School Hatching Programs are often undertaken with only the best of intentions. However, the outcomes for birds, students and teachers are often far from positive. As a sanctuary, we are uniquely positioned to see the outcome that befalls many of the birds in these programs, and we hope their stories touch your heart as they have touched ours.
What are hatching programs
Hatching programs are where a kit that often contains several fertile eggs, an incubator, bedding and food are provided often to schools pre-schools or aged care facilities. They are typically run with the goal of helping to teach kids about life cycles as part of the curriculum, however, we believe there are far better ways to teach kids about sharing the planet than through hatching programs. The organisations that run these programs are commercial ventures with a vested interest in selling them as positive experiences. Sadly, we have seen the negative consequences of running these programs and it frequently involves heartbreak, before undertaking such a program we implore you to become fully aware. Below are some of the issues that we see occurring commonly in hatching programs.
Living up to a Mother Hen's level of care is hard
Chickens and Ducks are incredibly smart, complex animals who are very often underestimated and undervalued. Our experience through running the sanctuary is that these birds are frequently viewed as disposable, and hatching programs only exacerbate this perspective.
Mother hens are famously protective and caring of their young, even before they hatch. During the incubation of her eggs, she will only leave her nest for short periods each day to eat, drink and defecate. During incubation, she doesn't merely keep the eggs warm. A mother hen turns her eggs regularly and carefully. She turns the egg so that the chick doesn't become stuck to the shell membrane; so that gases in the egg are moved around, and to ensure the temperature is evenly distributed. Once hatched, she continues to care for her chicks by keeping them warm (under her wings), teaching them what to eat or avoid, and communicating with them through different vocalisations.
To a mother hen, caring for her brood is her top priority. Sadly, this level of care is very rarely replicable in a classroom situation where teachers have competing priorities of the children in their care.
If fertile eggs are not incubated correctly, the developing chick or duckling can be significantly impacted. Faulty incubators or user error can end in developing chicks or ducklings either;
passing away, meaning that they will not hatch (see Quacker's story) or
hatching with life-limiting deformities that require euthanisation (see Danzig's story)
Both of these outcomes can be very traumatic for children or elderly people who have been eagerly awaiting the arrival of the little chicks or ducklings.
Chicks or Ducklings are incredibly vulnerable to mishandling mistakes both whilst developing within their shells and once hatched. Young children are often unaware or unable to regulate how they hold such small and fragile animals and injuries are common from mishandling or dropping the birds. Classroom environments can be very stressful for young birds. Chicks are easily stressed. Stress may be related to temperature, water, food or other environmental conditions.
Imprinting on humans
When chicks or ducklings hatch they form close bonds with the first moving thing that they see. Called imprinting, this is meant to ensure the chicks stay close to their mothers, however in hatching programs the chicks bond to humans instead. Whilst it is endearing to have a chick follow you around, it is very stressful for the chick or duckling when the one they have bonded with leaves them. Chicks are often left to fend for themselves overnight and on weekends, this can be not only stressful but dangerous as chicks are at risk of injury or even death when left unsupervised.
What happens next?
Statistically, 50% of the birds that hatch will be female, and 50% will be male. For chickens, this results in half the birds hatching being roosters. Due to the limitations on where you can keep roosters, and the sheer number that is being bred into existence through the breeding of birds for backyard chickens, they are incredibly difficult to find safe homes for. The ACT has attempted to resolve this issue by having the chicks returned to the program that provided the eggs, however, this only serves to hide the problem, the reality is that the vast majority of male birds will be killed.
For schools or aged care facilities who choose to keep their birds, it's worth noting that to avoid over-mating, a certain number of hens are required for every one rooster (around ten hens per rooster), and you are very unlikely to get the right ratio from a hatching program. Given your chickens will hopefully live around ten years, thought must go into their ongoing care. These factors will likely limit the number of hatching program birds you could successfully house for life.
It is worth noting that for ducks, these issues are similar (one drake for around four to six ducks), drakes can become very aggressive with ducks in the spring and summer months. All ducks must have access to large water sources for bathing, as they also defecate in the water which requires very regular cleaning.
Some providers of duck eggs to hatching programs are actually meat farms, and the ducklings are expected to be returned to the farm where they will be slaughtered once they reach the appropriate weight.
What lessons are hatching programs really teaching?
Sadly, even if a hatching program goes 'perfectly' to plan and all chicks or ducklings hatch as healthy birds, there are many unintended lessons that are often taught to kids.
