Why Don’t Cities Want Backyard Chickens?

I just got interviewed for a magazine article on backyard flocks (I will read the article, and if I don’t sound like an idiot, I will let you know which magazine it is 😉 ).  A question that the reporter asked me is “why WOULDN’T cities allow backyard flocks of chickens”.  It got me thinking…..I have been involved on both sides of the debate, most recently in Toronto, where the issue was voted down, and the opportunity to legalize henning was not pursued.  I know personally several chicken owners in the city, and they were understandably disappointed, and also confused.  Why? was a question I was asked several times.

HOW could they possibly think this is a bad idea?

The pro’s of keeping backyard hens have been clearly and effectively put forth by the proponents:

  1. Chickens make good pets…they are personable, quiet, small and reasonably cute
  2. Chickens produce eggs….arguements that they will contribute to food security, local food movements, and sustainability
  3. Chickens are not loud or smelly, won’t bite the neighbors (and if they do, they don’t have any teeth anyway), and they teach people (especially kids) about where their food comes from, and makes people appreciate the wonder of food production.

Why, then, would the evil bureaucracy machines not allow chickens to be kept inside city limits?

I am not against keeping chickens in the city.  I feel there is a big benefit to city dwellers learning about and understanding where their food comes from….I think that most urbanites are WAY too ignorant about the food chain, and any knowledge is great.  I also think that chickens can make good pets….not for everyone, but like rats, fish, hedgehogs, lizards and snakes, there are a proportion of people who find them fascinating and wonderful companions.

My concerns, and those of most municipalities that I have advised (I’ve been in the debate in 5 or 6 largish cities in Ontario), is that if chicken keeping is not done well, the risk of animal suffering and human disease is significant.

The biggest risk (ironically, also the biggest benefit) to keeping urban chickens is the general ignorance people have of chickens.  What do chickens need to eat to be healthy?  What temperature should the coop be able to maintain for the birds comfort and health?  How can I dispose of 2 lbs of manure per chicken per week?  What breed is appropriate for my climate?  What should I do with my chickens in the winter?  Should I clean eggs that have manure on them?  How?  What should I do with an egg with a crack in it?  What does a sick chicken look like?  Where could I take a sick chicken to be treated in an emergency?

How do you design a bylaw to prevent this from happening?

These questions are the tip of the iceberg of things that a backyard farmer must know before embarking on the oddessy that is henning.  None of these questions are complicated, or difficult to answer, given a bit of research and motivation.  Ironically, most people who are currently keeping chickens illegally are well educated in these matters, and are capable of keeping chickens in a safe, healthy manner.  The risk of making “henning” legal in a municipality is that anyone can decide, on a whim, to get some hens because it might be fun, and geez….we get FREE eggs!!!

If a municipality condones such an enterprise, they implicitly assume some of the responsibility for what happens when their bylaws are followed.  If complaints come in for chickens freezing to death in a poorly made coop, city council will be asked why they permit that to happen.  If someone gets very ill, or, heaven forbid, dies from food borne illness from backyard eggs, fingers will point towards city hall.  If there is a family of children that get sick from playing in the backyard amongst the manure of hens, well, you get the idea.

So, the challenge that municipalities face is developing a bylaw and a method of policing it that makes it impossible for people to cause themselves or their hens undue stress.  The bylaw also has to deal with keeping vermin to a minimum, finding ways to make appropriate feed available, planning for the disposition of manure (the concern is always, “what if this REALLY catches on?”)

If you saw this in your neighbours yard, would you call city hall to complain?

I have discussed methods of licensing backyard flocks, requirements for the setups that would prevent animal suffering, ways to prove that henners have safe egg handling protocols and ways to trace where eggs go from backyard flocks (let’s face it, not many families will eat 3 eggs per day….eggs will inevitably be given away to neighbors).

These programs are not complicated, and the problems are not insurmountable, but most municipalities find that the cost of setting up and implementing the program insurmountable, especially for the small number of people who are interested in keeping hens.

You may still think that city hall acts as the evil empire, illogically keeping hens out of the city, and you could have good reasons to think that.  At least now you know that their motivation is for the good of the people and animals that they are designing the bylaws for….whether they could do better is another discussion, but (in my experience), councillors hearts are usually in the right place.

Mike the Chicken Vet

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17 responses to “Why Don’t Cities Want Backyard Chickens?

  1. I agree about the general ignorance surrounding keeping chickens. The question I get asked the most about my 6 hens are “Aren’t they noisy?!” Then I have to explain that hens don’t crow – that would be roosters.

