Chickengate: despite urban chickens being outre among the trendy these days; a fad long abandoned by hip who are now pursing some new form of glitzy hobby, some folks in town want to raise chickens in their yards. Seems we’re only a few years behind the trendsetters. What next? Urban cows? Urban sheep? Urban bison?
It’s a bad idea, but one this council will likely endorse – not simply because they are prone to nurture bad ideas, but because some of them owe hefty political favours to campaign supporters who, coincidentally, happen to raise chickens here already (in violation of the law, of course, but what are laws when you have friends in high places?).
The NatPost published a story back in 2013 that presages what Collingwood will see in the future if council allows residents to raise chickens in their backyards:
…municipalities across North America are just now starting to see the unforeseen consequences of allowing hipster farmers to raise chickens in their urban backyards: Hundreds of birds are being abandoned by their owners after they’ve become more of a burden than a blessing.
More than 500 chickens were dropped off at animal shelters across the United States, according to Chicken Run Rescue, an operation based in Minneapolis. At least 400 to 500 chickens turn up annually at the Farm Sanctuary, headquartered in Watkins Glen, N.Y. that has sanctuaries on two coasts. National Shelter Director Susie Coston told NBC there are around 225 chickens now waiting for homes.
That’s right: people give up their fad pets once their attention span gets distracted by the newest fad.
It has ever been thus. Pets have always been a fad among the fashionista; a trendy accessory to show off with. Remember the fad for urban (potbellied) pigs? Remember Collingwood’s Wilbur? That fad left thousands of the little porkers abandoned when they grew too big and proved inconvenient as pets. Remember when hedgehogs were all the rage? Ferrets? Gophers? Dalmations? Cock-a-poos? Sea monkeys? Tamagotchi? Now it’s urban chickens.
Imagine the local humane society flooded with unwanted chickens in a couple of years. And, yes, that will happen. It happens with every pet, fad or not, but especially with fads taken up by people entirely ignorant of the work, complexity and responsibility involved.
Hens don’t lay eggs continually: two to three years at best, but they live well past their egg-laying prime. And then what do you do with them once they’re not laying? Allow backyard slaughterhouses? Will parents teach their children all about killing their pets? Maybe let them kill their pet chickens themselves?
Or will the owners abandon them (just consider how many people already abandon their dogs and cats) and find some new, shiny thing to occupy them?
That backyard abattoir idea isn’t so farfetched, nor am I being histrionic. Some folks want them, right here in this town.
While you might think only bloodthirsty wingnuts would propose allowing backyard slaughterhouses in Collingwood, it was another demand from the urban chicken contingent at Monday’s standing committee. As the Connection reported:
Betty Donaher felt any bylaw amendment should go one step further.
“I am pro for the chickens being in town,” she said. “Can it be amended to include meat chickens, and partridge and pheasant if people wanted to have those? They don’t make any noise, and they aren’t an aggressive bird and there might be people who want to raise their own fowl.”
The purpose of which is solely to kill the birds for their meat. So not only will there be guano for the bacteria to spread and fester; to attract more predators, there will be blood, entrails and even more odour. Living next door to a place where residents slaughter animals should really boost your home’s resale value.
And guess what? You won’t be able to have a say in whether or not your neighbour runs a barnyard operation with chickens, or, if council expands the scope to allow backyard slaughter, an abattoir! Your protests will be ignored.
And who will train these backyard slaughterers to do the job properly, humanely and cleanly? To clean up afterwards and dispose of the entrails and feathers properly? Right… and the result: more crap for the landfill.
I’m surprised that geese weren’t demanded, too. After all, they are fowl, and domesticated as long as chickens. They’re just bigger, noisier, and they eat then crap a lot more than chickens. And after that pigs, goats, cows…
As it says in an article on Grist, titled, “Don’t get backyard chickens unless you are prepared to kill them,” killing them is the inevitable end for most of these birds unless you slough the problem onto someone else:
Perhaps your chicken is cute enough that you want to spend hundreds of dollars to keep it pecking in your backyard. But perhaps it is not. Then, your choices are: Kill that nice chicken and make it into soup, or try to make it someone else’s problem.
