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Cheep thrills — chicks for rent (03/21/2008)

Source: Philadelphia Inquirer

By Dianna Marder

For 5-year-old Renie Christensen of Berks County, this is the epitome of Easter: holding a fragile newborn chick in her nested palms, taking it home, watching it grow, nurturing the new life.

Taking it home?

Getting live baby chicks at Easter is a tradition that died, so to speak, in the early 1960s, when many state health departments redefined it as cruelty to animals.

But now, thanks to good old American ingenuity, the practice is back — with a twist. The chicks (not dyed!) are for rent from local egg farmers, not for sale at the five-and-dime.

Introducing Rent-A-Chick.

Farmers charge about $40 for a pair of baby chicks, and while that may seem high, a sturdy wire-topped box is included, along with bedding and feed. The chicks go out in pairs because even in the animal world, singletons get lonely.

Families pick up the chicks during Holy Week, take them home to aww at, and return them two weeks later to the farm, where they live on as layers.

Renie's mother, Judy, who is renting for the second year, says the point is to teach respect and responsibility, though animal-rights activists might disagree.

Laurie Lynch, owner of Fleur-de-Lys Farm outside Kutztown, where the Christensens picked up their babies last week, says she hesitated when she first heard about the rent-a-chick idea six years ago.

"But a friend said, why not? Easter is the second Christmas!"

Lynch quickly found it advisable to call her sideline business Rent-A-Peep, because online searches of the other phrase turned up too much porn.

At this time of year, Lynch buys newborns to replenish her flock anyway. The rental income allows her to buy more expensive heritage breeds and keep that tradition alive, too.

After returning the chicks to the farm, families are encouraged to visit them anytime, Lynch says, and to buy the eggs they produce in about 20 weeks.

"It's amazing how fast they grow in just 10 days," says Judy Christensen, who lives in Fleetwood, Berks County.

"You can even see the change in them from morning to evening. And by the end, you're really ready to give them back," especially when they start to fly around the house.

Renie says they look like chipmunks now.

Indeed, the soft brown Araucana breed, a heritage breed originally from Chile, has a dark speckled stripe down its back. The Christensens are taking home one of those and a soft gray-and-black Australorp, an Australian breed introduced to the United States in the 1920s.

"They're sooo cute," Renie says, echoing the sentiments of everyone else in the vicinity.

Only a handful of farmers in this area rent out chicks. None of them uses peeps that are dyed pastel pink or baby blue. And they like to say that no chickens are destroyed in the celebration of this holiday.

Well, almost none. Tom Colbaugh of Happy Farm in Kintnersville, Bucks County, reports one or two fatalities in his four years of renting chicks. (In those cases, he tries to get the family another chick.) And no cases of salmonella.

All the birds come with written instructions urging parental supervision and frequent hand-washing. Baby chicks must be kept warm 24 hours a day — a desk lamp will usually suffice. And for heaven's sake, keep them away from the cat.

The Centers for Disease Control routinely issues warnings about contracting salmonella from baby chicks at this time of year, but Lynch and other farmers say the risk is overblown.

Still, Phillip J. Clauer, senior instructor in poultry science at Pennsylvania State University, doesn't like the idea.

"I would highly discourage the practice," Clauer said. "I think it would be a very cruel practice for the chicks."

Fear of contagion, and the possibility the chicks could die on her watch, kept Marcie Miller from renting until now.

"I heard about the program three or four years ago," says Miller, who lives in the Reading suburb of Mount Penn, "but I thought my daughter was too young."

Taylor Miller is 8 now, and tomorrow, her parents will take her to Woodsong Hollow Farm in Boyertown to rent chicks for the first time.

Nitya Akeroyd, who owns Woodsong Hollow, says nobody seems to know how the Rent-A-Chick idea was hatched.

"But I know a lot of people are doing it now."

It's a sideline, not a big-volume business, Akeroyd says. She rents to 10 or 12 families. Lynch, who's been at it longer, may serve as many as 20 families this year.

Because Pennsylvania and New Jersey do allow farmers to sell chicks, Rent-A-Chick seems to be within the law.

And fluffy Easter chicks are not just for children anymore.

Holly Coulson, a software analyst in Bethlehem, is in her fourth year of renting chicks from Fleur-de-Lys.

"I didn't tell Laurie I have no kids," Coulson said in a telephone interview. "Some people might think that's weird."

Coulson is 41 and her husband, Chris Wagner, is 46.

"They're just sweet, adorable little animals," she said. "And I'm just a big kid."