in Northwest Washington. (Why it crossed the road, no one knows.) Eventually, he ended up at the Poplar Spring Animal Sanctuary in Poolesville, Maryland. The refuge stopped accepting roosters a few years ago because of a lack of space, director Terry Cummings said.
The region's other main chicken sanctuary, United Poultry Concerns on Virginia's Eastern Shore, reached maximum rooster capacity this past week. There are still farmers who are willing to take them, but finding suitable homes is getting increasingly difficult.
"It has become a huge, huge problem," Cummings said.
The market is already ahead of the law, as evidenced by the growing cottage industry of backyard chicken websites, magazines and accoutrements. There are toys, clothes and upscale coops that look like they were designed by famed architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. There are even "designer chickens" - hybrids with such breed names as "Showgirl" and "Sizzle".
In April, Tyler Phillips, 25, of Potomac, Maryland, gave up working for his parents' travelling pet zoo and professional poker playing to start a business renting out chicken coops with Diana Samata, 24.
"I do not believe that our RentACoop would have been as successful as it is today even two years ago" because of changes in regulations, Phillips said. "I believe this is just the beginning."
If he needs any more proof of demand, all he has to do is read local Animal Control reports. Even in places where chickens are banned, some people appear to be flouting the law.
The Washington Humane Society, which has a contract to operate the District of Columbia's animal shelter, gets about 15 chickens a year — frequent enough for WHS staff to install a coop at the shelter last year, spokesman Scott Giacoppo said. The shelter sent a rooster named Biskwik to United Poultry Concerns in mid-November.
Most of the chickens are brought in by people who the staff suspect are sheepish owners.
"They come in saying, 'Oh, I found this chicken or rooster, and he's a stray', knowing full well they own the animal and realised they were illegal to possess," Giacoppo said. "They are afraid to let us know they are owners."
In September, it took Animal Control officers in Arlington, Virginia a week to catch a coterie of chickens that had taken up residence in the Roaches Run Waterfowl Sanctuary along George Washington Parkway. Animal Control had netted a rooster that was loose in a residential area a couple of weeks earlier. Residents speculated that the birds might have been wild, but Alice Burton, chief of Animal Control, doubts it.
"They had help getting there," she said.
Roosters often turn up in backyard flocks through no fault of the owner. Hatcheries sometimes throw a few into an order to fill out a box, and inexperienced buyers may not realise they have a rooster until the crowing begins.
Sanctuaries can take in far fewer roosters than hens for other reasons. In commercial poultry operations, the ratio of roosters to hens is usually one to 10, said Nathaniel L Tablante Jr, a poultry expert at the University of Maryland at College Park. More roosters leads to trouble: The males have a tendency to fight, especially in the spring during mating season. To keep them from killing one another, Cummings houses her 13 resident roosters as far apart as possible and lets them out in the yard at different times.
Too many roosters can be problematic for hens, too, said United Poultry's president, Karen Davis. Female chickens can lose feathers, get sores or refuse to come out of their coop when they get "too much mating attention".
"They don't want to come eat and drink because they're worried they'll get jumped on," she said.
Poplar Spring and United Poultry Concerns do not adopt out, which means vacancies take a while to open up. Chickens live an average of eight years but can survive as long as 15. They aren't cheap to maintain, either: A coop can cost from a couple hundred dollars to several thousand. Monthly feed costs run from US$15 to $50 a month, according to a 2011 study by Mint.com, which said it can take urban chicken farmers an average of 2 1/2 years to recoup their costs.
The ranks of homeless roosters are still small and don't come anywhere close to the three million unwanted cats and dogs that are euthanised each year in the United States. But Paul Shapiro, vice president for farm animal protection at the Humane Society of the United States, which supports backyard chicken farming, said that figuring out what to do with unwanted roosters "is a very serious problem, and one with no easy answer."
"We encourage people to adopt hens from shelters for a number of reasons, one of which is the rooster problem that can arise from breeders," he said. "Many shelters have to euthanise roosters for lack of available homes, just like they do with dogs and cats."
Given how hard it has become to place unwanted roosters in the Washington area, Cummings fears that the spread of backyard chickens to new counties may exacerbate the issue.
If they are lucky, they will end up like Hanz, the rooster at Montgomery County's animal shelter, which doesn't euthanise the animals it takes in. There, Hanz will get shelter and three squares a day until he's adopted.
"Just hearing that one needs a home — I feel really bad," said Davis, of United Poultry Concerns. "But we can only do so much."
- Washington Post