No, the Postmaster General is Not Murdering Baby Chickens

Pundits, lawmakers, and even famed musicians have delivered a slew of postal misinformation to the American people since Postmaster General Louis DeJoy assumed his position on June 15. The Taxpayers Protection Alliance (TPA) has covered these issues at great length, showing that sensible policies to remove collection boxes and sorting machines are nothing new and nothing to be alarmed about. And, TPA has pushed back against unfounded claimsthat PMG DeJoy is sacking career employees to advance a sinister agenda.

But the fearmongering keeps coming, presented with little evidence or context. On August 20, a New York Post headline blared “Thousands of chicks arrive dead at farms after USPS budget cuts,” while Bloomberg misleadingly reported, “Thousands of baby chicks shipped to New England farmers have arrived dead since the U.S. Postal Service cut operations.” CBS White House reporter Kathryn Watson weighed in that it’s “hard not to be FURIOUS” after reading reports that DeJoy-imposed service cuts are killing baby chickens. But on closer inspection, other — more boring — explanations emerge for these chicks’ untimely demise.

Are animals dying because of mail service delays?

Time magazine has linked animal deaths in the mail to service delays — even without evidence the shipments have arrived late. The original Portland Press Herald report that Time’s piece cited noted that the “dead birds…received last week shipped in the normal amount of time but apparently were mishandled.” McMurray Hatchery, one of the largest rare breed hatcheries in the U.S., has similarly not experienced delays and has “not seen the issues that are being reported.”

Dead-on-arrival rates for other live animal shipments (i.e. roaches, reptiles) are on the upswing. But plenty of that has to do with other factors besides shipping delays. According to cricket farm owner David Fluker, “it was just too hot to ship First Class. Our DOA rate with USPS First Class is usually under 2 percent, but because of the heat and sheer volume of increased orders it spiked a bit. We intend to resume USPS first class when it cools down a bit.”

That’s not to say, though, that some live animal shippers aren’t complaining about service delays. In an interview with The Washington Post reporter Christopher Ingraham, owner Darien Drollinger has blamed the “slowdown” for more consumers receiving dead roaches in the mail. But, according to their Facebook page, 93–95 percent of their orders are still being received by consumers alive compared to 98 percent under the status-quo. Any decline in mail service is unfortunate but maintaining these numbers in the midst of a pandemic is pretty good.

Have there been similar sorts of problems in the past?

Unfortunately, animals dying in the mail system is nothing new. One Maine hatchery estimated in 2014 that up to 2 percent of its shipments die in transit, totaling more than 20,000 dead chicks per year. And according to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, an additional untold thousands of animals are killed or injured in the mail system each year. Sometimes USPS is to blame, and postal workers aren’t always known for having the lightest touch. But these problems are often beyond mail carriers’ control and have more to do with extreme weather conditions than delivery delays or rough handling. In 2012, WDRB News reported, “Extreme heat might have killed 1,000 chicks that were shipped by mail from Iowa to Kentucky…Temperatures reached 106 degrees in Louisville, but (USPS spokesperson) Walton said 1,000 of the 5,000 chicks died due to extreme heat. The chicks were destined for various locations throughout Kentucky.” Thus, it’s not surprising that reports of dead animals in the mail tend to arise during summer months.

Other, more unique challenges are making it more difficult for the USPS to manage live animal shipments. Chick shipments have been through the roof since the start of the pandemic, owing to quarantined backyard-dwellers trying to start their own mini-farms. And more generally, package volume has sharply increased. It’s entirely possible that handling quality declines as the number of shipments increases, but it’s hard to say without data. One postal worker laments that animal deaths in the mail have, “been happening all year, the huge package volume without Christmas-level staffing has been kicking our a**. My one coworker says he’s seen more dead chicks this year than in the last fifteen.” This seems far more plausible than some of the DeJoy-related theories out there.

How can the USPS make things better?

In the short term, the USPS needs to be more transparent about how all types of mail — including animal shipments — are moving through their system. The lack of reliable information given to the public has resulted in scary-sounding anecdotes fueling conspiracy theories and misinformation. America’s mail carrier needs to issue data-driven statements responding to media reports about animal deaths and slow delivery times instead of giving the floor to ill-informed lawmakers and pundits.

But even improved communication can only go so far in rectifying the agency’s long-term problems. The USPS has more than $160 billion in unfunded liabilities, which prevents the agency from making capital improvements that would streamline operations and result in better-handled deliveries. Large, dated sorted machines take up pivotal space and manpower that could be better used for other purposes.

Unless the USPS makes a sustained effort to cut down on unnecessary expenses and resume removals of wasteful equipment, the beleaguered agency will continue to face preventable problems. In order to enact significant reforms, policymakers must let go of conspiracy theories and examine the real issues holding back the Postal Service.

Ross Marchand is Vice President of Policy at Taxpayers Protection Alliance.

Formed in 2011, the Taxpayers Protection Alliance (TPA) is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization committed to responsible government and lower taxes.