But are these slaughtered pets – and pets are what many will be – actually good food? Not according to a story in the Desert News:
Killing chickens is not fun. One can give them away, but that just forces someone else to deal with the problem.
Another reality is that chickens allowed to roam or range are not very good to eat. Unlike the grocery store birds, free-range chickens have little or no fat. They are also tough — as in chewy. If one hopes to raise birds for the table, they need to be confined and eaten at a young age; otherwise, plan on chicken soup instead of fried chicken.
So to have really edible birds you need to treat them in the same, inhumane manner as big factory farms. What’s the advantage of that? Where’s the fun in killing them only to find them too tough to eat?
Forbes Magazine has a great article on why urban chickens are a bad idea, but number one relates to the reality of chicken lifespan these advocates are ignoring:
Hens start laying eggs after about five months. Production, however, wanes at the age of two. Hens can live for well over a decade. Many backyard hen owners are as reluctant to keep a non-productive hen as they are to turn her into chicken soup. The upshot has been a sharp rise in abandoned birds. In 2001, according to the Associated Press, Minneapolis’ Chicken Run Rescue fielded six calls from individuals looking to find homes for forsaken chickens. By 2012, that number reached almost 500.
As it says on nwedible:
A continuous supply of plentiful eggs requires a continuous supply of hens at laying age. For us non-commercial chicken-keepers, a good rule of thumb is that hens will lay pretty consistently (with periods off for molting, reduced day length and broodiness) from about 6 months old until about 3 years old. Although you will hear a lot of anecdotes about individual hens that keep pumping out eggs until they are 5 or 6 years old, the general consensus is that three years old is usually the beginning of the end for consistent egg laying.
Call it Henopause.
A well-kept backyard hen, protected from hawks, raccoons and Fido, can easily live to be 8 or 10 years old, and ages of twice that are not unheard of.
Consider, too, the difficulty we already face as a community getting people to provide proper health care for their existing pets – hundreds of dogs and cats go un-vaccinated and unlicensed today, in this town alone. Will these urban farmers provide the proper sort of veterinary care – expensive care! – for their chickens?
How many local vets can even accommodate chickens in their practice? Have the proper training and equipment for them? The vaccines? Who sells the food?
And, yes, you will need that veterinary care several times during their feathered lifespan, because your hens will be subject to various ailments:
Chickens bred for egg laying are irreparably harmed by the selective breeding that has forced them to lay an unnatural and unhealthy number of eggs – between 250 to 300 a year – resulting in a host of painful and life-threatening reproductive diseases and premature death. Consider the fact that most egg laying hens, even the so-called “heritage” breeds, will only live 4 to 6 years on average (assuming they are allowed to live past their one- to two-year egg laying prime) and will likely die of complications caused by egg laying.
A survey done by the University of California (posted on Animals and Society) found:
…backyard chicken keepers face a myriad of challenges – in addition to dealing with zoning challenges and neighbor complaints, these include lack of access to veterinarians trained in avian or poultry medicine, lack of availability of small quantities of vaccines to protect their birds from important infectious diseases, minimizing problems with predators, providing their birds with high-quality feed, locating reliable sources of information about caring for their flocks, and finding “chicken sitters” when they go on vacation.
And as a study by Mercer University found, raising your own chickens is actually WORSE for the environment:
…in terms of the environment, Adrian Williams of Cranfield University in England found that free-range and organic raised chickens have a twenty percent greater impact on global warming than chickens raised in factory farm conditions (Leinonen, “Broiler production systems” 18-25). He found that organic eggs have a fourteen percent higher impact on the climate than factory farm eggs (Leinonen, “Egg production systems” 26-40). The main reason for this counterintuitive result was because of greater need for feed, transportation, and processing which, in turn, ended up producing more GHG emissions (per the same weight of chicken) than factory farms. On a global scale, backyard farming can only become environmentally sustainable if the current rates of consumption of all animal products (regardless of source) are decreased by a third to a fourth (Schader, Muller and El-Hage; Steinfield et al ). Environmentally speaking, the current focus should not be on increasing the number of “backyard chickens” but on decreasing the total number of chickens, eggs, or other animal products consumed (Tidwell).
