Opponents squawk over chicken ordinance

It's an issue that's beginning to ruffle a lot of feathers.

But puns aside, the Chicago City Council's proposed ban on chicken farming has significant implications for the city's immigrant populations and others committed to raising fowl in the city, according to critics of the measure.

The council is set to vote tomorrow on legislation banning ownership of live chickens in residential areas.

The proposal's sponsor, Ald. Lona Lane (D, 18), did not return repeated calls seeking information about it.

The council's Committee on Health, which passed the amendment Nov. 20, cited concerns relating to noise, debris, and rats. Lane cited concerns that disease could be linked to chickens.

Proponents of urban agriculture see the proposed ban as a hasty and ill-advised measure that flies in the face of the trend toward sustainable local food systems that promote community and help consumers to reduce their carbon footprints.

The Chicago Food Policy Advisory Council (CFPAC), a network of forty organizations that works to promote urban agriculture and green enterprises, has asked 28th Ward Ald. Ed Smith, who chairs the health committee, to table the ordinance before the 12th.

Edie Cavanaugh, who provided the sole citizen testimony for the health committee, strongly opposes residential chickens. She said her neighborhood in West Lawn includes at least 10 chickens and several roosters.

"Chickens are dirty and smelly," said Cavanaugh. "If people want to raise chickens they can go buy a farm. If they want eggs they should go to a grocery store. They [the chickens] don't belong in the city."

"My street has a rat problem, big-time," said Cavanaugh, who believes that rats are attracted to the chicken droppings and feed. "And rats spread disease."

Linda Nellett, a proud chicken owner in the 45th Ward, begs to disagree. Nellett, whose three hens produce one egg each on a daily basis, said her chickens lessen environmental stress and provide a healthy alternative to the factory food system.

"I don't feel like I have to worry about where my eggs are coming from," said Nellett. "They don't have to be trucked from far away. Nor are they coming from a factory where they're kept in small cages or dosed with all kinds of antibiotics."

Far from being a nuisance to her neighborhood, said Nellett, the chickens "are really an asset."

"I've had so many neighbors come up to see me and reminisce about memories from being on farms or growing up on farms when they were children. They enjoy bringing their grandchildren over to feed the chickens," said Nellett.

Martha Boyd is director of the Urban Initiative program at Angelic Organics Learning Center and a member of the CFPAC.

"We recognize that the city has legitimate concerns," said Boyd. "But many of these concerns are addressed in other ordinances."

She pointed to exiting city laws that outlaw the slaughter of chickens on residential property and describe proper methods for handling organic matter to prevent the proliferation of rats. There are also nuisance laws on the books that protect neighbors against pets that are not cared for responsibly.

Boyd suggested that this an opportunity for the city to learn from other municipalities. Some U.S. cities allow the raising of chickens on residential property and outline basic best practices and basic requirements that minimize concerns such as noise and pests, she said.

In St. Louis, up to four chickens may be kept without a permit. New York City bans roosters, but allows residents to keep an unlimited number of chickens, as long as they acquire permits and keep their dwelling areas clean.

"There are people who are bad dog owners too, and we don't ban dogs, she said. There is such a thing as responsible chicken ownership," said Boyd.

Nance Klem, an urban food forager and activist from Little Village, suspects that anti-immigrant sentiment might be fueling the chicken ban in Chicago. Klem works with residents in her primarily Latino neighborhood on food exchange systems.

"The thing about this ordinance is that it really hits immigrant communities the hardest," said Klem, who hears and sees free-range hens all the time on her street.

"This is a very land-based and food-based culture," said Klem, who described her neighborhood as one of wide streets and long-established homeowners . "Most people here own the property they live on," said Klem. "Everybody that I know on my block has been here since the 1950s. They are people very connected to place, and they are carrying on the traditions of their families, many of them campesinos."

"It's an inexpensive and holistic way of keeping a protein source nearby." Klem.

Julie Peterson, of the Ravenswood social justice and environmental organization Beyond Today, said the legislation has wider implications for those interested in sustainable agriculture and environmental practices.

"We need to make it a principle to maintain vigilance on our local laws to protect any activity which helps people to be environmentally responsible," said Peterson. She points to ordinances in other cities that prohibit laundry lines. "They see these as a sign of poverty and not energy conservation," she said.

"It looks like I will be an 'outlaw' as of Wednesday," said Nellett. " These chickens are my pets, and I will not just dump them somewhere. It will take time to responsibly re-home them, and it is not possible for me to drop everything and concentrate solely on finding a good home for my hens."


OWEN TAYLOR, 12-20-2007

To be clear: New York City does not require residents to have a permit to keep hens. The rest is true: you can have any number of hens, but not roosters. However, the area must be kept clean, quiet and free of vermin, or else your neighbors can report you to be fined by the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.