In Tove Danovich’s new book, the author explores the ins and outs of backyard chickens and the people who love them.
Tove Danovich’s Under the Henfluence: Inside the World of Backyard Chickens and the People Who Love Them is decidedly not a sugary love letter to Danovich’s flock, loaded with sappy, capricious odes to her pet chickens. Instead, it’s a realistic and immersive look into our relationships with those beings in our care. “Chickens are a nice lens [through] which to see the world,” says Danovich. After years of reporting on culture and food in busy Brooklyn, NY, Danovich recognized that what she was really interested in was farm animal welfare and always had been. She made the move west, settling in Portland, OR, and adopted her first backyard hens (Betty, Joan and Peggy, named after Mad Men characters).
In an effort to educate herself on her new pets and the welfare of their species at large, Danovich dove deep into chicken literature in bookstores and libraries, but her searches came up short. Other than a surplus of how-to guides on backyard hens, she couldn’t find any books that enumerated the complex human-chicken relationship and what makes chickens so precious beyond their eggs and meat—for example, their ability to form bonds, successfully socialize with a variety of other species and display affection—which had been Danovich’s experience after adopting her flock. “So, I was like, ‘I guess I should just write it.’”
Under the Henfluence is that book. The narrative begins with Danovich’s personal relationship to her own vibrant flock, starting with the adoption of her first hens and the bonds she developed with them, as well as her adoration for their quirks. “When Betty was hot or annoyed, her head feathers would stick straight up like an elaborate punk hairdo. It was a delightful surprise,” writes Danovich. More hens come and go, with each new group of girls named after famous fictional women. (There’s the Law & Order: SVU brood and Dana Scully from The X-Files is represented as well.) Danovich writes through her learning curve in raising the birds and leans into the awkwardness and mess of it all—even chicken rearing. “Chickens have sex through a process known as a ‘cloacal kiss.’ The hen squats for the rooster, who balances himself on top of her so that their vents can touch. It’s, um, very romantic.”
The narrative is easy to devour, and it illuminates facts about chickens that most people likely don’t know. From there, Danovich broadens out into reporting on the wider poultry industry, investigating uncomfortable truths about things like the male chicks culled by egg breeders. “My family, way back when, they were farmers,” says Danovich. “Nowadays, there’s an obvious disconnect between the way I think most of us would like to see animals being treated in the farm industry and the way that it’s actually happening.”
And, unlike a lot of pandemic pet acquisitions or consumerist stress-purchases Danovich’s dedication to her hens has not waned, either. In February, PBS News reported that 23 million households adopted a pet during the pandemic, and now, shelters all over the country are reaching maximum capacity as countless people are changing their minds and returning their pandemic pet purchases—dogs, cats, bunnies, even chickens. In a time of fear, says Danovich, America stress-bought all the baby chicks, making last-minute acquisitions and not knowing what they were truly getting into. “I do feel really troubled most by the baby chick industry and whether or not that’s the best thing to be doing. Plenty of people are always giving chickens up or selling them, so getting adult hens is a little less fraught.”
Under the Henfluence makes it impossible for the reader not to think of—and possibly love—the idea of chicken in a new way. “I wanted the book to feel like even if you didn’t have chickens, emotionally, you were going on this journey of getting to know chickens that kind of mimics what I went through,” says Danovich. Even after years of research, composing, editing, revising and publishing Under The Henfluence, Danovich is deeply invested in broadening her understanding of her subject. “Honestly, I haven’t gotten sick of them yet. I’ll be on a walk with my husband and I’ll share these new amazing things I recently learned, like the biology of chickens and how something works,” says Danovich. “It’s really making me more aware of things in the wider world that I hadn’t really yet paid attention to.”
Her flock is now up to eight, and the girls have a wildly popular instagram page (@bestlittlehenhouse, 108k followers and counting). The book is out today.
It’s about time people open their eyes, that chickens and animals are more than just objects and food. That they are individuals with feelings and emotions. I’m definitely going to be looking at your book xxc