1. Animals are disposable
The first and perhaps most dangerous lesson learnt through school hatching programs is that animals are disposable. Once they have served our purpose, we can discard them by either sending them back to the company where they came from, where their fate is uncertain or rehoming them into homes that are not fully aware or prepared for the level of care these birds deserve and require. We are repeatedly told that kids lose interest in the chicks soon after hatching. They learn that they can be discarded once an animal is no longer entertaining.
2. Animals are here for us
Closely linked to the first lesson, hatching programs also teach kids that animals are "things" that exist for our purpose rather than complex, sentient beings. Chickens are sadly viewed as simple birds who exist as egg-producing machines within wider society, but we challenge this perspective. Chickens are highly intelligent and complex beings who value their lives. They have value inherent to them as sentient beings, and learning to respect animals for more than the value they can provide humans is a lesson that is missing from hatching programs.
3. No regard for animals as complex beings
Little regard is given to the fact these birds are missing the experience of hatching under their mother's protective wings. Given that the objective of these programs is learning about a chicken's life cycle, the adult birds' integral role in nurturing an egg to the point of hatching is missing, as is watching the bird grow to adulthood themselves.
Ethical obligation to seek out alternate options
The use of school hatching programs falls under the scientific use of animals, as such, there is a duty of care for all animals involved which includes seeking alternate options that do not involve animals. Each state has different obligations, however in general the duty of care obligations to animals requires that:
All decisions and actions involving the care and use of animals for scientific purposes must be underpinned by respect for animals. This respect is demonstrated by:
using animals only when justified
supporting the well-being of the animals involved
avoiding or minimising harm, including pain and distress, to those animals
applying high standards of scientific integrity
applying the principles of Replacement, Reduction and Refinement (the 3Rs) at all stages of animal care and use through:
replacement of animals with other methods (alternatives)
reduction in numbers of animals used
refinement of techniques used, in order to minimise adverse impacts on animals
knowing and accepting one’s responsibilities.
Hatching Program Stories
Over the years we have taken in many survivors from school hatching programs, those with nowhere else to go. These are just a few of their stories that highlight the issues we sadly see time and time again. Each comes with a downloadable poster.
A Brisbane Educators' experience
"We had such a hard time trying to find this one rooster ‘Olly’ a home. We had many parents and all our staff ringing around asking all their friends for weeks. The suburban family housing the rooster was starting to get nervous of being fined by the council. It was 7 weeks before we found Olly a home where he was rejected by the coop and killed by a fox within a week. We all felt exhausted!"
Hatching Program Alternatives
Teaching kids about life cycles doesn't have to end in heartbreak. There are lots of fun, exciting options available that teach kids to value life, in all its forms. Here are just a few.
Visit an Animal Sanctuary - if you're in the Canberra, South Coast, or Goulburn region, contact us about visiting Little Oak Sanctuary. Our Compassionate Classroom program is aimed at kids between 7-12 years of age; framed around empathy; it teaches kids what's important to animals, to look at them from a new perspective, to share our world with them and treat them kindly.
Create a "Mother hen and her chicks" experience using a toy hen, basket, straw or shredded paper and either the Learning Resources Chick Life Cycle Exploration Set or toy eggs filled with a printed image of each stage of development. Not only does this project avoid the pitfalls of a live hatching program, but it is also far more hands-on, with kids helping the mother hen set up her nest and viewing the stages of development each day by looking in the eggs. Use this presentation by Teachkind (or create your own) to help you discuss each day's development of the chick.
Plants provide an excellent living resource that enables observation of growth, change, life cycles, the needs of other living things and other outcomes that teachers hope to achieve through hatching programs.
Observe birds in their environment. A helpful tool that includes Indigenous perspectives is "Beaks, Feet & Feathers" by Mark Edwards and Damien Feneley (Natural Resources Advisory Council NSW and Birdlife Australia).
Chicken hatching videos available on YouTube:
Chicken life cycle exploration set of eggs kits can be obtained from a variety of retailers including:
Posters are available through many educational resources that detail the lifecycle of a chicken and the needs of chicks and chickens, or download our poster here.
"Beaks, Feet & Feathers"by Mark Edwards and Damien Feneley (Natural Resources Advisory Council NSW and Birdlife Australia).
United Poultry Concerns – Hatching Good Lessons
Our US friends, Eastern Shore Sanctuary & Education Center has a great list of additional alternatives to school hatching programs and is available for download here