The air is filled with clucking and cawing. As I type notes at the little picnic table in the middle of the property, a goose sits behind me. Occasionally, he nudges me with his large, orange beak to remind me of his presence.
In the driveway, a peacock wanders around the parked cars. To my left, a handful of hens and a rooster rummage in a plastic kiddie pool full of lettuce, happily pecking at the green scraps.
Ariana Huemer sits across from me. For 17 years, she worked at the Humane Society of the United States. Now, she is the director of Hen Harbor, a nonprofit sanctuary with a goal of recasting chickens as companion animals and finding homes for the birds it cares for. She tells me over the gobbles of a persistent turkey that she finds hands-on rescue much more fulfilling than her previous policy work, which was often frustratingly slow.
While Huemer cares for a variety of birds, among the most vulnerable animals she works with are roosters. During chick-buying season, which begins in early spring, she says that a representative at the Watsonville Tractor Supply told her the store sells as many as 300 chicks a day. However, while buyers assume that they are bringing home egg-laying hens, approximately 10% of the chicks end up growing into roosters.
“Feed stores and hatcheries do not divulge the extreme likelihood that purchasers will be getting a misgendered rooster—or two—in the mix,” Huemer says.
Shortly after my visit to Hen Harbor, I call the Tractor Supply in Watsonville. The store sells a lot of chicks each day, an employee confirms, but not as high as 300. When I ask for a more accurate estimate, the employee states that she won’t discuss sales over the phone and promptly hangs up.
As a result of the inaccurate chick sexing, Huemer says that she receives around six emails a week requesting that the sanctuary take in roosters. By August, that skyrockets to multiple requests every day during what she calls “rooster-dumping season.” Before taking in a rooster, Huemer first tries to work with backyard chicken owners over the phone and troubleshoot any unwanted rooster behavior, such as noisiness or aggression. Due to limited space at the sanctuary, she prefers to only take in the birds as a last resort.
For every email she receives, Huemer says that there are many others who simply abandon their rooster. A significant number of roosters at her sanctuary were found after being left on the side of the road or in a local park. Others were simply tossed directly over Huemer’s fence.
Restricting the Rooster
Now, a proposed ordinance for Santa Cruz County makes Huemer fearful that she will have to shut down her operations. Currently, the county only permits roosters in residential agricultural zones. The ordinance, designed to deter cockfighting, will limit the number of roosters allowed in these zones. The ordinance would restrict a property between one to five acres, for example, to six roosters.
“We get more than six requests a day to rescue roosters during peak rooster-dumping season, so where are all of those roosters going to go?” Huemer says. “The community will have no place to take the many ‘oops’ roosters that they buy or breed every spring.”
Huemer worries that the ordinance will lead to the abandonment of more roosters in parks or on roadsides. Alternatively, they may be dropped off at the animal shelter, which euthanizes nearly all of the roosters it receives.
Her website, santacruzroosters.com, urges Santa Cruz residents to take action and provides a sample letter to send to the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors, who will vote on the ordinance in the fall.
However, Todd Stosuy, field services manager for the Santa Cruz County Animal Shelter, says the main objective of the ordinance is to help put a stop to cockfighting operations. Stosuy has been working for the county for 18 years and can name quite a number of locations where he believes cockfighting birds are being bred. However, he cannot shut down these operations without providing proof such as paraphernalia or training implements.
“I can’t do anything about [these breeding locations] right now,” he explains. “The cockfighters are smart enough not to have those items where they are raising their cockfighting birds.”
Some of the locations in the county have as many as 400 or 500 roosters locked in individual cages. The treatment of these birds, he says, is “heinous and barbaric.” Their combs and wattles are sawed off, often without anesthetic, to reduce bleeding during the fights. Because cockfighters can argue that this is done for aesthetic purposes for shows, he cannot use cut-off combs and wattles as evidence to prosecute cockfighters.
Stosuy says that this ordinance isn’t intended for targeting sanctuaries like Huemer’s.
“If [Huemer] has 15 roosters up there, we’re not coming for her,” he says.
He adds that it is his understanding that Hen Harbor isn’t currently in a residential agriculture zone, so it is already not supposed to have roosters. He says that the Santa Cruz Planning Department has already issued her tickets for keeping roosters.
“Animal control, because they are so misinformed, called Zoning to come out here and give me a citation,” Huemer laments. “There’s a very contentious relationship between me and animal control.”
Hen Harbor is indeed in a residential agricultural zone, and the citation was dismissed.
‘Adopt, Don’t Shop’
When Tor Audun realized some of his chicks grew into roosters, he tried to keep them.
Audun lives in a zone that doesn’t permit roosters, so he purchased rooster collars designed to suppress the crowing. When the collars failed, his neighbors complained, and he ended up with a letter from the county requiring that he get rid of his birds. Audun says he did not realize the high risk of buying a misgendered rooster when he purchased the chicks, but that he is grateful that Huemer “opened her arms” to taking them in.
“You don’t want to go through that sort of heartache,” he says. “I certainly didn’t want to euthanize them.”
Audun says he now buys pullets, or young hens that have grown past their cute, tiny chick phase, to avoid accidentally purchasing further “oops” roosters.
Shortly after my visit to Hen Harbor, Huemer forwards me one of the many emails she has received inquiring about rehoming roosters.
“I paid a local ‘concierge’ hatchery big money for sexed female chicks. I ended up with four roosters,” it reads. “I wish to keep them, but they aren’t allowed in our zone.”
Even without the new restrictions, Huemer still doesn’t have the capacity to take in every chick that turns out to be a rooster. She explains that Santa Cruz residents can help deter rooster overpopulation by adopting adult hens rather than purchasing from hatcheries. Not only does this reduce the number of “oops” roosters down the line, but it also withdraws support from an “inherently cruel” industry, she says. Male chicks are usually killed on the spot, and many chicks don’t survive the shipment process.
“‘Adopt, don’t shop’ applies to all animals, not just dogs and cats,” Huemer says. “Adopt a hen!”