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Why did the chicken cross the road? Because it was illegal for it to dwell within city limits


Jenny Coon Peterson September 24th, 2009

When Haley Luna bought a house in Jefferson Park, she decided to also make a home for a dozen chickens. But, she soon got into a flap with the city, and Luna's little flock was forced out to the...

ass="MsoNormal" style="MARGIN: auto 0in">How often are code enforcement employees chasing down chickens? Very rarely, Locke said. Most often, the department deals with free-range chickens, as in birds freely ranging all over city neighborhoods. Roaming chickens are picked up by animal welfare officers, but it's a different situation with urban chickens.

Those found harboring illegal chickens are usually given a warning, he said, but violators can be cited and fined.

Jessica is among those raising urban chickens.

"I'd been thinking about it for over a year," said Jessica, a metro-area woman who agreed to an interview if her last name wasn't published. "I was raised on a farm about an hour east of the city, and I have two kids of my own, and I just have always thought, 'When I have kids, I want to be able to give them some of the experience that I had.'"

She was bolstered after reading a National Geographic article about urban chicken farming in New York City. "That was what finally kind of pushed me," she said. "I thought, 'If New Yorkers are doing it, then why can't I?'"

Jessica converted a shed in her large backyard and brought home five chickens in April. She said the chickens helped give her two sons, aged 6 months and 4 years, a little piece of what she had growing up.

"It's a learning experience for our children to have a tie of animal husbandry and where food comes from, and also to see chicks being hatched."

She has yet to run into problems with her brood, but Luna wasn't so lucky.

At first, Luna thought her flock was legal. The first violation came just a few months after the chickens were hatched and many more followed, she said. Fearful of impoundment, Luna eventually moved the chickens out of the city.

"They (the city) came down pretty hard on me, and I tried to fight it as best as I could," she said. "They think that allowing them in the city, that all of the sudden we're going to be overrun with farm animals, and it's just silly."

For her, a few chickens in a backyard is the same as having a dog or cat.

"I can't exactly relate that somebody can get any animal like that (a dog), and that's OK. But I keep quiet, clean pets confined in my backyard, and they take issue with that," Luna said.

THE CHICKEN CODE
A petition to allow chickens has been started by Sara Braden, who doesn't yet own chickens, but would like to start.

"My husband and I have an organic vegetable garden, and he really wanted to add chickens. It really is a natural next step; they go so well with an organic garden," she said.

Like Luna, Braden talked to locals who also thought it was legal. She even checked with the city, but got different responses.

"I've talked to people in the city as recently as two or three months ago who say, 'Oh, yeah, it's totally legal,'" she said.

Braden and her husband had already built a coop before they really realized it violated zoning codes.

She decided to challenge the code. Shauna Struby, president of Sustainable OKC, advised Braden to find supporters before pleading the case to the
City Council. Braden is doing that with an online petition, which she launched in mid-July.

"I said that would be easier probably than trying to sit outside the library or go on the street corner and get people to sign," Struby said.

Braden is also meeting with neighborhood groups and home owners' associations to discuss the issue, although she said many immediately said "no."

Two common concerns have been raised:

"The very first complaint, the absolute knee-jerk reaction, is 'noisy,'" she said, disagreeing with that assessment. "Right now, I'm standing here, I've got my screen door open, I can hear lawn mowers, I can hear my neighbors' air conditioning unit, I can hears cars, I can hear the wind, birds, dogs. Chickens are so quiet; the thing that is noisy is roosters. The very first thing on my proposed amendment to the city code is, no roosters."

Russell Claus, the city's planning director who also happened to be raised on a farm with 2,000 show chickens, personally doesn't mind roosters, but said he understands the concern.

"I much prefer the sound of chickens in the morning to some barking dog," he said. "Personally, I don't have an issue with it. But, I realize that we have to govern in accordance with the majority viewpoint. I think there are ways to incorporate chickens into an urban environment without causing problems."

Besides roosters, the proposed ordinance change also limits the number of hens to eight, and the chickens must be kept in maintained coops that are located at least 20 feet from the closest house.

Another concern Braden hears is the smell, which she said is trickier to address.

"You have to have not very many of them, and I have that in my proposed ordinance change," she said. "I have a certain number maximum and square footage you have to allow for each one."

Braden said the smell issue is similar to caring for any pet. For Jessica, as long as the coop is maintained, the smell isn't problematic.

"As far as the smell goes, it hasn't been a problem. And you can use all the straw and manure in your garden," Jessica said.

HEN NIGHT
"Dogs already skated in, chickens got left out," Claus said. "They were seen more as a farm animal, and that's currently the way it is. If you were to try to incorporate chickens into the urban environment, people would need to become comfortable with that, so that would require education as to the benefits."

Struby agreed and was hopeful that "It may just be a matter of educating people."

And unlike dogs or cats, chickens produce food and have other benefits.

"We'd been buying organic eggs, but these eggs are sweeter. The yoke is a brighter orange

 
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