It sounds like a joke that mocks hipsters who keep backyard chickens. But in the wake of salmonella outbreaks linked to live poultry, the stern advice that came from the Centers for Disease Control this month was real: “Do not snuggle or kiss the birds,” the agency warned. “Do not let live poultry into the house.”
Most people don’t need to be told to keep their lips off a bird. Or informed that chickens make terrible roommates. But with the country in an urban-farming swoon — and 181 people sickened, including one in Massachusetts — public displays of human-bird affection are not as uncommon as one might imagine.
“Some people buy chicken diapers so they can live in the house — it’s kind of freaky,” said Mike Quatrale, a medical-device salesman from Pembroke who keeps a flock — as livestock, he emphasized, not pets. “But you should talk to my dental hygienist. She’s one of those people.”
That’s the kind of statement that seems as if it would make for an awkward cleaning the next time around, but for a person who wears a T-shirt proclaiming, “I kissed a chick and I liked it”— as Quatrale’s hygienist does — and who owns a chicken stroller, it’s a compliment.
“People don’t realize it, but chickens are very affectionate,” said Amy Hudson, the dental professional. She started keeping chickens at her Norton home four years ago while recovering from a serious ankle injury. “They helped me through a very hard time,” she said.
CDC investigators found that many people who were sickened reported bringing poultry into their homes or kissing or cuddling with live poultry. “These behaviors increase a person’s risk of a salmonella infection,” the CDC stated.
But Hudson says she washes her hands thoroughly, keeps her flock healthy and clean, and has no plans to stop kissing or stroking her brood, which numbers 38 chickens and two ducks.
“They have different sounds they make when they are happy,” she said, breaking into an impression: “Bup bup bup bup bup.”
Some rules for keeping poultry might seem obvious. But Khrysti Smyth, the founder of Yardbirds Backyard Chickens, who teaches Chicken 101 classes in the Boston area, says she always makes sure to give students important advice. “I tell them not to lick their birds,” she said.
Apparently this needs saying.
“I say it jokingly,” she said quickly. “People don’t usually do that.”
As for her? “I don’t kiss [chickens] per se,” she added, copping to cuddling. “They have this really nice baby-powdery smell to them. It’s hard not to want to snuggle.”
But close contact can come at a price. Although salmonella is usually transmitted to humans through food contaminated with animal feces, according to the CDC, it can also be found in the feces of pets, especially those with diarrhea.
“Many chicks and young birds carry salmonella in their feces,” the CDC warns. “People should always wash their hands immediately after handling a reptile or bird, even if the animal is healthy.”
Most people infected with salmonella develop diarrhea, fever, and abdominal cramps, according to the CDC. Most recover without treatment, but the diarrhea can be so severe that hospitalization is needed. No deaths have been reported in the recent outbreaks, but 33 people have been hospitalized.
Ryan Slabaugh, the editor of Backyard Poultry magazine, says the current urban farming trend started about 10 years ago, fed by an increasing disdain for large-scale farming and by a growing eat-local movement.
But of course it goes back further than that. “The guy who founded our magazine [in 2006] reminded me that this is what we’ve been doing for centuries — commercial farms are the new things. This is an adjustment back to a happy medium.”
Local celebrity farmers include model Gisele Bundchen, who told Food & Wine last year that she had a “beautiful garden” in Los Angeles where she raised chickens, and former pitcher Curt Schilling, who recently blogged about getting 20 chicks. “Time to meet some of the new girls,” he headlined a post introducing the new members of his flock.
Last week, as the CDC advisory zipped around Facebook and chicken circles, Joy Lapseritis, a farmer from Cape Cod, said she got the chickens for the eggs and tick control, but finds herself surprised by her devotion to the birds.
“I’m a pretty driven, motivated career person,” said Lapseritis, a marine mammal biologist with the Navy. “I don’t have a lot of time in my life to sit and down do nothing, but I will sit in yard and watch them scratch and peck for insects. If the opportunity comes up, I’ll pick one up and pet it on its back between the wings. They are really soft.”
She has yet to become so enamored that she’s telling the chickens bedtime stories, blow-drying their feathers, or knitting them sweaters, as Gretchen Munafo does.
Munafo is store manager and lead educator at Chickadee Seed & Feed in Walpole. She makes sweaters for her Polish hens, she explained, because they don’t like the cold. “It slips over like a hoodie would,” she says.
Munafo says she’s “super-affectionate with all my girls” — and also health-conscious. “There are ways to be affectionate and still be safe about it. They are barnyard animals. They walk in poop. They eat off the ground. I grew up in the school of basic hand-washing.”
Maybe that’s advice the birds need to hear, too. Munafo recalled how one bird showed its appreciation after she spent months nursing it back to health.
“She leaned her head into me and gave me a hug with her neck,” Munafo said. “But don’t make me sound like the crazy chicken lady.”