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.
The pro’s of keeping backyard hens have been clearly and effectively put forth by the proponents:
- Chickens make good pets…they are personable, quiet, small and reasonably cute
- Chickens produce eggs….arguements that they will contribute to food security, local food movements, and sustainability
- 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?
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?”)
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