  2. Great post. I live in a small town, where farming was the way of life for all, not too many generations ago. Yet, as you so aptly pointed out, the ignorance about chickens and the food chain great. I’ve had to explain to more than one well-education person that you don’t need a rooster to get eggs. And I’ve even been asked incredulously about what we do with the eggs. “You really eat them?”
    I’d love to see the day when everyone in my town had access to eggs as fresh as mine. As a novice chicken keeper (we got ours a year ago and are adding to flock next month), I’d like to hold “chicken keep for beginners” classes in my area. I’m thinking to start in the fall, at the local library or through the adult education program. What do you think?

  3. I think it’s a great idea. In my discussions with different municipalities, I’ve suggested this as a requirement for having a license to keep hens….go to a “course” on the basics. I have even started to assemble information for it. There are different groups in some cities (Toronto and Vancouver, to name a couple), that occasionally do this. I know a vet in Washington State that has put together a course. The other idea I’ve had is to do a chicken medicine course for interested small animal vets in cities where bachyard chickens are taking hold…..developing some local expertise for vet support. There is so much that needs to be done….the infrastructure for backyard hens is just in its infancy.

    Mike

  4. Yes, a chicken vet course would be great.
    We are fortunate in my town to have a supportive departments in town hall, that understand and support chicken keeping. In fact, the law allows up to 50 hens in my neighborhood.
    It varies from town to town, and perhaps neighborhood to neighborhood, but I’d get all that information to present to those who attend my little chicken talk (I hope).

  5. Hi Mike,
    Finally found your site and really enjoyed reading through it. Keep up the good work!
    Scott

  6. I wonder if the town would be more likely to allow backyard chickens if more people like you (Mike and Shorelineclusterpoets) volunteered to do courses, for a small fee, for the residents. That way the town doesn’t have to organize it, they’ll appoint Mike and Shorelineclusterpoets for pre-licencing education and then the town is only responsible to collect the licencing fees and to send someone out annually to verify the conditions the chickens are living in. I understand there’s a lot more too it, as you’ve outlined above, but I think it’s doable (with a little more effort on the municipalities part) and I think most people interested in doing backyard chickens would be willing to pay the fees associated to run such an operation (i.e. $75 per household per year for a flock of 3 hens) which should more than cover the cost for an annual or semi-annual up-keep visit!! 🙂 If the pre-licencing course costs $25 which gets paid directly to the teacher and lasts for 5 years (mandatory up-date course every 5 years also at a cost of $25), makes keeping your own chickens relatively affordable… And hopefully at that cost, and with those requirements you won’t see a bunch of ignorant yahoos with backyard chickens. If they don’t meet the requirements, the chickens would unfortunately have to be taken away. PLUS, for you Mike, it’d be a great way to meet new clients!!! 🙂

  7. Sallie Thorndike

    Chicken as a meat has been depicted in Babylonian carvings from around 600 BC.[3] Chicken was one of the most common meats available in the Middle Ages. It was widely believed to be easily digested and considered to be one of the most neutral foodstuff.*

    Our own web-site
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  8. It’s insulting to assume we are incapable of caring for chickens. We manage kids, aging parents, dogs/cats, homes and careers — I’m sure a we can handle a few hens. Especially with the wide variety of good information available online.

    As for the assumption a bunch of reckless homeowners will go get chickens if it’s allowed…I think the opposite is true. A responsible person checks the city code to verify rules before keeping a pet. An impulsive, irresponsible person just gets an animal without checking. An ordinance forbidding chickens only prevents responsible people from getting them.

    In terms of animal mistreatment, to me nothing is worse than the horrific factory farms that produce nearly all of our eggs. A few backyard hens in a less than perfect coop is still better than thousands of hens crowded into cages.

    Concerns about poisoning neighbors through shared eggs? The same could be said about giving an extra garden tomato or cucumber to the guy down the street — should government regulations prevent neighbors from sharing produce that could be tainted?

    Children dying of salmonella after playing in manure? Seriously? Has anything like this ever happened? A totally sensational and unsubstantiated ‘what if’ scenario.

    Perhaps you are trying to sell your ‘chicken keeping class’. If that’s the case, this article ought to say that upfront. FYI — your article was presented by my city as a scare-tactic for the horrors of allowing chickens. The sensational pictures of rats and threats of city law suits were effective at scaring city council and outlawing them in my city.

    • Hello Professor;

      Thanks for reading the blog, and thanks for taking the time to comment. You are obviously spoiling for a fight, and I appreciate your frustration. Id like to clear some things up for you. First, I have no chicken keeping class….I have nothing to sell. In fact, I have absolutely no dog in the fight. Whether people have hens in the city affects me in no way whatsoever. There is no way for me to gain personally in this debate.