And, it adds, those backyard chickens usually come from a factory operation, so your hen is provided to you at the cost of a rooster’s life, usually ended brutally:
The majority of chickens purchased for backyard slaughter are purchased from industrial hatcheries, the same hatcheries that factory farms use and own. Many of the animals have been genetically bred so that their own bodies give them pain. Since sex selection is always fifty-fifty, for every female chicken purchased, a male chicken had to be killed, usually by being ground up alive. (McWilliams; Messina; Wells).
Not everyone who raises chickens will be the most careful, caring and meticulously clean owner. Some will be lazy, cheap and ignorant, just like some – too many – people are with cats and dogs. It’s happened everywhere urban chickens have been allowed. Here’s a few pithy words about the experience in Oakland from The Modern Farmer:
“To keep costs down, many people keep animals in unsanitary conditions and provide minimal to no veterinary care, which increases suffering, odors, predators and disease — making it an issue not only of animal welfare but also of public nuisance and public health,” said fellow urban gardener Colleen Patrick-Goudreau, in a local radio opinion piece. “Oakland’s underfunded shelter, animal control officers, shelter staff and volunteers are already overburdened with cases of abuse, neglect, abandonment and overpopulation of dogs, cats and pet rabbits.”
That will mirror our own experience, as it has with every other municipality that has allowed them.
And the Center for Disease Control also warns chickens can be dangerously unhealthy:
It’s common for chickens, ducks, and other poultry to carry Salmonella. Salmonella is a type of germ that naturally lives in the intestines of poultry and many other animals. Even organically fed poultry can have Salmonella. While it usually doesn’t make the birds sick, Salmonella can cause serious illness when it is passed to people.
It’s not an insignificant threat. According to a story reported on NPR, titled “Backyard Chickens: Cute, Trendy Spreaders Of Salmonella,…
Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report doesn’t do gloss. In its latest edition, this chronicle of all things contagious reports on a 2012 salmonella outbreak among 195 people in 27 states.
Most had had contact with live chickens, and many had purchased the birds from an Ohio mail-order hatchery for backyard flocks.
Expanding on this threat is what happens when dogs are also in the home:
…backyard poultry, or their fecal material, are a potential source of campylobacter exposure in people. When dogs are kept in the same area as chickens, the dog may eat the fecal material and could hypothetically transmit salmonellosis to household members.
Our own government’s Food Inspection Agency warned this month:
There is a significant threat of the re-emergence of Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI) in the fall of 2015 that has the potential to negatively impact the health and welfare of poultry. The implementation of preventative biosecurity practices can reduce this risk.
How many owners of backyard chickens will really be aware of, and practice “biosecurity”?
The BC SPCA warns people NOT to even attempt to raise chickens without prior, encyclopedic knowledge about the birds and their potential illnesses. And, they add, you may be liable for more than just municipal fines should you fail to meet all the federal conditions and standards in place for their care:
…you will be held accountable for the health and welfare of the chickens… Failure to provide them with a level of care that meets the Canadian Code of Practice for laying hens would be considered an act of cruelty and could result in fines and/or charges.
And what about the guano? Birds produce it in quantity and it has to be cleaned up daily to avoid accumulation and disease. Who will make sure it is cleaned up and, if kept, composted? We can’t get a fraction of dog owners to pick up after their pets already. Why would anyone think it will be different with chickens?
The weight of fresh manure output is about 115% of the total dry feed intake. So, to estimate the amount of manure a flock will produce, you can multiply the flock’s total feed consumption and multiply by 1.15. (A hen typically eats a quarter pound of feed a day.) Fresh manure is 75% water, and some of the moisture will evaporate from manure accumulating in a poultry house. It is important to keep the manure dry. By keeping the litter dry, only about one-third of the calculated weight of the fresh manure will remain. Composting the used bedding produces an excellent fertilizer for vegetable or flower gardens.
Lots of messy, dirty work for the urban farmer.
But what about the neighbours? Do YOU want to live next door to a chicken coop? The additional odour, noise, pollution, the increased number of predators like raccoons, foxes, coyotes and skunks… and how can you be sure your neighbour is practicing safe, healthy chicken care?
You will also be at risk from disease if your neighbour’s practices are absolutely hygienic. How can you tell?
