SINGAPORE — Eric Woo has been raising chickens for about a decade, but he’s no farmer.
Instead, the 48-year-old private science tutor enjoys keeping ornamental chickens as pets, and has been spreading awareness of the hobby through his Facebook group Fowl Mouthed Family (FMF).
Woo began raising the animals as a way to teach his students about life cycles. However, the bird lover soon took to continuing the practice for his own enjoyment.
“I began to realise that keeping chickens is actually a very nice hobby. They don’t fly away. They interact with people, and they look lovely,” said the married father of two who lives in a five-room HDB flat.
“Once in a while you also get eggs. Organic eggs,” he added.
Woo currently owns eight birds, four of which are of the “Silkie” breed – known for their soft, fluffy plumage – while the others are “mini Cochins”, which he describes as “balls of feathers”.
A handful of hobbyist groups that share Woo’s passion exist here, and he estimates that there are about a thousand pet chicken keepers across the island.
His own group, formed in June last year, aims to educate the public on responsible poultry keeping. Thus far it has organised three gatherings, during which owners show off their birds and share tips on caring for the animals.
Commenting on the diversity of the local chicken-rearing community, he said,“We have very young members in their late teens and early 20s, and even people in their 50s and 60s.”
He noted that many people are not even aware that it is possible to raise pet chickens here, adding that FMF is also looking to change this mindset and show that poultry keeping is not “just a kampung thing”.
“It’s definitely growing,” said Woo. “We’re getting a lot of interest from people who are not traditional poultry-keepers.”
A ‘common-sense hobby’
As far as pets go, ornamental chicken rearing is a relatively affordable and “common-sense” hobby, said Woo.
For a start, he gives away the hatchlings he raises for free to interested FMF members although he asks that they purchase two 4kg bags of high-quality feed from him for $78. Woo said the price factors in the total costs of the food, incubating the eggs at his home, and placing the hatchlings in a brooder for a few days to ensure their healthy development.
In terms of maintenance, Woo spends about $30 a month on his four birds. He noted that providing chickens with adequately sized cages is also important.
Other than that, they are “no different from keeping any other pet”, said Woo. Besides keeping their birds clean and well-fed, owners should also take the time to bond with them, he added. “Certain breeds like the Silkie are human curious. They will actually seek human interaction,” said Woo.
Besides the Silkie and mini Cochin, breeds such as the Polish – known for their extravagant headdresses – and Serama – recognisable by their proud, upright posture – are also suitable for owners living in flats or apartments as they are low maintenance and “not too noisy”.
While some might be concerned over the prospect of contracting or spreading avian flu, the risk comes from domesticated chickens possibly contracting the virus by coming into contact with infected migratory birds. Chickens kept in flats or apartments are far less likely to be exposed to such wild birds than those kept in open spaces such as gardens.
Woo’s hobby took a left turn in May when he received a surprise visit from HDB officers. Having acted on a tip-off, the officers warned him that keeping chickens in HDB flats was not allowed.
In an earlier article by TODAYonline, HDB stated its stance: “Poultry, including chickens, are not allowed to be kept in HDB flats. They are not suitable to be kept as indoor pets and, when allowed to roam indiscriminately, may inconvenience the neighbours”.
While Woo claims that he has not received any complaints from neighbours about his chickens, he still moved his pets to a friend’s house for fear that they might be seized. He received another visit from HDB officers last month, although his chickens had been re-homed by that point.
Speaking to Yahoo News Singapore, lawyer Ryan Su said it is “arbitrary and unfair” for Woo to have to remove his pets as the Animal and Birds Act allows up to 10 non-commercial poultry to be kept on any premises.
“Pet birds are allowed to be kept in HDB apartments, and ornamental fowl should not be any different. Contractual or statutory provisions should not be applied selectively,” said Su, who is with WMH Law Corporation. He has been offering Woo legal advice since learning about his situation.
On avian flu concerns, Su explained that chickens kept in flats or apartments are far less likely to be exposed to such wild birds than those kept in open spaces such as gardens.
Su also noted that during the first visit, the HDB officer was unable to offer a “satisfactory answer” with regard to his demand for the chickens to be removed.
“There should not be a blanket ban on ornamental fowl. For residents concerned about noise, perhaps a more directed approach would be to limit or restrict the rearing of roosters in HDB apartments, such as in the case of New York City, where only hens are allowed as they are quieter and produce fresh eggs,” said Su.
As for Woo, he has no plans to take on the authorities directly but hopes things will change as awareness of the hobby spreads.
“Chicken keeping is an activity that families in different types of homes can enjoy. I hope that more people can join us in picking up this wonderful hobby,” he said.
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