An Opportunity Missed

Today the city of Toronto’s councillors unanimously voted down the chance for backyard chicken producers to debate the issue of legally producing eggs.   I am of two minds about this decision.  I have met a few of the people in Toronto who are illegally keeping hens already within the city limits, both in person and through this blog.  I have yet to meet anyone who I think is doing a less than stellar job in looking after their hens, and they ALL care deeply about the welfare and well-being of their hens.

That being said, I understand why the city is hesitant to get involved in the chicken debate.  Remember, the bylaws are not really meant for the people who are currently looking after hens….it is to prevent people who start this venture on a whim.  If you are motivated enough to skirt the laws to have your hens, you will be motivated to research how to do it, and to give the birds what they need.

It’s the “Christmas puppy” syndrome that the laws are meant to guard against…..”hey Martha, the news says we can have chickens in our backyard….could save a couple bucks a week….lets grab some and toss ’em out back, it will be fun!”.  These are the folks that will cause odor, noise, pollution and health problems….all of which are risks if the venture is not done well.

The councillors did not seem to “get it”.  Some of the comments about keeping chickens being “ridiculous”, and that if people wanted a farm experience, they should go to a farm, just showed that they did not appreciate the reasons that backyarders have for keeping hens.  There are reasons that henners are willing to go out of their way to build coops, clean up manure, go out of their way to secure good feed, and spend money and time looking after their feathered friends.  It’s more than the couple of dollars a week you save in eggs.

I guess I’m disappointed that the city wouldn’t take the initiative to make a good law that would allow interested people to keep hens in a healthy, humane way.  On the other hand, I’m glad that the city didn’t decide to put together a half-way, slipshod bylaw that would have put human and bird health and welfare at risk.

To all the backyarders in Toronto, I would just like to reiterate….the lack of support should not be seen as a criticism of your committment or care….the issue that council faces is bigger than that, and has to be applicable to people less diligent and conscientious than you are…at least the ones I know.

Also…the issue has been put off…not killed…the door is still open a crack, and if you can find a way to make council’s job easy enough, maybe they will re-open the file.  Good Luck.

Mike the Chicken Vet


15 responses to “An Opportunity Missed

  1. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that there are places that still choose to ban something in case somebody doesn’t do it properly. Better to avoid criminalising responsible people who are ‘doing it right’ and adopt a set of guidelines to help others do so also. Do cats or dogs get banned because there are people who do not care for them adequately? It’s a strange way to think. Here we are obliged to comply with the Department of Primary Industry’s guidelines for the welfare of poultry, regardless of the numbers we may keep. Numbers are determined by land size and zonings.

  2. I think…from talking to the people involved, that the chicken issue is differnent in that a) most people have a pretty good idea of the care that a dog or cat needs, and b) you do not eat anything your dog or cat produces (might be a generalization, but I assume mostly true). Both these facts noticibly increase the chances of bad welfare for either the chicken or her owners. Another aspect is the cost of policing the problems….with budgets tight all over right now, councillors are not keen to open themselves up to more expenses. I’m not saying it is right, just letting you know the other side.

  3. In some parts, registration to keep chickens is based on membership of a local poultry club. That becomes a source of information and education. As far as chickens being food producers, those that are not cared for well do not tend to produce well. That can get the owners attention if they are motivated by egg production. The thing that I like least about backyard chicken keepers at times is that they can treat their chickens like boutique pets and handle and feed them in a silly way until they learn about some basic husbandry. I have run environmental science education programs though and once children/families have kept them they learn fairly quickly how to handle and care for them properly. In Australia I need to go through a fairly stringent ethics clearance process to run those programs. I’m an educator so I guess that will always be my approach rather than banning things.

    • I agree with you completely, that a good set of rules is far better than a ban. From my perspective, the more people know about food and where it comes from, the better, and I would like to see it encouraged. From the little I know about Aussie culture, you guys are a lot more “live and let live” than North Americans. Here, the question “why didn’t you stop me from doing that” is asked way too often in court. I think that is a part of the reason why municipalities feel that they would be taking on a lot of responsibility by allowing something like backyard chickens.