Town staff are aware of all of these challenges – they were laid out in the staff report presented to the standing committee. But they also warned that allowing chickens will not merely cost the owners: it will cost ALL taxpayers. Someone has to enforce the rules, the standards, the health and safety conditions; someone has to take violators to court, write reports, and attend the hearings; someone has to attend to adults and children made sick from salmonella and other transmittable diseases. And someone has to pay for that: that’s you, the taxpayer.
By-law Enforcement and Planning Staff appreciate that many of these issues may be addressed with an appropriate by-law setting out for example that this use may only be permitted accessory to single detached homes, that there be minimum residential lot sizes for the keeping of chickens; and, required standards of care and limitations on coops and their placement. However consideration should be given to enforcement and the possible outcomes if these regulations are not willingly followed.
Here are just a few things a municipality has to consider when permitting urban chickens:
Should a municipal city council allow backyard chickens, Interior Health’s Public Health sector encourages municipalities to introduce protocols as part of bylaws that permit backyard chickens. Protocols should:
- require mandatory chicken enclosures and construction standards
- limit the number of birds per household
- prohibit mixing of birds
- establish minimum feed control practices and enclosure cleaning practices
- outline safe disposal of waste (surplus eggs, feces and carcass)
- include rules to guide the appropriate keeping of chickens, including animal welfare, hygiene practices and transmission of chicken-related diseases
- establish limits on egg distribution (limit to personal use) and prohibition of sale of eggs
- prohibit home-based slaughter of chickens
- prohibit sale of chicken meat
So who is going to do this? Who on staff is currently trained for this work? No one, so taxpayers are going to have to pay to train people. It’s another waste of money the taxpayers have to bear. Collingwood’s town staff added these concerns in their report:
Some animal control related concerns would be:
- Chickens running at large and abandoned chickens (where to take them);
- Predators (Coyote/Raccoons) getting into substandard coops or at unsecure birds;
- Proper disposal of dead chickens, and slaughter practices;
- Financial and staffing impacts to run a licensing program with coop inspections;
- Pest concerns with insecure feed and unsanitary conditions; and,
- Potential for odours and noise that may bother other residents.
More – expensive – burdens on animal control and bylaw enforcement, which means on you, the taxpayer. And let me add that our shelter is NOT equipped to handle chickens; an addition to accept them would cost several hundred thousand dollars. Plus, of course, the cost to train shelter staff in handling them.
But add onto that cost the expense of crafting a change to the Official Plan and the Zoning Bylaw. Reports, public meetings, legal opinions… this isn’t an insignificant cost, but you, the taxpayer, will have to bear it if it goes ahead:
Should Council deem it appropriate to invest time and resources into further exploration of the issue, staff would prepare a draft Official Plan Amendment, a draft Zoning By-law Amendment, and details relating to the proposed regulation and oversight of an urban chicken program; such as limiting the number of chickens, not permitting roosters (noise), and minimum distances from neighbouring homes.
Staff would advertise a public meeting so that there would be an opportunity for community consultation and the local health unit would be contacted for input. Staff would recommend that a decision to adopt an OPA and amend the Zoning By-law would not be made until after the above noted documentation is drafted and circulated widely for public comment.
Staff time, staff at meetings instead of pursuing more important work, staff writing reports, staff writing bylaw changes, staff creating standards and application forms, staff researching, training, investigating… it all costs us.
The costs to the taxpayer just keep mounting simply because a small group of people want to pursue a pet fad. Allowing chickens in residential areas has proven a bad idea in most municipalities where it’s been allowed, and if approved here, it will prove equally bad. It will cost us all for no gain to the greater good.
If people want to raise farm animals, then there is a place ready and waiting for them: it’s called ‘the country’ – a euphemism for the rural lands that surround us. A short relocation outside the town’s borders and you can buy or rent farmland or land properly zoned rural where you can raise chickens and goats and all sorts of livestock to your heart’s content. Go there and enjoy it. Stop trying to force the rest of us to tolerate your New Age fads.
And if it’s just the eggs you’re after: go to a local market that offers farm produce, or drive down our county roads and look for signs offering eggs for sale (there are several within a 10-15 minute drive). It’s a small commitment of time and resources compared to the years a single chicken demands.