The chicken lady has a mat propped up against the bottom of her backyard gate to keep it from swinging open. She crouches down to move it aside, then stands, holding her hands in a surrender pose to reveal black paint on her thumb and index finger. “I’m Mary,” she says, “and you probably don’t want to shake my hand.”
It’s an unseasonably warm November afternoon, and inside the fenced yard an adorable one-year-old girl bearing an uncanny resemblance to Cindy Lou Who from the classic cartoon version of Dr. Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas! toddles around, ignoring the toys that lay scattered on the grass. To the right, a painting-in-progress leans against the fence, revealing the reason for Mary’s blackened digits.
And straight ahead, meandering about in a cordoned-off section of the yard in this mature northwest Calgary neighbourhood, are the silly-looking creatures that have gotten the ginger-haired mother of three with paint on her fingers into a heap of trouble. They’ve also made her an accidental public figure, the face of a local movement that wants to change the way Calgarians feel about not just urban agriculture but the entire food system, and a target of derision for those who feel chickens belong on the farm, not in the backyard.
The four egg-laying hens in the hay-strewn enclosure peck away at table scraps with the jerk-jerk motion that makes them the punchline of the animal kingdom, clucking intermittently in the odd, muffled manner of an old man trying to clear his throat at the library. Their home is a storage shed attached to the half-duplex where Mary (who has asked that her full name not be used), her common-law husband, Brad March, and their three kids have been living since October 2009.
The door to the shed is open, revealing a makeshift coop fashioned out of an old hutch cabinet. On one of the shelves, atop a small mound of hay, lies a single, perfect, beige egg — contraband, technically, since the hen that laid it is not supposed to be here, or in any local backyard, for that matter. So says the current bylaw, which forbids the keeping of any livestock (defined as “animals of the avian species including chickens, turkeys, ducks, geese, or pheasants…”) on a residential property in Calgary. An exemption provided by the Land Use Bylaw allows livestock on city property zoned “industrial,” “urban reserve” or “agricultural,” which lets the Lilydale poultry slaughterhouse in the southeast community of Ramsay off the hook
That said, the bylaw hasn’t deterred some Calgarians from bucking the rules and setting up backyard coops, such as the one Mary has here and the one she had at her former residence, a rental property just off busy 4th Street N.W., at the edge of the Highland Park neighbourhood.
In the spring of 2009, driven by the idea that eggs would be an ideal and cheap source of protein and vitamin B12 to supplement her family’s mostly vegan diet, Mary posted a “hens wanted” ad on the online classified site Kijiji.ca. One week later, she received a reply from a woman in Kincora on the outskirts of town, who sold her two brown hens for $7 each. Mary later added a third hen, bought for $20, a purchase inspired partly by the desire to rescue it from the tiny cage in which it was being held.
Fed a diet of household compost supplemented with greens, seaweed and grains (barley and buckwheat), all three hens began laying eggs almost immediately (the benefit of adult hens over chicks, as hens usually start to lay eggs between 18 and 20 weeks of age). The family was soon enjoying fresh eggs on a daily basis — with a clear conscience. Store-bought eggs, even the pricey “organic” varieties, are fraught with ethical issues, Mary insists.
“I have personally visited many farms that are organic, and just because they aren’t using chemicals doesn’t mean much for their care of the animals,” she says, adding strict organic farming guidelines often result in the birds being sequestered from natural elements like dirt and fresh grass. “Through lots of talking and lots of researching we basically discovered that if we want to practice ethical consumerism, we had to own our own chickens because we do not trust any outside source to care for animals properly.”
For the most part, backyard-chicken scofflaws fly under the City’s radar, so long as their neighbours don’t have anything to say about it.
“The reality is, if no one’s complaining, then we don’t know it’s there,” says Bill Bruce, director of Animal and Bylaw Services for the City of Calgary. “We don’t go proactively snooping through people’s backyards.”
In this case, however, Mary’s former neighbours did have something to say about it, and they called in a complaint. In August of last year, the family was paid a visit by a bylaw officer, who, Mary says, questioned her as to whether or not the chickens were being kept to provide eggs, or as pets. She denied the chickens were a source of food, at which point the officer gave her a warning and apparently left it at that.
The neighbours, however, were not content to leave it at that. They registered a follow-up complaint, and a couple days later a different officer came to the house and laid down the (by)law: Mary would have to pay a minimum fine of $200 for each of the three birds or face charges. “I said, ‘Hey, if I had money to pay the fine, I probably wouldn’t have gotten chickens to feed my kids,’” she quips. Puffed up with righteous indignation, Mary chose to fight.
