Bringing the Barnyard to Your Backyard



 Looking to add a pet to your family? These days, many families go beyond dogs and cats to more non-traditional pets. Chickens, potbelly pigs and even goats are becoming more common residents in our neighborhoods.

After joining our local 4-H group two years ago (see the sidebar on page X for more information about 4-H), my three kids received hands-on experience in the poultry project and even had the opportunity to raise some hens from chicks. Their love of these animals was immediate – they all looked forward to our days when we went to the farm to take care of the hens, doves and quail. We recently brought our 4-H hens home to live in our backyard coop. The experience has been eye-opening and rewarding for my whole family.

Having a non-traditional pet at home does take a bit of extra research and knowledge. Take a look at your city’s laws to see if there are any animal restrictions. For example, most cities prohibit roosters because they can bother neighbors. Sometimes cities have restrictions, but are willing to reconsider if asked.

Fourteen-year-old Caroline Little of Sunnyvale ran into this issue when she wanted to bring her two 4-H dairy goats home to live in her family’s backyard despite the prohibitive city laws. Caroline asked the Sunnyvale city council to reconsider its position on goats. She made a presentation at a city council meeting and educated the council, explaining how goats are not a noise nuisance, female goats do not smell and their waste is almost immediately compostable. Caroline received approval to keep her goats at home and also benefited from this public speaking experience. How often do kids get the opportunity to speak in front of a city council?

Misconceptions are common around non-traditional animals, so it is worthwhile to speak with other pet owners and meet their pets before deciding to bring one home with you. Liza Monroy of Santa Cruz was surprised to learn that her potbelly pig, cleverly-named Señor Bacon, does not like getting dirty. We often think of pigs as rolling around in the mud, but the real reason pigs do that is that they are trying to cool off. Liza says that her potbelly pig is house-trained and even likes to wipe his rear on the grass after he does his business in his corner of the yard. While she does have to keep an eye on Señor Bacon when he is around her toddler, Liza’s daughter loves Señor Bacon and has taken to calling him “Big Pig.”

It is important to make sure that you have proper and safe housing for your animals, especially if you are keep them outside. Goats require a certain minimum amount of yard space and chickens need a coop that can be locked at night. Predators are present even in the city. According to Dr. Kristin Wallace, a large animal veterinarian based in Santa Cruz County, dogs are the most common perpetrator of predator attacks on pet goats. Even in cities you can run into issues with coyotes, bobcats and raccoons as well as cats and dogs, so it is important to make sure your animals have a safe place to live.

Also important is establishing a relationship with a veterinarian who is familiar with the type of animal you are considering. “You never want to be in a position of having to look for a vet during an emergency situation with a sick or injured animal,” says Dr. Wallace. Your veterinarian can also provide information about routine health care such as vaccinations and deworming.

The Wisdom of Animals

Barnyard animals provide a great learning experience for kids of all ages. When Caroline Little’s goat was sick, she learned how to draw her goat’s blood so that she could test it on a regular basis. The test was expensive and there are only a few veterinarians in her area who see animals like goats, so it was important that Caroline learn how to do this procedure. She became invested in finding out what was going on with her goat and it led her to research the condition and even contact scientists at University of California Davis for more information about the test itself.

Parasites and diseases may be a concern for some parents considering a barnyard pet. However, according to Dr. Wallace, the risk is low. “Each animal has its own spectrum of parasites and diseases, some of which can be passed on to humans. In general there is no more risk than with a puppy or kitten, and no special precautions needed as long as you practice good general hygiene – washing hands after handling animals, keeping them away from very young children, etc.  For specific concerns about your animal species, ask your veterinarian.”

Owners of non-traditional pets find the relationship between these pets and their children to be the best part. “The benefits of pet ownership are extensive and wide-ranging, whether the pet is furred, finned, feathered, haired or scaled,” says Dr. Wallace. “Many kids have allergies to dogs and cats, but do fine with a pet chicken or a pygmy goat. A non-traditional pet can also provide some great learning opportunities for kids, like raising animals for food (eggs, milk, meat), fiber production (wool, alpaca, angora, mohair) and the responsibility of learning what it takes to care for their extra-special pet.”

So if you are considering adding a barnyard pet to your family, do your research. Empower your kids to learn about these animals and be responsible for their care. The rewards are immeasurable!

Kate Loweth is the Silicon Valley calendar editor at Bay Area Parent.

The Benefits of 4-H

Having grown up in the suburbs, I had no idea that 4-H existed in the Bay Area until I started researching animal programs for my children. Turns out that there is a thriving 4-H community all over this area. The 4-Hs - Head, Heart, Hands and Health – are the cornerstones of this program that has been in existence since 1902. Kids from ages 5 to 19 can join their local chapter and reap these benefits:

Experience with animals – This tends to be the main draw for 4-H kids. They can get up-close-and-personal with animals that they wouldn’t normally have around their neighborhood, such as chickens, goats, guinea pigs and even bees. It is a great first step when you might be considering purchasing one of these animals. This way, kids can gain experience cleaning the pens, feeding the animals and taking care of the animals before taking it on as a family pet.

Leadership experience – When we went to our first meeting, it surprised me that the kids were totally in charge. Teen members ran the meeting and got the younger members to join in. At our 4-H ranch, the members give ranch tours to the public once a month. My 9-year-old daughter loves doing this, as she can share her knowledge and love of animals with others. As kids progress through the program, they can gain additional experience by taking on leadership roles where they plan and run the project meetings.

Fostering a natural love of science – When we joined the poultry project, I was amazed to hear all of the questions my kids had: “How do chickens lay eggs without a rooster?” “What is a pecking order?” They were prompted to research answers on their own. We even had the opportunity to bring their hens to  school so that their classmates could see them and ask questions. This natural curiosity continued in school.

Civic engagement – 4-H teaches kids to look beyond their own self and see the needs of the community. 4-H groups regularly participate in Earth Day events by bringing animals for a petting zoo in order to educate the community about the program. They also provide helpful services, such as using their goats to clear poison oak from parks and trails.

Head to 4-h.org/find to find local 4-H groups near you. Each 4-H group offers different projects so if you are looking for experience with a specific animal, make sure your chosen group offers that animal project before signing up. 

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