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Chicken and Egg: The Evolution of City Chickens and Urban Livestock

Chicken and Egg: The Evolution of City Chickens and Urban Livestock

Jacky Hayward | Chef's Blade

For the most part, livestock laws are determined on a city-by-city basis. While most cities don’t allow larger, commercial livestock like cows and pigs, many do allow chickens due to their appeal as both pets and livestock. New York City, Oakland, San Francisco, Houston, Chicago, Seattle, Portland, and Madison, Wisconsin all allow chickens but restrict the number of hens per property and ban roosters. What’s interesting is that many of these cities didn’t have laws regulating livestock until recently, which placed urban legal gray area, simply because there were no laws around it.

In Madison, WI in 2004, for example, no laws prohibited chickens themselves but building a coop for them was not allowed. This effectively made the practice of having chickens illegal, but not the chickens themselves. Urban dwellers kept their birds in yards as a sort of open secret and if no neighbors complained, everything was fine. But sometimes neighbors did complain and a city inspector would visit the chicken owners, sometimes telling them they had to get rid of their fowl. Eventually, the chicken owners rallied to pass a chicken ordinance regulating the urban birds. These new laws make sense; oddly enough, however, it is still illegal to enter Wisconsin with a chicken on your head.

Still, these chicken laws are only loosely enforced. Lupine Swanson in Portland, OR started raising chickens four and a half years ago and now has a flock of six; the legal limit is 5 in the city unless you have a permit, but she and her husband have never gotten one. Three of her neighbors also raise chicken and another raises ducks while still others on her street keep bees. And even the neighbors who don’t have chickens can easily be bribed to love them with fresh eggs. Still, there’s a lot more to having chickens than just eggs. For Swanson, she loves how her chickens reduce and convert kitchen scraps into food. She loves seeing her daughters grow up caring for chickens as pets, understanding a symbiotic relationship between animal and human. Generally, more and more Portland residents raise chickens, which is reflected in recent change to the law that allow more chickens without a permit. Even Portland Mayor Sam Adams tweets about his chicken eggs.

But, having chickens is still very challenging. They are not immune to diseases. They attract predatory animals. They disappear and are killed. The practice of sorting hens and roosters at birth is inexact and urban dwellers will often end up with unwanted roosters who will eventually be deposited at animal shelters. And it’s not only roosters that end up at shelters; it’s all chickens. Hens and roosters alike are being dropped at animal shelters doorsteps. In one week this past October, there were 6 chickens at the San Francisco animal shelter and 8 at the Oakland animal shelter near where I live.

Chickens are sort of considered the “gate-way” farm animal. Many urban livestock converts aren’t satisfied with just eggs anymore, but want to raise bees and goats. Hanna Hart who currently lives and works at Taluma Farms, an organic goat farm in Marin County, brought goats into San Francisco. This past May, Hanna decided to move to San Francisco, looking for a break from rural living. But she realized she couldn’t live without her goats. Wanting to have her cake and eat it too, she decided to bring two goats into the city, creating an urban goat share, where San Francisco residents would let the goats in their yards to clear brush, while also being able to milk the goats as they were converting their yard’s brush into food. In theory, the plan seemed like a great idea. But the reality was much different.

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