On October 6, 2009, Mary went to court to register a plea of not guilty, accompanied by Paul Hughes, chair of the Calgary Food Policy Council and founder of the urban chicken advocacy group known as the Calgary Liberated Urban Chicken Klub (CLUCK). The case is scheduled to have its day in court on April 1, 2010.
The April Fool’s Day court date may appear fittingly absurd in light of the subject matter (why did the chicken go to court?), but the reality is backyard chickens are not a joke, nor are they a fad, but a growing movement with a diverse group of proponents, from the cash-strapped looking to pare down the grocery bill, to the eco-minded who appreciate backyard eggs as a cruelty-free and carbon-neutral protein alternative, to the money-is-no-object gourmands on a quest for the freshest ingredients possible.
The online hub Backyardchickens.com, a site started in 1999 in the San Francisco Bay Area, boasted a community of some 40,000 chicken owners, who were adding 7,000 posts a day to its various message boards as of last summer. Locally, the CLUCK Facebook group started by Hughes in February 2009 counted almost 500 chicken-owning and chickenless-but-chicken-friendly members as of January. An online petition advocating changing the City’s bylaw, also started by Hughes, neared the 500-signature mark around the same time, with adjacent comment boxes extolling everything from food security to egg quality.
Backyard chickens are said to control bugs, and their waste makes an excellent garden fertilizer. There’s also a healthy dose of nostalgia for the good ol’ days, when it was perfectly legal for a Calgary family to keep a few chickens, provided they did not offend neighbours, pose a health risk or run wild and become a “nuisance.”
But the good times ended in 1953 when the City passed a bylaw “to regulate the keeping of poultry in the City.” In successive incarnations, “fowl” was included under the umbrella of animal control, until the current livestock-restrictive Responsible Pet Ownership bylaw, which came into effect in March 2006.
According to Hughes, who also jumped on the backyard chicken bandwagon this past year, Calgary’s stringent Responsible Pet Ownership bylaw reflects a municipal government that is lagging in regards to an overarching food policy.
“The chicken is the tip of the iceberg on the larger issue of local food sustainability,” Hughes says from across the kitchen table at the home he rents in the southwest neighbourhood of Killarney. “The fact that we’re still trying to get our heads around something as basic as a chicken shows we have a long way to go.”
That journey starts with the implementation of a Calgary Food Policy Council at City Hall, says Hughes, which would then advise the City on a number of initiatives, such as aggressive proliferation of community gardens, comman-deering arable land beside roadways to plant crops and, yes, raising chickens on private property, all with the intention of helping Calgarians become less dependent on imported and processed foods.
The creation of a municipal food policy is not without its proponents at City Hall — Aldermen Joe Ceci and Bob Hawkesworth brought the issue before council this past November; however, they were only able to convince their fellow councillors to take the baby step of commissioning a report on the subject.
“I was surprised that there wasn’t more immediate take-up, that there was some pointing toward other orders of government … especially when it comes to food security,” says Ceci, who considers the food policies in Toronto and Vancouver to be models for what could be happening here.
Following Vancouver’s lead regarding food policy would mean reconsidering the ban on city residents keeping egg-laying hens. Municipal leaders in Vancouver voted in March 2009 to set in motion the necessary steps to make backyard coops legal and Vancouver’s Food Policy Council is currently serving an active role in drafting the new bylaw.
“Vancouver can do what Vancouver wants. Seriously, it’s none of my business what another city does,” comments Bruce.
Ceci, however, would support a similar move in Calgary. “I’m prepared to go down that road,” he says. “I’m not saying all council is, but I think we should examine it together.”
Once Vancouver’s new bylaw is passed, that city will join a pantheon of other notably progressive urban centres, including New York City, Chicago, Seattle and Portland, all of which allow residents to keep chickens on their property under varying degrees of regulation.
Once the mark of the hick town, it seems livestock-friendliness is starting to become a measure of cosmopolitan sophistication.Of course, if keeping backyard chickens were all wine, roses and tasty, tasty omelettes, then “Mary Contrary,” as she’s known on the CLUCK Facebook page, would not be going to court this spring.
For all those out there who sing the praises of the backyard coop, there is a contrapuntal chorus of not-in-my-backyard (or rather, my neighbour’s backyard) opposition, whose concerns are usually over foul odors, the threat of the birds contracting avian flu, the fear that the feed will attract mice and other vermin, and that the birds themselves will attract predators like coyotes, weasels and dogs.
