Saturday, July 23, 2011

on hold

It's been a long week. This time last week I was waiting for Hank and Max to roll in from Interlochen--a 10 hour trip. Sunday was spent unpacking, processing laundry...which barely made a dent in the piles stacked about the house. Monday was a full work day, my last day in the office before an arbitration hearing on Wednesday, with Tuesday being a travel and witness prep day. On Monday, after slightly frantically pulling together all the documents for my case and overseeing my brand new secretary's (literally on her first day) assembly of exhibit notebooks, I turned my attention to the evening's activities, another meeting of the Richmond Heights City Council with backyard chickens on the agenda.

For a few reasons, I didn't prepare remarks for this meeting. First, I spoke at the last meeting and pretty much said everything I thought needed to be said. Second, the wonderful Linda Lieb had lined up a full slate of speakers on the topic and had assigned each a subject. The City Council has a policy of limiting comments to 3 minutes each; if we wanted all of our points to be made we'd need (and easily had) a cast of thousands. It had come to our attention that a small but vocal group was planning to express an anti-chicken position and we'd seen some of the misinformation they'd been circulating. We were prepared to educate and rebut. In fact, one of Linda's recruits was Guy Niere, who teaches a backyard chickens class at St. Louis Community College and whose resume ranges from field research on jungle fowl in South America to a stint with ConAgra, advising them on poultry care. My job was to bat clean-up and rebut any of the anti-chicken points we might have missed.

The meeting was packed, literally standing room only. The City Council moved mercifully quickly through the early business of the meeting and got straight to the main event: chicken commentary. The majority of the commenters spoke in favor of backyard chickens. A few made a particular impression. A young girl whose neighbor keeps chickens spoke about how being around the birds is soothing. When pressed by the Councilors to describe how she classifies chickens in her mind ("do they seem like pets? do they seem like a cat?"), she took a long pause before answering that no, they don't seem like cats because, well, cats are just cats...but......chickens...seem like one of us. She then presented the Mayor with a drawing she had made of a chicken.

Her mother spoke in beautifully accented English about her experience growing up in Russia and how, amid food shortages, a plot of land on which food could be grown and chickens raised gave essential peace of mind. As she described the sense of security that came from growing one's own food, I recognized one of the strands that draws me down the path of keeping chickens.

Anne Martin, who keeps chickens in the relative chicken paradise of Clayton, graciously spent her evening with us and urged the Councilors to pay a visit to her coop and see for themselves the realities of backyard chickens. I hope they will.

Tom Wickersham spoke about the school district's chicken program, which is thriving. He recounted one parent telling him that her son was not a big fan of going to school--except on Tuesdays, because that was the day he got to see the chickens.

Guy Niere spoke knowledgeably and thoughtfully about the benefits of keeping backyard chickens and reminded everyone that the concerns about salmonella and avian flu are tied to the giant flocks raised in commercial production. He observed that the deadly 1918 pandemic coincided with the rise of large-scale factory chicken farming and clarified that a virus cannot mutate such that it poses a threat to humans in a flock of less than 1000. He also spoke of his own practices, raising something like 100 birds, mostly rare and heritage breeds. It was inspirational.

Hank spoke, describing chickens as voracious predators who would be happy to dispatch an errant mouse that happened to infiltrate their coop and explaining that chicken owners have a vested interest in maintaining coop and run conditions to exclude predators and rodents.

The anti-chicken folks beat a steady tattoo of rats, feces, disease, property values, rats, feces, disease, property values. Oh, and one guy who wanted to talk about fecal runoff. Wow. There seems to be very little first-hand knowledge among these folks, except for the "my grandfather raised chickens on his farm and it stank to high heaven..." or the "I grew up on a farm with 100 chickens and my job was to clean the chicken coop..." variety. There also seems to be an inordinate amount of fear. Fear of disease, fear of rats, fear that their carefully guarded and tended corner of the world will come tumbling down, fear of their neighbors. Most seem quite certain that chicken owners will be a sadly irresponsible lot, allowing their birds to run about the neighborhood, throwing food about their yards and harboring every sort of vermin known to man. Oh, how I longed to cross-examine each and every one of them.

In the end, I had very little to say, once our team had done its thing. I talked about my disappointment that so many folks seemed to have such a dim view of their neighbors' ability to manage chickens responsibly. I talked about how this was an issue of being good neighbors and how I hoped they would strike a balance between those folks who want to raise chickens in their yards and those who are opposed. It was decidedly uninspired. But then, in a moment of exhaustion and in the context of describing this as a movement whose adherents were increasing in numbers, I blurted out that unless they liberalized the conditions to keep chickens, I'd likely leave Richmond Heights. As soon as I said it, I could see it was probably over the line of reasonableness in the eyes of the Councilors. One Councilor though, the most anti-chicken of the lot, seemed especially pleased with my comment, smirking at someone in the audience. Really? another asked. You'd move because you couldn't keep chickens? Yes, really, I said. I feel that strongly about this. Afterwards, I thought of many things I should have said, as you will see shortly.

