From The Straits Times    |

A small community of poultry hobbyists have cropped up in a sleepy Siglap neighbourhood over the last two years, where several households have welcomed various breeds of chickens and even a duck into their families.

Chia Su-Mae, founder of local skincare company B-Skin, is one such enthusiast who is now keeping a mix of nine Brahma and Silkie chickens as pets in the garden of her landed property. Across the street, her one-year-old white Pekin duck, which she named Smol, lives on the sprawling front lawn of her father’s house.

“When we first started keeping chickens in 2019 and then our duck in 2021, there weren’t that many other chickens in our neighbourhood. But in the last year or so, many of our neighbours have started keeping chickens too,” she says.

Chia Su-Mae and one of her Brahma chickens. Photo: Phyllicia Wang

Su-Mae remembers when she and her family set up a chicken photobooth in their garden to support their neighbour’s charity bake sale in November 2020, which was held to raise funds for local charity Willing Hearts. The photobooth was a hit among the neighbours, who brought their children to pet the chickens and have their photos taken with them.

“We also ran a special promotion – if any of our chickens pooped on them, their photo would be free. And no one went away with a free photo!” she laughs.

Some of her neighbours fell in love with the chickens after the event, which inspired Su-Mae to organise a talk on keeping chickens as pets at the neighbourhood park. However, it was cancelled because of Covid-19.

“Instead, we started an informal group chat on Whatsapp where neighbours can ask questions about rearing chickens. We’ve had some neighbours put some of their chickens for adoption, while others have offered coops and tips like how to help sick chickens. There are currently 25 neighbours in the group chat,” she says.

A crowing interest

Left: Diggle, the rooster that resides at Acres; Right: Smol, Su-Mae’s pet duck. Photos: Lawrence Teo & Phyllicia Wang

While official data on home poultry owners in Singapore is currently unavailable, followers of the Facebook groups such as Backyard Chickens Singapore and Chicken Adoption Rescue SG have been actively doling out updates and tips on rearing these birds to a growing audience of over 4,000 and 2,600 respectively.

“Backyard Chickens Singapore was created in 2015 as a hobby page when like-minded poultry enthusiasts wanted to share and learn more about poultry,” says Axel Sujin, one of the group’s administrators. Since then, he adds, there’s been an increase in overseas members joining the group just to see how people are managing to rear poultry in a small but busy city.

Over at the Animal Concerns Research and Education Society (Acres) Wildlife Rescue Centre in Sungei Tengah, a larger-than-life rooster has become a public relations mascot of sorts for the animal welfare organisation. Diggle, a charismatic red junglefowl, is a regular star on the group’s Instagram stories, endearing followers with his curious and friendly nature.

“Diggle was an abandoned pet at Acres and we do not know his full story, except that he and another rooster, who had passed away since then, appeared one day [at the rescue centre] and were curious about humans. They have enriched our lives and workspace, and [their presence] has changed people’s minds about the consumption of chickens,” says Anbarasi Boopal, co- CEO of Acres.

Fluffy, intelligent, and with quirky personalities to boot, it’s easy to see why these entertaining creatures are capturing the interest of urbanites here. But with most in densely populated Singapore living in high rise apartments, do poultry make suitable pets?

Poultry and the city

Polish chickens, as well as Silkies, are some of the most popular breeds in Singapore. Photo: Phyllicia Wang

In 2021, a 50-year-old Singaporean man was fined $2,000 for illegally breeding 25 chickens for sale in his Pasir Ris HDB flat. Eric Woo had been selling chickens as part of a scheme that involved selling poultry feed to members of his Facebook group in exchange for chickens that they “adopted” from him, and was caught following a tip-off.

Chickens, ducks and quails are prohibited in HDB flats due to their unsuitability as indoor pets, and only private property owners are allowed to keep a restricted number of poultry. The sale of these birds is also illegal in Singapore, which means pet owners often obtain their birds through adoption or as gifts from family and friends.

“No more than 10 poultry, including chickens, are allowed to be kept in any premises. Additionally, owners are subjected to the rules of the managing body of the premises, which may not allow keeping poultry within their managed areas,” says Dr Chang Siow Foong, group director of the Animal and Veterinary Service (AVS) and National Parks Board (NParks).