Although valid concerns, most of these issues are not so much inherent to backyard chickens as they are a result of irresponsible animal stewardship in general. Odours are a result of failing to clean up feces — an obligation that applies to dog and cat owners as well. As for vermin, they can be kept out of the feed through proper storage in a drum with a tight-fitting lid. Predators can be kept at bay with a well-constructed, covered enclosure, which is also the way to guard against disease. Speaking to National Public Radio at the height of 2006’s avian flu scare, California-based poultry specialist Dr. Francine Bradley identified the covered enclosure as the best defense for backyard chickens, whose biggest threat of disease comes from comingling with other migrating birds that may be carrying the virus.
Aside from these pragmatic fears, opposition to backyard chickens has been known to take on a metaphysical bent, a result of incompatible views between the two camps of what makes a city, and whether that definition includes an absence of the “rural Other.” It’s not uncommon to hear the anti-chicken camp recommending that coop-keeping folks like Mary should “go live in the country.”
But as Beth *name has been changed., a 39-year-old Canada Post letter carrier, single mother of a three-year-old son, and, as of this past summer, caretaker of two urban hens, points out, rural life is simply not feasible for everyone. Particularly someone raising a child on a single income, who prefers not to own a vehicle.
“I don’t have enough money to live in the country,” she says. “Living in the city you get the best of all the amenities … It is actually possible to live in the city with a child and not have a car.”
As you might imagine, sustainability is very important to Beth, who uses most of the yard around the South Calgary character bungalow where she has lived for the past seven years for vegetable gardening (her produce was served at Farm restaurant this past summer). Her ultimate goal, she says, is to live “off the grid” in the city, eventually installing solar power and geothermal heating. The backyard chicken-keeping operation erected this past spring gets Beth one step closer to her off-the-grid goal.
It’s not surprising that Beth hasn’t received any complaints from the neighbours in the gentrified condominiums to the west or the ones in the low-rise apartments to the east. Her two Americana hens reside in a brand-new, insulated, prefabricated, raised coop she ordered on-line from Ontario-based company Ready Coop. The coop is tucked around the back of the house and is surrounded by a brand-new, full-height fence and a gate with a firmly locking latch. Beth estimates the entire set up cost her around $1,000, and was less about protection from predators than it was about aesthetics to ensure protection from her neighbours.
Currently, Beth’s biggest concern, she says, is making sure the birds stay clean and happy and fed and warm during the winter. Beth says she was too excited at the prospect of harvesting her own eggs to wait for a change in the bylaw to greenlight her plans. Plus, there was the teensy little thrill of doing something subversive to take into account.
“It gives me a little kick to do it on the sly,” she says. And to keep it on the sly she has to ensure her chickens don’t cause problems with her neighbours. It’s very likely Beth’s backyard chickens wouldn’t have caused any problems with Mary’s former neighbours, either.
Kipp Cuddington and Jennifer Channell insist the chickens themselves had very little to do with the reasons they had for wanting their former neighbour gone, that the measures they took were in response to an escalating feud that started over Mary cutting down bushes on the property they are currently still renting.
There’s definitely no love lost between the former neighbours, and looking back on the whole thing Cuddington and Channell have to say good riddance to the birds as well as the owner. The smell got to be pretty unpleasant on hot summer days, Cuddington says, and the compost Mary was using for feed attracted skunks to their yards. It’s no surprise to hear he’s not much of an egg lover, either.
“I could care less about chickens,” he says. “I’ve lived on a farm and that’s where they belong.”
Channell, who grew up on Vancouver Island, concurs. “We choose to live in a concrete jungle,” she says. “If everyone had chickens, it would be anarchy!”
That threat of anarchy and neighbours turning on neighbours is precisely why Bruce stands behind the current livestock-restrictive Responsible Pet Ownership bylaw, which he sees as representative of the majority of Calgarians’ views on chickens and other animals and hence least likely to rock the boat.
“The eye-opener for me is that for every call I get saying we should allow [chickens], I get three or four calls saying, ‘If this goes to council I want to be notified because I lived beside someone who had chickens,’” Bruce says. “If you like eggs and you like chickens and you think it’s fun, then it’s a great idea. If you’re living beside it and you don’t like it, it’s a bad idea.”
But even the bylaw boss will concede a blanket ban seems hardly fair when concessions have been made for sporting pigeons, pot-bellied pigs and vicious dogs (the key reason being these animals are designated “pets” rather than “livestock”). That said, it’s not unrealistic to think that chickens, too, could one day regain their place in the Calgary menagerie, so long as the urban farmer can show proof of support from the neighbourhood and operates under sufficient controls.
CLUCK is all too happy to pitch in on that front and has drawn up a manual for backyard chicken ownership that insists, for starters, on a limit to how many birds can live on a residential property, a ban on noisy roosters and specific information on how to care for the flock during Calgary winters.
Apparently, there’s no need to play chicken with the issue, so long as everyone can meet somewhere in between.