      Your comment about only respectable people obeying the law is somewhat true, and has been used forever by gun advocates. It doesn`t really hold when the major risk to the public is through ignorance, rather than malice. I can point out serious problems that have occurred with dog breeds after Disney movies (everyone got a dalmation after 101 dalmations, everyone got a border collie after Babe, etc), and know the number of animals given up to shelters because they were inappropriate for the families that bought them. This was because of ignorance about the type of dog they were getting. Try that with an animal that you know very little about, like a chicken, and the ignorance will be about more than personality and amount of exercise needed. Again….if only respectable people obey the law, what does that say about people who have hens now? To me, they are the ones motivated enough to get hens DESPITE it being illegal (and thus motivated enough to learn about the hens needs)….your comment makes me think that you feel that current hen keepers are irresponsible…

      Your argument about mistreatment doesn`t hold water either. If your motivation to have hens is because of your perceived mistreatment of hens, then how can you say that mistreating hens is OK….just because there are less of them?

      As for the food poisoning and risks of disease from exposure to chickens, look into the 500 people in Vancouver in 2008 to 2010 who were sickened with Salmonella because a few restaurants were illegally getting ungraded eggs from backyard flocks…it was a big news story, pushed by the animal activist groups showing how unhealthy `factory` eggs were, until it was discovered that the source was ungraded backyard flocks. And there ARE serious diseases that are caused by exposure to hens….98% of Avian Influenza cases were caused by direct exposure to chickens. Mostly a single family with a few hens in their household….people without access to live hens are at an almost insignificant risk of getting the disease.

      The other thing you forget to mention is the reality of municipal deniability. If an activity is illegal, the city cannot be held responsible for any problems…you ever look at a fast-food coffee cup? The fact that we need a warning that the coffee is hot speaks volumes. If a city legalizes hen keeping, they sanction the production of unregulated eggs…if anything goes wrong, they are complicit in any problems.

      I am NOT against backyard chickens. I would like to see a city set up an effective program that helps people do it properly….I offered to help several cities do this, and have developed educational tools for both the municipalities and potential backyard hen keepers. The ironic thing is that you are likely one of the people who I think SHOULD be allowed to keep backyard chickens…you are obviously motivated and passionate about it. I expect you know much of what you need to know to keep chickens safely and humanely, and I hope you have no problems in the future. Accusing me of undermining the endeavour is misplaced….my concerns are valid, and my motivation is to try to help cities and backyarders do it right, rather than give a blanket blessing on keeping hens.

      Mike

  9. According to the CDC there were 1.4 million cases of salmonella in the US in a given year — only 112 were known to be from contact with ducklings/chickens. To say backyard hens present a valid concern for public health is over-reaching. It’s out of context. By that logic, I should sue the city because a neighbor’s cat pooped in my flower bed and I was potentially sicken by one of the many parasites. Perhaps cats should be banned from the city as well. It’s fair to say hens present a personal risk — but so does owning a pet hedgehog, turtle, cat, etc.

    According to the CDC, “Influenza A (H5N1) viruses have NEVER been detected among wild birds, domestic poultry,or people in the United States.” This is the strain that can infect humans, not just birds.
    •Source: CDC http://www.kingcounty.gov/healthservices/health/ehs/zoonotics/poultry.aspx

    In a way, people keeping backyard hens illegally are irresponsible. Not that they mistreat the animals, but that their animals could be forcibly taken away with one neighbor complaint. Then what happens to the hens? Where do they go? Taking an animal without the promise and plan for lifetime care isn’t very responsible.

    I have an issue because it seems complainers/whiners are dictating public policy. All it takes is one person to complain that the neighbor’s remodel is “making too much noise” and the city passes ordinances outlawing generators and construction work on weekends. One lady complained about dog poop and suddenly I was forced by the police to leave the public beach with my family because we had walked our dog and she was sitting in the grass quietly waiting for us. I asked the police if the dog was disturbing anyone, he agreed the dog was fine but a lady complained about dogs so now they were keeping dogs out of all the parks. For every 1 complainer there are 200 people who think things are fine but don’t write in to say so. The role of government should be to protect, serve when needed, maintain infrastructure and preserve the rights of citizens —- NOT to prevent anyone from ever being annoyed.

    Cities are quick to take away rights but it is pulling teeth to get rights back. I had 4 people sitting in the meeting to support chickens plus another who emailed in + emails from neighbors of chicken owners + a note from a nearby city council member saying there have been no complaints with chickens in their city (they are allowed there). The city spent an hour discussing an ordinance for mandatory dumpsters, portable toilets at jobs sites and an additional land survey. They were generally in support — there was NO person there supporting that initiative. I was told getting chickens was unimportant due to the risks you outline in this article and ‘lack of support.’ I realize these grievances extend beyond your article.

    Government regulations like this punish the honest. Arguments like yours are primarily common sense and personal responsibility. I don’t believe the government needs to protect me from chickens anymore than they need a law forcing me to wash my hands after I use the bathroom.