He continues: “Owners should ensure that their pet poultry are kept within bird-proof cages or enclosures with a fine wire mesh netting and a proper roof to prevent contact and any droppings, waste, feathers and other particles from any bird, poultry or animal from entering.”

To avoid disturbing the neighbours, Jayce Ho trains her chickens to enter the coop from 7pm to 8am. Photo: Phyllicia Wang

Then, there is the issue of noise. According to a 2013 study by Nagoya University researchers, roosters are hard-wired to crow at dawn, an instinct caused by a circadian rhythm driven by an internal clock. They may also crow for various reasons, such as when they perceive a threat. Food business owner Jayce Ho, who keeps eight chickens and a duck in her garden, can attest to this behaviour.

“My roosters usually crow when the hens are laying eggs, if there are wild roosters or strangers around, or when they hear loud noises. Most of these situations are not within our control, but what we did was train the chickens to enter the coop from 7pm to 8am so they are conditioned not to crow at an unearthly hour,” she says.

Thinking of releasing your noisy flock elsewhere to get your neighbours off your back? Acres’ Anbarasi cautions against such irresponsible behaviour, which also is an offence that can lead to a fine of up to $15,000 or a jail term of up to 18 months, or both.

“Abandoned or released chickens may breed in the wild, resulting in complaints from residents on the noise, which in turn results in capture and relocation – this is all very stressful for these animals.”

Food for thought

Tan Ding Jie raises quails for his own personal consumption. Photo: Lawrence Teo

It goes without saying that many home poultry owners are drawn to these birds for their companionship. However, there are others who see a more pragmatic value in them. Tan Ding Jie, a food scientist at the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*Star) and co- founder of Starter Culture, a food biotechnology start-up, dreams of opening his own farm-to-table restaurant one day. It’s one of the reasons why he started raising quails at home for his own consumption.

“I find that too often, people do not confront the ethical cost of meat consumption – that is the life of an animal. We are privileged enough that meat is widely available on our supermarket shelves and that we do not have to experience ‘meat processing’. “Should I choose to serve meat, I will have to be alright with slaughtering and butchering. This is part of my investigation into the cost of serving meat at the table,” says the 30-year-old.

For regenerative farmer Jeremy Beckman, his two Bantam Cochin hens are integral to how his family processes food waste at home. The owner of landscaping company, Terra Matters, who has worked with organic livestock and vegetable farms around the world, practices permaculture which approaches agriculture through the lens of ecosystem design – working with natural processes rather than against them.

Regenerative farmer Jeremy Beckman uses his chickens to help process his family’s food waste. Photo: Lawrence Teo

Jeremy keeps his chickens on the balcony of his condominium apartment, where they scratch and forage for food in a modified deep bedding system consisting mostly of landscaping waste. At first, the smell was a problem.

“As smells are so much stronger in the humid tropics, it turns out deep bedding alone is not enough to produce a smell-free system in a small urban space. The system was smell-free until the first Sunday after we brought the chickens home.

“A heavy evening storm blew rain into the coop, and when it was over, the thick, humid air stank of wet chicken and manure. My family and I are very sensitive to the smell of animal manure, and having it permeate our apartment immediately made me question my decision and career!” he recounts.

Jeremy countered it by extracting compost microbes – bacteria that break down organic matter – out of one of his mature compost piles and applied it to the bedding.

“Within an hour, the smell had reduced by 90 per cent, and by the next morning there was no longer a smell. By introducing aerobic (oxygen-loving) compost microbes to ‘activate’ fresh, relatively sterile bedding, smell-free chicken keeping becomes a possibility,” he says.

Jeremy’s balcony set-up, which features a modified deep bedding system for his chickens to scratch and forage. Photo: Lawrence Teo

By adopting such a set-up, it may be possible for urban dwellers to provide a close to ideal environment for their chickens to thrive in.

Says Jeremy: “I have a friend who raises his rescued hens in an apartment with a deep bedding system made up of a cage on top of a large storage bin containing the bedding. He has tried raising his birds on a newspaper, but they squawked constantly – he suspects it’s out of boredom. Since implementing the system, they have calmed down completely and now entertain themselves by scratching in it.”

HAIR & MAKEUP Angel Gwee & Benedict Choo