Informal class on chicken keeping helps UT’s sustainability efforts

Lisette Oler

Theresa Zelasko’s five chickens spend their days doing the things chickens do best — picking at food scraps in the compost pile, laying eggs and squawking to their heart’s content. The benefits of owning such a coop are plentiful, but for Zelasko, they can be boiled down into just two: environmental stewardship and companionship.  

Zelasko, a librarian at Southwestern University, teaches a course called “Backyard Chicken Keeping” through UT Informal Classes. The course, which covers the basics of keeping chickens, will be held in October, the 14th time Zelasko has taught the course.

After returning from the Peace Corps in 2010, Zelasko’s roommate, Mary Ellen Chrzanowski, wanted to raise chickens after seeing international farmers raise them. When Chrzanowski moved out, Zelasko decided to keep the feathered animals because she’d become attached to them.

“I was discovering all these things about their personalities (including) the cuddle factor,” Zelasko said. “I really enjoyed having them around. They made me smile. They made me happy.”

Through trial and error, Zelasko learned the best practices for keeping chickens and in 2014 she was asked to teach a small, introductory course at Southwestern. After seeing the positive response to her first class, she reached out to UT Informal Classes and applied to teach a longer version hoping to aid new chicken farmers with the process.

“We didn’t have anybody to talk to at the time,” Zelasko said. “My whole goal is to help people really get a good idea of what exactly they are getting into if they want to go this route and have chickens in their backyard.”

The class is three hours long and covers everything from where to buy chickens to how to build a chicken coop and what to do if they become injured. All the logistics aside, Zelasko said the best part about keeping chickens is watching them develop their personalities.

“I used to think, ‘Oh, all chickens are the same’,” Zelasko said. “That’s just not true, some chickens are sweet and some are mean. I had one chicken last year she just pecked me every time I came outside.”

The chickens will chase each other, get really excited and even scare off cats who get to close to their eggs. Though Zelasko treats them as pets, she also sees the environmental benefits of keeping chickens, including them helping turn compost piles.

“Part of sustainability is being able to keep my waste in a cycle that produces something else,” Zelasko said. “By putting my compost out in the backyard and letting my chickens turn it, they add to the soil out there and add to their own health and happiness by eating the parts they want.”

According to Jim Walker, director of the Office of Sustainability, the basic core of the term sustainability is a stewardship over the resources we have and living more consciously. He said students are aware of that and are embracing it individually.

“The local food movement over the past few years is national,” Walker said. “Students these days are certainly part of that. They are more concerned about where their food is coming from and how it’s processed. All of that is appealing and not just because universities are doing it.”

Vaishali Jayaraman, a computer science and Sanskrit junior decided in September 2016 to live more consciously by choosing to live a zero-waste lifestyle, where she produces little to no waste in a year. Jayaraman, now the education and outreach coordinator for the Campus Environmental Center, said after years of trying to help the environment this choice was the next step.

“I was still going to Walmart and getting Chips Ahoy!, which has film plastic,” Jayaraman said. “After I finished eating all the cookies, I threw something away that’s going to be in the world for 15-20 years. I felt like I was being a hypocrite.”

Sustainability encompasses zero waste lifestyles, chicken keeping and much more. Walker said there is something everyone can do to help themselves live more sustainably.

“Whatever they’re interested in there is a way to get involved,” Walker said. “(There is) recycling at the football stadium, bees, or biking groups. If any student has any interest in any of (sustainability) then there is a way to get involved.”