Bob Kerridge: Tradition, tourism can't justify cruelty

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On the whole, I'm the sort of person who likes tradition. I appreciate the sense of roots and identity it can give people. And I also prefer to live in a world where local differences flourish, adding colour and contrast to the bland homogeneity of modern life.

But there are clearly some things that are more important than tradition. One of them is the prevention of cruelty and suffering to either humans or animals. Sometimes, if we want to prevent cruelty, we have to be prepared to sacrifice some of the warm glow of nostalgia.
And this, in essence, is why the SPCA is against allowing free-roaming chickens to continue living around Albany village and the neighbouring Kell Park.

The chickens are undeniably something of a traditional presence in Albany. Poultry have been roaming free there for more than 30 years, acquiring an iconic status and helping to attract visitors while inspiring a bronze rooster statue and a logo that's proudly emblazoned on local lamp posts.

So perhaps it's not surprising that there are local people, including some business owners, who are keen to retain at least some of the birds.
In March of this year, North Shore City Council's regulatory committee voted to allow a limited number of chooks to stay in the locality, under a management plan, to be provided by the Albany Village Business Association (AVBA).

But the committee also made acceptance of the plan conditional on the SPCA's agreement.

Our response has been a firm thumbs down to the notion of any of the chickens remaining. This stance has not made us universally popular. However, any other approach would, quite simply, have involved a betrayal of our core principles.

Fighting cruelty is what the SPCA does. And, in our view, it is clearly cruel to allow chickens to roam free in a busy, modern residential, university and commercial environment, such as Albany has become. Instead, we want all the birds re-homed.

As long as they remain, the chooks are likely to have a miserable and vulnerable existence. Despite their status, there are well-attested reports of them being deliberately run over by traffic, tormented by children, fatally shot by slug guns, injured by slingshots, pierced by crossbow bolts, reeled-in by poachers using baited hooks, clubbed to death with baseball bats or impaled with flounder spears.

Even if we take deliberate human cruelty and malevolence out of the picture, there have been far too many examples of chickens ending up beneath car tyres or ripped apart by dogs. At the same time, an over-abundance of roosters has led to the pack rape of hens and to frequent lethal cock fights, while an unbalanced diet, based on scavenging, has kept most of the birds in a permanently low physical condition.

Another problem is that Albany has gained a reputation as the place to go if you want to dump unwanted poultry. This too seems to be something of a tradition and one with an Auckland-wide following. It's unlikely that dumping will cease, as long as Albany is known as the town where chooks roam around unchecked.

A central concern of ours is that even a small chicken population would rapidly mushroom out again, as a result of natural increase and continued dumping. We're aware that, in the past, increases in chicken numbers have led to extensive lethal culling campaigns. We believe it's cruel to retain creatures in circumstances where culling is seen as a recurrent need. Again, that's a matter of principle for us.

But just because we're against the chooks' continued presence in Albany, you would be wrong to conclude that the SPCA approves of each and every move taken to remove them. In recent weeks, there has been considerable controversy over the shooting of a small number of chickens, apparently as part of a local authority plan to resolve the issue once and for all.

Let me be quite clear about this development. The SPCA wholly disassociates itself from the shooting; because we object in principle to lethal culling and because there are more humane ways of removing the chooks.

During the past three years, tireless volunteers, from an organisation known as ``Animal Re-homing', have found new homes for more than 1000 birds. In time, they would probably have succeeded in rounding-up the few remaining chickens and re-homing them, as well. However, the volunteers have been unable to complete their task, primarily because of obstructive tactics on the part of a small minority of local residents.

Meanwhile, the local business association has been conducting a high profile campaign against removing the birds. And, regrettably, there also seems to have been an increase in dumping over recent weeks, as controversy over the chickens has flared. None of this helps towards resolving matters and none of it helps the chooks.
The SPCA believes that it's time to put the birds' welfare ahead of all other considerations, including nostalgia for an imagined past when hens clucked freely and safely around kindly rustic folk and passing wayfarers.

It's also time to stop building a local tourism brand on the basis of suffering.

If the good people of Albany want to be truly proud of their local identity and traditions, perhaps they should keep their magnificent bronze rooster statue and the themed designs on their lamp posts but allow the few remaining real live chooks to be re-homed in safety.

* Bob Kerridge is the chief executive of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in the Auckland region

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