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Fowl Fans See Golden Eggs in Catering to Pet-Chicken Market

Source: Wall Street Journal
Date: July 8, 2010
Byline: Sarah E. Needleman

Niche Sales Include Toys, Saddles and Diapers; Costumes for Phillip and Suzie

Hobbies often hatch small-business ideas. Chickens are no exception.

Ruth Haldeman began adopting pet chickens in 2002. "I wanted fresh eggs, but I found that chickens are like peanuts, you can't have just one," she says. Before long, Ms. Haldeman had founded in Hot Springs, Ark.

"Everyone was talking about how there was a need for diapers," she says, given that chickens typically can't be potty trained. "Oh, lord, what a mess they make."

Ms. Haldeman, who is also a full-time chemist, designed a chicken diaper with a replaceable liner. She says it takes her about an hour to stitch one together, and her diapers are available in a variety of colors and patterns, such as rainbow and camouflage. She usually charges between $9 to $14 depending on a bird's size. Buyers hail from cities such as New York and Tacoma, Wash., and as far away as New Zealand.

"People like to have their chicks inside the house roaming free," says Ms. Haldeman, who declined to share how many diapers she sells a week because she's seeing more competition lately.

More urban and suburban dwellers are keeping chickens, a trend that stems from both the recession and the local-food movement. Entrepreneurs, meanwhile — many chicken keepers themselves — have begun flocking to the aid of pet-chicken enthusiasts, dispensing starter kits, accessories and advice to go with the birds.

Derek Sasaki and Traci Torres of Norwalk, Conn., launched My Pet Chicken LLC in 2005 while juggling full-time jobs they've since quit. They now sell roughly 2,500 baby chicks a week through a partnership with a hatchery in Ohio. The company, whose catalog includes layers of chocolate, white, brown and green eggs, says it sells birds weeks in advance. "We are literally counting our chickens before they hatch," Mr. Sasaki says.

Beyond birds, the company also sells accessories such as $25 chicken diapers and $8 saddles, which are protective aprons for the hen, to keep her feathers from getting pulled out by a frisky rooster. They sell coops, heat lamps and decor for chicken lovers, such as a $10 black hen tape dispenser. The couple, who invested around $10,000 in savings to launch the small enterprise, expect revenues to top $1 million this year.

"Originally, we thought it would be a side business, but it started taking up more and more of our time," says Mr. Sasaki, previously an information-technology executive for an online health-media company.

In January, Kevin Tschida bought diapers from Ms. Haldeman for the four chickens he and his wife, Paula, live with in their rented single-floor home in Bakersfield, Calif. "They have made a huge difference," he says. "There is less smell in the house, less bending over."

Mr. Tschida says the birds, plus two ducks who wear diapers he bought from a different vendor, spend most of their time frolicking and sleeping indoors. "It is like the diaper removes them from the farmyard and gives them the status of pets," says Mr. Tschida, who also owns a dog, two cats, two parrots, a rabbit and some fish.

There are no firm statistics on the number of pet-chicken owners in the U.S.'s growing membership is one indicator it's more than a flash in the pan. The information and networking site says it has more than 60,000 members today, up from 35,000 a year ago and 12,000 in June 2008.

Rob Ludlow, the site's founder, attributes the rising ranks of chicken enthusiasts in part to the birds' ability to produce fresh eggs and fertilizer, as well as act as natural pesticides by eating bugs and worms. "They are the only backyard pet that can make you breakfast," he says. Plus, they're entertaining: "They're always interacting with one another and their environment. You can feed them from your hand, hold them and pet them."

"Keeping chickens is addicting," says Melina Brown, who lately has been buying $5 "treat balls" made especially for the birds, which she fills with snacks such as greens and nuts for her 40 or so pet chickens. She hangs the toys in a children's playhouse that she converted into an outdoor coop a few years ago. "They like to peck at hanging things," she says.

Ms. Brown, who also has pet parrots, ducks, a turkey and four dogs, lives on a 4.5-acre property in North Stamford, Conn. A writer in her 40s, she began adopting chickens about four years ago and has names for roughly half her flock, including Woostie, Casper and Lacey. "They are the most fantastic pets. They make me laugh," she says, although she notes, "I am a little sick of eggs."

First-time chicken owners tend to have lots of questions, so customer-service comes with the business. Among the most common: "Do you need a rooster to get eggs?" says Judy Morris, owner of Coop D'État LLC, a pet-chicken consulting and retail company that she runs out of two farmers' markets in her hometown of Weston, Conn. (The answer is no.)

Ms. Morris, who is also a part-time producer for Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia Inc., sells package deals of four baby chicks, coops she assembles by hand with the help of her three sons, and a starter kit for $1,200. Since launching her business in May, she's sold four sets.

Andy G. Schneider of Alpharetta, Ga., who calls himself the Chicken Whisperer, hosts a daily hour-long Internet radio show on raising backyard chickens that attracts around 15,000 listeners nationwide a month, according to BlogTalkRadio. He sells Chicken Whisperer gear off his website, including T-shirts, watches, mugs, mouse pads and bumper stickers.

"This all started out of a hobby," says Mr. Schneider, a former paramedic whose current line of work has been a full-time job since April 2009.

Some chicken fans see more opportunities.

Linda Celez, a nonprofit worker in Michigan, has made holiday-themed costumes for her pet hen Suzie and pet rooster Phillip. For July 4th, she put them in patriotic garb and for Halloween, has dressed them as Prince Charming and Cinderella. She's given away some of her poultry apparel to friends who have pet chickens, and is now thinking about it as a money-making prospect. "It's an area of business that's untouched," says Ms. Celez.