I also started this week expecting to take delivery of my new flock of baby chicks. When the whole brouhaha at the City Council first came to my attention, I truly believed that it would be quickly and reasonably resolved. I decided to go ahead, confident that all would be fine. I placed my order back in June and my chicks were due to ship out on Wednesday. After Monday night's meeting I began to have concerns that the whole ordinance thing was not going to resolve quickly, but my main concern was the weather.

I had been watching the weather with concern but by late Monday I was very worried that it would be dangerously hot for shipping live baby chicks. I imagined them, locked in a truck in the blazing sun while the driver ate his lunch in an air-conditioned restaurant. I sent an email to Chickens for Backyards outlining my concern (well, not the part about the driver and his lunch) and got a response back the next day. I could cancel my order, Monica said, but at least one of the breeds I had ordered would not be hatching out later this summer. I called her from the car, on my way to Rockford, Illinois, Tuesday morning. I didn't want to cancel, I explained. I was just concerned that they would not survive the trip and didn't want to have to open a quiet box. Monica was very understanding and assured me that as far as they knew there would be no problem shipping them. She checked and reported that my chicks would actually be coming from Missouri (Cackle???). When I expressed surprise (CFB is located in Texas) she explained that the Texas facility is a call center and warehouse but that the chicks actually ship from all over the country. CFB matches the customer with a hatchery based on location and breed availability. Monica confirmed that the May chicks had come from a Michigan hatchery (thus the DTW sticker on the box). Given that these were coming from Missouri, I could expect them Thursday morning.

Thursday morning finally arrived. I had set up the brooder, filled the feeder and fount and turned on the brooder lamp, which promptly burned out. Hank was dispatched to Lowe's to pick up a replacement bulb. I had steeled myself for the likelihood that some or all of the chicks would arrive dead. It was self defense, a manifestation of the new, tougher attitude I am trying to adopt regarding this endeavor. I told myself that if I had cancelled my order they would likely have been "disposed of" and that if they did survive the journey, they had a stupendous life in store. But Thursday morning came and went without any sign of the chicks. We called and visited the post office. No chicks. I worried and fretted but finally resigned myself to the fact that they had not arrived and would not that day. I tried not to think about where they might be and harbored a small hope they had not been sent after all. I planned to give it until the next morning before calling Monica back.

At about 5:00 Thursday, my phone rang. It was Monica, calling to tell me "as soon as she found out," that my chicks had not shipped Wednesday as planned. Apparently, one of my breeds had not hatched out. They would go out next Wednesday instead. I thanked her for calling, full of relief.

Yesterday I spent all day in a hearing but checked my email at a break late in the day. A friend had sent me a link to a letter to the editor of the Clayton-Richmond Heights Patch written by Councilman Ed Notter, the most anti-chicken of the lot. I read it, slack-jawed, especially when he turned his ill-tempered attention toward yours truly. My heart rate sky-rocketed, my ire rose. I felt threatened and fiercely protective.

I thought about the letter and my visceral response to it all the way home yesterday. Because I had chicks coming and already viewed myself as a chicken owner, I felt vulnerable. A bad outcome at the City Council would have a disastrous effect on my own backyard and my soon-to-be young flock. It was clear that I had opened myself up for intense scrutiny and any chickens I placed in my backyard now were not likely to fly under the radar. My sense of vulnerability clouded my thinking, made it impossible for me to respond rationally. This, I thought, is why people hire lawyers.

And so, after much deliberation, I cancelled my order. I think my expectation that the ordinance issue would quickly resolve was reasonable--it should be a no-brainer. But it has become clear to me now that this is going to be a long fight. I need to keep my wits about me and not operate from a place of emotion. I need to be a lawyer, not a client, and I've learned I can't be both.

And so, having cancelled my order, I sat down to write a reply to Mr. Notter:
Councilman Notter’s call to submit the keeping of chickens in Richmond Heights to a ballot initiative demonstrates a failure of leadership and a willingness to squander precious city resources. Mr. Notter’s letter also perpetuates many of the same misconceptions and prejudices that have, unfortunately, characterized much of the debate.

In recent years, municipalities all over the United States (most recently Denver, CO) have recognized the value in having ordinances that support, rather than discourage, raising backyard chickens. The leaders of those communities did their homework and drew reasonable conclusions based on evidence both scientific and experiential. They did not abdicate their responsibility for crafting legislation that moved their communities forward or turn the issue into a popularity contest and waste taxpayer resources on a ballot initiative. I fervently hope that my elected representatives will follow their example.

As those of us who support raising backyard chickens in Richmond Heights have been saying all along, existing city nuisance and animal abuse and neglect ordinances (found in Sections 210 and 220 of the Richmond Heights City Code) are sufficient to address the genuine (as opposed to the fabricated) concerns that go along with such an endeavor.

The City of Clayton, which places no limit on the number of chickens a resident may have, has an ordinance elegant in its simplicity. It prohibits anyone other than a veterinarian or pet shop from keeping fowl for commercial or resale purposes and sets forth these perfectly reasonable, common-sense guidelines:

Domestic fowl kept as pets must be adequately confined within a yard or other place surrounded by a wire netting or other fence sufficient to prevent their escape therefrom.  The pen shall be maintained in a clean and wholesome manner.  Any manure or other discharges from the birds shall be collected so as to prevent the spread of offensive smells or disease.