    • Without a doubt, govornments take away personal rights….unfortunately, that is the role of govornments….go live in the wilderness, and you can do anything you please. Govornments exist so that GROUPS of people can live together in harmony, despite different interest and desires….you give up some rights so as not to impinge on the rights of others. The big problem happens when you value your rights differently than your neighbour does (ie you think it is more appropriate to allow dogs on the beach, despite some people irresponsibly leaving poop in the sand, or not controlling unruly pets. Others feel that if people are allowed to have dogs on the beach, the bad owners will allow their dogs to ruin peoples right to enjoy a public place).
      My suggestion (and I’ve tried to do this before) would be to either get into govornment yourself and work on the problem from within, or, if it is a single issue that you are passionate about, create a by-law yourself. Do research, pre-empt problems, concoct a bill in its entirety and present it to the city council. If the work is already done, it is MUCH easier for the municipality to edit and amend a law, rather than to build it from scratch. To be taken seriously, however, you have to be able to justify your recommendations, and seriously address the major issues involved. Have answers to the questions that will arise about setbacks from property lines, number of hens, requirements of coops, disposal of mortality and manure, minimum standards for storage of feed, etc, etc. If you can present a comprehensive plan to the council that addresses the issues, there is a much greater chance of the law being changed.

      You will likely say that it is not your responsibility to do this, and you might be right. However, the council sees you and 4 others sitting in a room saying you want chickens, and nobody else willing to even invest the time to come to the meeting. They were asked to deal with the bylaw and they did….unless there are less than 50 people in your town, an insignificant number of people are interested. If you can show a reasonable amount of interest, and make it easy for the council, I think you might have a reasonable chance of moving forward.

      Good Luck

      Mike

  10. Not sure why you assume I did no work or research on this subject. I provided the city with an 11 page Word.doc with full chicken ordinance language for surrounding communities. I also prepared the presentation here and sent it to them in advance: https://docs.google.com/viewer?a=v&pid=gmail&attid=0.1&thid=13e0a609c8887e63&mt=application/pdf&url=https://mail.google.com/mail/?ui%3D2%26ik%3D49ad423586%26view%3Datt%26th%3D13e0a609c8887e63%26attid%3D0.1%26disp%3Dsafe%26realattid%3Df_hfipdoue0%26zw&sig=AHIEtbQjKDF4v9MxiB-s0oewRBymTGzbQg

    I don’t believe you can legislate good neighbors. Perhaps people who constantly complain should consider moving to the woods where they won’t be bothered by others who step on their lawn, play music, walk their dog off leash, etc.

    • From everything I’ve read and seen here it is plainly obvious the author is against backyard chickens and people’s right to their own food security. He does a decent job of covering it up but his real feelings shine through his lip service of the positive side of the issue. That picture with the rats was just ridiculous. Probably gets kickbacks from the poulty industry and probably won’t post this lol

      • Hi Matt;
        What I am against is people who do backyard chickens half-assed. I have worked with 3 municipalities in Ontario here to develop a reasonable way to introduce backyard chickens. Through working WITH the municipalities, I got an insight into why they drag their heels about allowing them….something that most chicken enthusiasts (I assume you are one of them?) don’t usually understand. I felt that if you understood the hurdles in front of you, you might be more successful in petitioning the local government to allow chickens. In reality, the poultry industry is supportive of backyard chickens….it will likely never involve enough birds to impact the professional farmers, and any interest in chickens is a benefit. I post every comment I get here unless it is asking for direct medical advice, or is offensive in some way.

        Mike

  11. For all you people singing the praises of backyard chickens, let me give you a perspective of someone who hates my neighbor’s chickens! They are noisy and worst of all, they draw in predators that your neighbors will have to deal with. I live out in the country on 20 acres. My neighbors have free roaming chickens on their property. My dog now has to be tied up all the time because, although she is a good dog and otherwise stays on her own property, she cannot resist the temptation those chickens represent. So now she loses her freedom so the neighbors chickens can run free. I now have a predator problem because every coyote, fox, badger and owl withing 5 miles is camped out on MY property scoping out the neighbor’s free running chickens. Those dens they are building are a risk to my horses and my cats are now also locked up in the house because I have had coyotes right up to my front and back doors, as they circle around to get to the neighbor’s house. Backyard chickens are a nuisance in so many ways. If you want to raise chickens, keep them safely locked up in a coop as far away from your closest neighbor as possible. And, take responsibility for the predator problem you create for those living around you. I am sick at the thought that I will have to go out and shoot wild animals on my property that are just doing what comes natural when my neighbor rings the dinner bell for them. I don’t think that is fair. And, NO ROOSTERS.

    • Hi Linda,
      Thanks for the comment. I think you are absolutely right, but it is a question of responsible animal ownership, not chickens per se. As a vet, I’ve heard lots of stories of idiot neighbours with idiot dogs/cats/ferrets…..you name it. Anyone keeping chickens should take neighbours into account, and try not to impact them negatively. I hope you can find some common ground and come to a solution to your problem.

      Mike

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