Something was wrong with Maxine. Rachel Moutoux’s 1-year-old hen was having trouble laying her egg. Moutoux worried it might be stuck.
Moutoux, who teaches medical ultrasound at an Ohio college, began raising chickens — for both their eggs and pet potential — in her family’s small backyard coop last year. “They’re spoiled rotten,” she says in a recent phone conversation.
Moutoux took Maxine to the vet, who did a couple of X-rays. “You could see the egg inside,” she says. “That was pretty cool.”
They could also see a hernia; it looked like the hen’s intestines were squirting out. A specialist told Moutoux the condition was inoperable, and that she should put Maxine on a special diet and keep her separated from the rest of the flock.
So Moutoux brought Maxine inside for good. But chickens aren’t like cats; you can’t train them to use a litter box. And they won’t, like dogs, let you know when they need to go. Chickens poop all the time. Luckily for Moutoux, there is such a thing as a chicken diaper. Really.
“I knew they existed,” Moutoux recalls; she’d seen diapers at the online community for poultry enthusiasts, BackYard Chickens. But Moutoux didn’t want to settle for mass-produced diapers. She wanted attire that “looked cute,” she says. Then she found Pampered Poultry, Julie Baker’s chicken-diaper operation based in Claremont, N.H.
Diapers aren’t just for chickens with hernias. Baker (who in turn told Seven Days about Moutoux) sells darling little handmade, reusable diapers for traveling chickens, 4-H show chickens and pet chickens. She also offers “dresses,” just for fun, and “saddles,” which aren’t as outrageous as they sound. When roosters mate, they often peck aggressively at a hen’s back; a cape-like flap of fabric, or saddle, protects her plumage.
On a recent visit to Baker’s home in Claremont, where she raises 30 chickens, several Nigerian dwarf goats and other assorted poultry, we encounter an unusual animal tableau. A diminutive hen named Abigail roots around the farmhouse living room in a pink diaper, while Chester, a big, black cat, eyes her from the doorway.
On a table by the window, a life-size, papier-mâché chicken mannequin wears another diaper. Baker’s 15-year-old daughter, Bridget, created the mannequin, which has made it much easier to show and photograph the latest Pampered Poultry styles. Now Baker doesn’t have to catch a chicken every time she wants to show off her product.
Priced at $12.50 each, the diapers have the sweet look of doll clothes and are simple in design: A small pouch is attached to ruffled suspenders, which are held together with a cute little bow.
“Our chicken diapers are not just for the fashion-obsessed hen,” Baker writes on the Pampered Poultry website. “They offer you and your home protection against the inevitable!” But they are chic; diapers are available in such color schemes as “black batik,” “island turquoise” and “purple meadow.”
To demonstrate how the diaper works, Baker changes little Abigail’s. The pouch, lined with a waterproof sports material, has been positioned snugly under her tail feathers with the help of those adorable suspenders. Baker unsnaps the straps and looks inside the pouch, where she finds one little turd. “If a chicken is healthy, usually the poop is pretty solid, and they don’t pee,” she explains. Baker lines the diaper with a paper towel so it’s easy to change and reuse.
“Chickens poop a lot,” she says, so it’s best to change the diaper every hour. But most pet chickens aren’t wearing diapers all the time, just when they’re watching TV with their human friends, taking long car rides or visiting a classroom for show-and-tell.
Baker has dabbled in crafting diapers for other birds, too. A woman in Minnesota ordered a custom diaper for her peacock — “That thing was huge,” Baker recalls — and she’s hoping to eventually expand her line to include duck attire.
How did Baker, a farmer, short-sale negotiator and homeschooling mom, end up with a quirky business that’s now selling about 100 chicken diapers a week?
“I love to sew,” she says, recalling that she always wanted to sew doll clothes for her daughter. But Bridget, Baker says, “is the most un-doll person ever.”
When her daughter was 8, Baker says, Bridget got “really into chickens,” showing them at fairs and bringing them inside the house. It occurred to Baker that she could solve the poop problem and indulge her hankering to make doll clothes in one fell swoop — and the Pampered Poultry chicken diaper was born.
The idea quickly gained traction. In its 2012 best-of issue, New Hampshire Magazine named Baker’s diapers and saddles Best Poultry Couture. BackYard Chickens caught wind of her business. Then National Public Radio picked up the story, and pretty soon, Baker says, wholesale orders started coming in.
The chickens are only part of the story; sewing the diapers is another. Two years ago, Baker set up the Women of Puerto Plata Sewing Cooperative in the Dominican Republic. “I know I could just call up a broker in the textile industry and get them made,” she says. But Baker cringes at the thought of mass production. “I don’t want to be part of the whole Bangladesh problem,” she says.
Baker had been volunteering in the DR for a few years before establishing the co-op. “I love the people, I love the music, I love the island,” she says. So she borrowed space and donated several sewing machines. The co-op currently employs six local women.
Baker admits she was somewhat embarrassed at first to tell the Dominican women what they were making. “We just kept saying ‘pet clothes,’” she recalls. Chickens are everywhere in the DR, Baker says, but the idea of outfitting them would strike many locals as, well, crazy. “I mean, the kids don’t have diapers,” Baker says. “They’re gonna put diapers on their chickens?”
Baker laughs it off. “I’m a graduate of Hampshire College,” she says. “So I come from a long history of pie-in-the-sky ideas.”
This one seems to be working so far. Baker says she’s not surprised that so many people have responded well to her chicken diapers. “You do get really attached to your chickens,” she says. “They all have different personalities. Your inclination is to pamper them.”
As for Maxine, the Ohio hen now sporting Baker’s stylish diapers, she likes to chill on the couch, take baths, eat cheese snacks and hang in her crate, according to Moutoux. Recently Maxine has taken to a chick-shaped dog toy. In the evenings, Moutoux brings her outside to “socialize” with the other hens, and then back inside for bed.
“She could die at any time,” Moutoux says. “In the meantime, we want to spoil her.”
The original version of this article incorrectly identified the website My Pet Chicken as a source of mass-produced chicken diapers.