The following is The Chicken Vet’s response to a question regarding legalizing chicken-keeping and some of the arguments that are commonly made.I was recently asked to talk about the pros and cons of legalizing chicken keeping in municipalities. It is an issue I have a fair bit of experience with, from both sides, so I thought I’d share some of my experiences. The first rule of communications is to know your audience.
I realize that most of you readers are avid chicken-keepers and can recite a litany of reasons why they keep hens in their backyards. The ones that come to mind are:
- They produce nutritious eggs for me, my family and neighbours,
- They make great pets…they have unique personalities, and their quirks make them interesting.
- They reduce my yard waste…nature’s recyclers.
- They fertilize my garden….see #3.
- They give me a sense of food security….I can always find fresh eggs, and I know what goes into them.
- They teach my kids about where food comes from, the circle of life and responsibility to animals.
- They are just plain fun.
Why, why, WHY, then do so many cities and municipalities refuse to see the light? Who could possibly be against these lovable, environmentally friendly, educational wonders in feathers? How can politicians not see the light? I have talked with quite a few “backyard activists” who have worked long and hard to try to get henning legalized in their area, and understand the frustration they feel when their petitions are dismissed out of hand, or their motions are called “clucking ridiculous”. It is annoying, and demeaning, and frankly, nobody likes to fail at an endeavor they think is worthy and they have invested heavily in.
Let me describe the other side of the table to you, however. I want you to know, I don’t necessarily agree with all the points that follow, but have had them explained to me by local politicians and legislators. I want to share them with you, so you understand their points of view, and don’t feel so frustrated when you come up against them. I also am telling you these things, so you can find ways around the objections if you are involved in promoting backyard chickens in your area.
Another important point is that YOU ARE NOT THE PROBLEM!!! People who love chickens, who dedicate their weekends and skip vacations away for them…..people who build elaborate coops, and research on the Internet the latest and greatest gizmos, gadgets, treats and toys are the people who SHOULD have chickens in their backyards. You are not the people who the laws are written for. What aficionados often forget, however, is that the time and effort you dedicate to your birds is a lot of work. The laws are written to make sure that people who have chickens look after them properly and safely. The biggest danger is the “Christmas Puppy” syndrome…..”Martha….I was walking home from the office, and saw in the paper that we can have chickens in our backyard, and I thought ” we like eggs, and they’d be free”, so I stopped by the feed store and picked up 6 of ’em…..lets throw em in the backyard and it will be a blast!”
Here is a list of concerns that municipalities need to consider before allowing backyard hens:
- A single hen produces about a 2 pounds of manure each week. Depending on the size of your yard, and amount of yard waste, this amount of nitrogen will kill a backyard composter….the manure needs to be dealt with. If it isn’t dealt with properly, smell and flies are a real issue.
- Chickens are not like other pets…you eat their products (and sometimes the birds themselves). The risk of human disease is real….not huge, but impossible to ignore.
- Most people do not inherently know what a chicken needs (unlike a dog or cat, which almost everyone knows the basics about).
- Chickens need an adequate shelter….does the potential chicken-keeper have one? What does an adequate shelter consist of? (hint: it depends on where you live….in Alaska, a coop MUST be very different from one in Georgia)
- Chickens need very specialized rations to remain healthy while laying eggs. Most pet stores do not carry an appropriate feed source for laying hens…..where will chicken-keepers get food?
- Chickens are fed outside. The food is very high in energy and protein (ie, it is DELICIOUS to other animals….ask your dog). Unfortunately it is delicious to skunks, raccoons, possums and rodents too….how will chicken-keepers manage feed so that it doesn’t attract unwanted pests?
- Chickens are delicious. (again….ask your dog). Weasels, owls, raccoons, cats, dogs, bears, cheetahs, and sharks could be attracted to your backyard, terrorizing the neighbourhood. (the real issue is the welfare of the hens…if they are not in a robust shelter, some of these animals are REALLY good at getting at the flock).
- Most vets are uncomfortable dealing with chickens…..what happens when Clucky jumps off the deck and crashes into the fence and breaks her wing….where will she be taken?
This list is not exhaustive, but hits many of the high points. City councils hate 2 things….cost and liability. They don’t want to have to respond to complaints and they don’t want to be held accountable if things go wrong. Realistically, the complaints won’t be ” my neighbours chickens are too loud”, but more likely “my neighbour went away on a 2 week cruise, and nobody has fed his chickens for 5 days”. Either way, the city has to deal with a problem….and what do they do? They have facilities and expertise in handling stray dogs and cats….chickens are difficult. And what happens if some people get sick and a young reporter starts asking what the city did to make sure that people who kept chickens do so safely?
This is why municipalities are hesitant to allow backyard chickens. Again….NOT BECAUSE OF YOU…..I am confident that most chicken keepers have dealt with these problems. These issues are simply and easily surmountable, as long as you are knowledgeable, interested and motivated. The problem is, it is all but impossible to allow knowledgeable, interested and motivated people to be identified in a statute….the rules apply to the lazy, ignorant and apathetic just the same. I hope this helps explain the difficulties you might have in convincing council to adopt a “chicken-friendly” bylaw, and even more importantly, give you ammunition to get around the hang-ups that council might have.
The Chicken Vet