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Nobody minds dyeing the egg, but the chick is another story

Dyed Easter chicks have been a seasonal staple in parts of the country for generations, though the practice has gone largely underground as society’s tastes have changed.
/ Source: The New York Times

Cute as they are, they are not made of marshmallow.

If only they were, nobody would have a problem with newborn chicks that are dyed in brilliant colors — neon, Fruity Pebbles, pastel, Crayola box — to serve as festive Easter gifts. The dye is either injected in the incubating egg or sprayed on the hatchling, and while poultry farmers say it is harmless, many people object, saying it turns live birds into holiday playthings that are quickly discarded.

About half the states and a scattering of municipalities have laws against the practice, but in Florida last month, the Legislature passed a bill to overturn a 45-year-old ban on dyeing animals. By all accounts, the deed was done at the request of a dog groomer who wanted to enter contests where people elaborately sculpture and color their pets.

The outcry from animal rights groups has been swift.

“Humane societies are overflowing with these animals after Easter every year,” said Don Anthony of the Animal Rights Foundation of Florida. “This law has protected thousands of animals from neglect and abuse, and it shouldn’t be lifted on the whim of one dog groomer who wants to dye poodles purple.”

Dyed Easter chicks have been a seasonal staple in parts of the country for generations, though the practice has gone largely underground as society’s tastes have changed.

“A lot of the hatcheries will no longer do the dyeing of the animals,” said Andrew Malone, a poultry farmer in Melbourne, Fla., adding that he had seen other farmers sell them here and there in Florida. “If someone comes to me and wants colored chicks during the Easter time, I could do it, but I stay away from it because I don’t want to be in the pet business.”

The color lasts only a few weeks: it comes off as chicks shed their fluff and the feathers grow in a normal color. As long as the dye is nontoxic, poultry experts say, the chicken’s health is not affected. And there are scientific and educational purposes: wildlife management researchers have used the technique of injecting dye into eggs to track birds as they leave their nest, and teachers have dyed chicks for classroom use, to show students how the feathers come in.

But the primary use is to sell Easter chicks.

“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.”

Until he closed shop in 2008, Mr. Theer sold dyed Easter chicks every year, always telling customers to bring the birds back if their children grew bored with them (which happened routinely). “We sold a lot of them,” he said. “People buy whatever is available. They’ll usually take one or two of each color, maybe 10 or 15 of them. The kids get tired of it pretty quick.”

Most hatchery owners are tight-lipped about the practice. Several poultry farmers, including a few who have advertised dyed chicks for sale online, said by telephone that they no longer sold them. One farmer in Missouri, who asked that her name not be used to avoid reprisals, said she dyed chicks to sell (quietly) to the wholesale trade. “The bird’s sprayed with a fine mist,” she said. “It’s done real quickly, and the birds are put in a hatcher, where they dry off real quick. It does not hurt them at all.”

Animal rights workers say that is not true, that the experience is stressful for the birds. They further object to selling animals at too young an age. The law that the Florida Legislature voted to repeal, they point out, also stipulated that chicks could not be sold or given away before they were 4 weeks old.

Michael E. Kjelland, a research scientist and college professor from Valley City, N.D., thinks spraying birds with artificial color is wrong, he said, but he does inject chicken embryos with dye, in limited experiments, both as a research tool and as a teaching aid. Last year, to get his biology class excited about science, he produced a pink, a green and a vivid yellow chick.

“The students thought it was cool and amazing you could do that,” Dr. Kjelland said. “I’m careful when I do this — I’m not doing it to sell them.” His brother raises the chickens, he said.

This year, in a home experiment, Dr. Kjelland is injecting duck and chicken embryos with a fluorescent dye used to make ultraviolet tattoos that are popular in nightclubs, he said. He is concerned about the dye’s possible health consequences in humans, he said, and will use the work to try to get funding for a more formal study. “I want to see if there are any effects on the developing embryo,” he said.

When the birds hatch in a few weeks, he expects that they will glow under an ultraviolet light. “They will be a brighter fluorescent, almost neon-looking color,” he said. He will give them to his nieces and nephews for Easter.

Easter is on Sunday, and while dyed chicks may show up for sale in various places, they will still be illegal in Florida, since the change would not take effect until July 1. Laura Bevan, director of the Southern regional office of the Humane Society of the United States, said she thought Florida legislators would be open to some tweaks so poodle groomers can do their thing but chick dyers cannot.

“We are all just going to have to go back and fix this next year,” she said.

This story, "Nobody Minds Dyeing the Egg, but the Chicken Is Another Story," first appeared in The New York Times.