Dyeing Easter chicks: cute tradition or poultry abuse?

Chick-dyers say it's harmless, but this one doesn't look too psyched about it.Apparently, dyeing Easter chicks – not just the eggs, but the baby birds themselves – is a tradition, although we confess we'd never heard of it until last weekend. A New York Times article by Jennifer A. Kingson last Sunday covered the controversy surrounding the practice: poultry farmers and handlers who engage in chick-dyeing "say it is harmless," but animal activists claim it's invasive, and "turns live birds into holiday playthings that are quickly discarded."

The topic is timely for two reasons. First, though roughly half the U.S. states and several cities have made animal-dyeing illegal, the Florida legislature passed a bill last month that would overturn a 45-year-long ban on dyeing animals. Why? According to the Times piece, the overturn came "at the request of a dog groomer who wanted to enter contests where people elaborately sculpture and color their pets."

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And then there's the upcoming Easter holiday, of course. At a time of year that's heavy on baby animals and candy, it's not surprising that enterprising chicken whisperers look to make baby animals into (eye) candy. Chick-dyeing does have various scientific uses in a lab setting. And we have to admit, a fuchsia hatchling is pretty cool-looking.

But we got queasy when we found out how, exactly, the chicks take on all those rainbow colors. Kingson relates, early in the piece, that "[t]he dye is either injected in the incubating egg or sprayed on the hatchling," the latter process evoking a mental image of a baby bird basically getting graffiti'd. And that pitiable imagery pales (so to speak) in comparison to the injection procedure, detailed later in the article:

"'You take regular food coloring and inject it into the egg on the 18th day of incubation,' said Peter R. Theer, a retired poultry rancher who lives outside Lampasas, Tex., and offers a how-to guide on his Web site. 'They take 21 days to hatch. Put a little dab of wax on top to cover the hole up, and put it back in the incubator. It doesn't hurt them, because the food coloring is perfectly safe.'"

It may not hurt them; the food coloring used may contain only natural and non-toxic ingredients. But there's something about the invasion of the womb, for a cosmetic procedure with no benefit to the chick, that's a bit disturbing.

More disturbing is the aftermath of chick-dyeing – namely, that it turns the tiny birds into brightly-colored toys, cast aside as soon as the dye molts out (usually a few weeks) and the children for whom the chicks were purchased get tired of caring for them (probably sooner than that). Mr. Theer told Kingson he used to sell dyed chicks every year, but did tell his customers "to bring the birds back if their children grew bored with them (which happened routinely)."

It's great that Theer took responsibility for the birds after the novelty (literally) wore off – but humane-society and shelter workers who have emphasized for years that pets are not toys may not take much comfort from that fact. They may, however, be encouraged by Kingson's conclusion that "the practice has gone largely underground as society’s tastes have changed," and that a number of hatcheries Kingson contacted claimed not to dye chicks anymore.

But we haven't seen the last of this debate, even if the Florida bill is amended to restrict certain types of dyeing; as an article on Sympatico.ca points out, some owners believe their love of fashion and trends does – or at least should – extend to their pets, while others believe dyeing and dress-up for animals is humiliating at best, and possibly physically uncomfortable for the pets.

What do we think? We'd rather enjoy the work of Sloane Tanen, who photographs toy chicks for books like "Bitter With Baggage Seeks Same," or admire the hilarious dioramas people build with marshmallow Peeps for contests each year, than mess around with a live version that's the color of an M&M. What do YOU think? Is dyeing these chicks fun and festive, or callous and creepy? Talk to us in the comments or share your thoughts with us on Twitter (@YahooShinePets).

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