Despite having allowed backyard chickens on these terms for at least 17 years, Clayton reports less than 5 complaints in the past year and seems, based on a recent perusal of Clayton real estate, to be doing just fine in the property value department. Ladue, which also places no limit on the number of backyard chickens, reports no complaints in the past year and seems to have avoided turning into Dogpatch.

But of course Mr. Notter doesn’t believe we should look to our neighbors in Clayton or Ladue for evidence of how our own community will fare with similar policies. I appreciate Mr. Notter’s belief that Richmond Heights is an exceptional community; it is a belief I share in many regards. But I do not believe, as he seems to, that the experience of raising backyard chickens south of Clayton Road will be fraught with troubles our neighbors to the north have avoided nicely for many years. We look to our neighboring communities as examples not because we believe we should blindly ape them but because their experience sheds light on what our own is likely to be.

Mr. Notter’s incredulity about chicken owners’ commitment to maintain good hygiene in their birds’ coops and runs betrays his fundamental misconceptions about the realities of raising chickens. He mocks the testimony of Guy Niere, a recognized backyard chicken expert and educator who very graciously spent an evening of his own time to help educate the City Council on this topic. In fact, what Mr. Niere describes is not unlike what those of us who compost and garden organically already practice—and is essential for a chicken owner to derive the maximum benefit from raising chickens. Such tasks are not for everyone and I would never encourage anyone to commit to raising chickens without a full and complete understanding of the responsibilities involved. But just because Mr. Notter cannot imagine assuming such responsibility himself does not mean those of us who would gladly do so should be penalized.

Mr. Notter’s assertions that “poop is poop” and his likening 10 chickens to 10 dogs show just how little attention he has been paying to the information that has been placed before the City Council. Ten chickens generate less manure in a day (.66 lbs) than one 40-pound dog (.75 lbs). Chicken manure is water soluble and safe to compost, unlike dog manure, which must be picked up in a plastic bag, pathogens and all, and thrown into a landfill. If we’re basing our decisions about backyard animals solely on questions of poop, it seems pretty clear the chickens win hands down. And after hearing Mr. Notter’s account of the burden it would be to keep chickens I’m not so sure allowing me to have 10 constitutes a special privilege.

I want to raise chickens in part because they are a facet of a sustainable lifestyle I strive for. Why chickens and not goats or sheep? Because as communities all over the country have recognized, chickens are a good fit for the urban backyard. From what I’ve seen, the folks who want to raise backyard chickens have already “till[ed] those yards,” turning over large portions to productive crops. These are not people caught up in a fad; they are serious and committed to a better way of life.

Finally, as the resident who averred she would have to move if the city does not allow backyard chickens, I regret that Mr. Notter chose to perceive my statement as “the height of pompous.” What I hoped to express was the depth of my commitment to this and similar issues and my strong feeling that I cannot feel at home in a community whose leaders turn their backs on residents’ efforts to practice sustainability. If I do leave Richmond Heights, I will hit the highway regretfully. I am speaking out on this issue because I hope and believe I am not alone in feeling as I do and that together, we can ensure our community reflects our values and vision.

It’s clear to me that Mr. Notter underestimates the momentum and staying power of the sustainability movement. I place my trust in those leaders of our community who have the vision to imagine a Richmond Heights that supports rather than discourages sustainable practices of all kinds.
It may still have a little of the taint of the pro se litigant, but I promise to work on that.

In the meantime, coop construction is on hold, because there has been talk of setbacks, building standards and inspections. I will likely put the roof on to protect the frame from rot, but I want to be able to easily move it with four strong men (into a moving van, if necessary) and every sheet of plywood I hang renders that less do-able. The brooder has returned to the basement. I am so very sad about this turn of events and have been in the worst of moods ever since, but I know it is the correct, responsible thing to do.

As for this blog...I will finish my Port Oneida series (apologies to those who find it a yawn) and report on the progress of the Richmond Heights chicken ordinance. By spring, I hope to be able to report that chickens are welcome in Richmond Heights. Keep your fingers crossed! And...if you feel inclined to comment on Mr. Notter's letter, by all means do so!

1 comment:

  1. I am so sorry you were not able to get chicks. I hid mine for a long time. Finally, an animal control officer I called about the raccoons told me that I could keep chickens, that there was no law against it. I live in the Historic District. There are nine homes on our square block. Four of the five residents were hiding chickens and ducks. One had the audacity to have a rooster. However, not having roosters is one of the best ways to gain acceptance of your hens.

    Diatomaceous Earth, DE, keeps down stink, flies, and parasites. There is more dog poop deposited in my yard each day by illegally roaming dogs than my chicken poop deposits. Dog poop draws flies. None of my neighbors take care of the dog poop flies. I do take care not to have chicken poop flies and smells.

    Good luck. Thanks for stopping by my blog. You can find more chicken information by looking for "chickens." Save your pecan shells that have tiny bits of pecan for the hens.