  4. I’m disappointed too. We need to stop these horrific factory farms and this would have helped.

    • I’m interested dou dou….people use the term factory farm to mean different things. What do you mean by the term? How many birds, what kind of conditions, and why do you think they are horrific? I’m curious to hear what you think makes a factory farm a factory farm.


      • Factory Farm:

        Any place where the animals are treated like products, not living , sentient beings that can feel pain and fear.

        Chickens deserve:

        Not to live their lives in fear
        To have the freedom to feel sunshine on their face and spread their wings
        To have a warm dark place to sleep at night
        To not have their beaks cut off so they won’t peck each other when they are shoved in a cage so small that they can’t even turn around
        To not be force fed, and pumped so full of hormones until they get so fat that their legs break under their own weight

        There is no need or justification for torturing these animals before we eat them.

      • Thanks dou dou…..I appreciate your opinion.
        I’d like to point out a couple misconceptions, however. Many studies have shown that chickens in cages do not feel more fear than chickens in groups. The cortisol levels (stress hormones) are the same in caged vs loose housing.
        Birds have their beaks blunted so they don’t injur each other…they are not cut off. In fact, blades are not used at all in Ontario anymore….the treatment is with ultraviolet light. Interestingly, pecking is more of a risk in loose hens in a barn than in cages, and more of a risk in outside birds than in birds loose in a barn.
        Birds are not, never have been, and never will be force fed and do not, never have and never will be administered hormones.
        I understand your concern with animals being confined, and not to have access to sunshine, as well as the idea that birds live in cages. It is a question of the balance between health for the hens, affordable food, and food safety. You feel that the hen’s freedom outweighs the other concerns (a very valid position), while others feel that it is acceptable housing because it provides food that is safe and affordable while keeping the hens healthy. One concern is that, unless we force people to choose other foods than poultry meat or eggs, we need to grow and maintain a lot of birds. It will take 2,000,000 backyard flocks to produce all the eggs Ontario needs, which will be difficult to manage, to say the least.
        The debate has been going for thousands of years, and it needs to continue. Thanks for chiming in!!


      • Well first off, I’m not in Canada – I’m in the US so I don’t know what goes on up there just what happens here, and let me assure you it’s not good.

        Who did the studies? Factory farmers? Here is another study for you to read:

        You can’t tell me that seeing what goes on in these “farms” day after day would not make them afraid. I have birds, not chickens, but they are extremely perceptive. And how in the world can you tell me that a chicken is happy in cage so crowded that they can’t even stretch their wings?

        Don’t even try to defend debeaking: “Debeaking (“beak trimming”) has been scientifically demonstrated to cause severe pain in the sensitive beak of a bird and lifelong behavioral impairment. Between the horn and bone of the beak is a thin layer of highly sensitive soft tissue. The hot blade used in debeaking cuts through this complex horn, bone, and sensitive tissue causing severe pain and the formation of tumors in the healed beak stump. Behavioral studies show that debeaked chickens are unable to eat, drink, and preen properly, and that they exhibit behavioral disorders associated with chronic pain and depression. The 1991 review published by Dr. Michael C. Appleby on the suffering of hens in battery cages states that “The main injury caused by humans, knowingly rather than accidentally, is beak trimming.”

        Birds in the US ARE injected with hormones and they get so big that if the “farmer” doesn’t get them to the slaughterhouse in time, their legs break under the weight. I know this for a fact, I have a friend whose sister in-law runs one of these horror show farms.

        This what happens in this county:

        The ONLY question is: How much suffering are you willing to contribute to in order to get cheap food?

  5. P.S. I’m not yelling st you 😉 I just want people to be aware so it stops.

    • Thanks Dou dou….don’t worry about hurting my feelings…I completely get that this is an emotional issue for many people. There are several differences between egg farms in the US and Canada (see my blog on “Why I like Supply Management” for some of them). In Ontario, where I work, there is NO routine use of hot blade beak trimming. There is tons of evidence that infra-red beak treatments cause far less trauma to chicks than hot blades, that were the norm several years ago. Meat birds (broiler chickens), are never beak treated, in any way.
      The studies I referred to regarding the cortisol levels were perfomed by university scientists in the UK, and presented at an animal welfare symposium.
      I can appreciate this is an issue that is important to you, and I know I will not likely change your view on the subject, so I won’t get into a “did not, did so” type of arguement. That has been going on a lot lately, between farmer types and non-farmer types, usually to no benefit. I have one question for you, if you feel like taking the time to answer. I don’t mean this to be leading, or inciting. You said that you are against any system that makes animals a commodity. Does that mean that you think the only people who should eat animal products are those who raise them themselves? Or do you feel that it is avoidable for people who make their living raising animals to see them as partly a way to provide for their family…as in, units of income, or commodities?
      That is the conundrum I see all the time…the farmers I work with are all good people, and they all want to do well by their hens. They also have bills, and families to feed, and it is amazingly expensive to run a farm. What is the right balance? If we want to eat eggs in Ontario (I use Ontario numbers, because I know them best), we need to use the eggs from over 8 million hens. Is it possible to have that many hens without farms? Farmers? Or should we just not eat eggs? Or should they cost 10 or 20 times as much, to reduce the number of eggs produced and make it possible to raise chickens in a more ideal fashion? (it still won’t be perfect, but it could be improved). I am interested in your reply, and again, I’m not being antagonistic…I really like hearing opinions different from mine…its the best way to learn.


  6. I don’t think you are being antagonistic at all – it is good to discuss these things, that is how we find a solution that we can all live with.

    RE the debeaking – so we are going to force an animal into a cruel and unnatural situation and then cut off one of their body parts to make things easier for us? No, no justification for that. That’s pretty evil if you ask me.

    I am against people that treat the animals ONLY as a commodity. I am OK with farms and I am OK with people eating meat – let’s be honest, people are not going to stop eating eggs and meat. I just want the people that farm to treat the animals with respect and give them a good life before they’re slaughtered. We just don’t need to torture them – there is no need for them to suffer before they die. It’s really the least we can do, right? Yes, it will raise the food prices. Right now I am paying almost $4 for six eggs from a farm that treats their chickens right – There is a program here called certified humane and they’re companies are the only ones that I buy from. My diet now is about 80% vegetarian, which is almost a miracle because I’m a total carnivore. But I’ve managed and it’s fine. It takes a little bit to get used to but it’s a small price to pay to make sure I am not contributing to any unnecessary suffering.

  7. Hi Dr. Mike and other readers,

    I have been having trouble with one of my chickens, Gertie (Black Sex-Link).

    Whenever I go and open the coop door, she always runs to the front and pecks me. It never really hurts, but it is annoying, and a little scary.

    Does anyone have any tips for taming a chicken? How can I get her to be more friendly?

    Do I show her who the boss is, or do I let her peck me?

    My twin (Matt), is better with them, as he is more firm and confident with the,.

    I am trying to spend as much time with them in terms of interacting, to “tame”, them…


    Any tips?


    • LOL….you’re are a LONG way from the first guy to be hen-pecked. Just wait, it will only get worse, and I agree, it is a bit scary. As for Gertie, she is a dominant, aggressive bully. I find coloured hens to be quite a bit more prone to this than white ones. My suggestion is to get a small garbage bag, and keep it near the door of the coop. Have it in your hand when you open the door, and when she “attacks” you, shake the bag vigorously, above her. It will be noisy, unpredictable, and coming at her from above….all of which will be aversive. Hopefully soon she will realize that you are the one thing in the coop that she can’t boss around, and she will settle for giving you threatening looks, and being indignant for the interruptions.


  8. Thanks Mike! I will try to garbage bag trick!

    You are so nice to respond so timely, and for devoting so much time to your blog.

    Thanks for all your help, hope it works,


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