Feathers ruffled over backyard chicken changes

Urban chickens
An urban chicken.
Nikki Tundel / MPR News 2009

The Minneapolis Chicken Summit convened Thursday night at an Indian restaurant in south Minneapolis with a vintage joke from South Minneapolis Council Member Andrew Johnson.

Question: How do chickens like to bake cake?
Answer: From scratch

The gathering of about 50 groaned. But chickens are getting some serious political attention too in Minneapolis — and it's complicated. Johnson is pressing to reform backyard chicken regulation in Minneapolis, including an ordinance to end the requirement of enlisting neighbors' approval.

Signs of chicken fandom abounded at the summit, which was organized by the Minneapolis Homegrown Food Council and included backyard chicken keepers, sustainable agriculture supporters and local officials. Many attendees wore shirts adorned with chickens or promoting organic feed.

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"My friends call me Rooster," said food council chairman Russ Henry, one of those wearing a chicken shirt. "It might have to do with being cocky too."

Johnson's proposal resonated with Henry, who grew up on a farm and doesn't have chickens now.

"I've got the classic situation where I've got a grumpy neighbor," Henry said. "It would be maybe difficult for me to get the signature requirement right now because one of my next door neighbors is opposed to it."

But even among those at the Minneapolis Chicken Summit not everyone supported making it easier to get a permit to raise chickens in the city.

Minneapolis Animal Care and Control officials said there were 266 permitted chicken coops in Minneapolis last year. In the late 2000s, there were only a couple dozen.

Ruben and Geri Lopez didn't have trouble getting their neighbors' approval to keep their eight hens including Matilda, Thelma and Scaredy-Cat.

"We're in Powderhorn and everybody around there likes chickens," Ruben Lopez said. "Everyone we talked with already signed off on someone else's chickens, so it hasn't been an issue."

The couple thinks the neighbor approval rule helps ensure the birds' safety.

"The rules are there to make sure that you have enough space for your chickens," Ruben Lopez said. "The rules are good because they keep people from just going out at Easter and buying a whole bunch of chickens and not knowing what to do with them."

One of the other prominent topics of discussion has been whether urban farms should be allowed to keep chickens. Henry said members of the food council have been talking with city farms to gauge their interest in keeping chickens — both to fertilize the soil and for egg sales.

"Right now urban farms are restricted to only grow fruits and vegetables," Henry said. "If we allow for chickens at urban farms, that's one way that urban farms can extend their business season, and then really create a holistic fertility cycle at their sites."

Animal advocates worry that making it easier to bring more chickens into the city would lead to more abused and abandoned birds.

Mary Britten Clouse runs Chicken Run Rescue in North Minneapolis. She said it should actually be more difficult to keep chickens in the city. Clouse said her group took in a couple dozen abandoned chickens mostly from Minneapolis last year.

"You've got people who don't know what they're doing, tending to them or not tending to them," Clouse said. "That's not sustainable."

Just last month, Clouse said, neighbors brought a hen from a neighborhood-run coop that was close to death.

"We have six families that were supposed to be tending to chickens and here we have a hen that almost died of hypothermia," she said. "I said, 'You sign the surrender form and you get the hell out of my house,' and we nursed her back to health."

Chickens at the rescue are kept on birth control in attempt to lengthen their lives, which Clouse believes are shortened by continually laying eggs. She said roosters, which can be noisy in an urban area, are often abandoned.

The food council's Henry said one topic of discussion among urban agriculture advocates has been "chicken retirement."

"Maybe sometimes folks get the chickens and they say, 'Maybe this is more work than I thought it was going to be, and I don't want to do it anymore,'" Henry said. "Then there's folks who have chickens for a long time and they get to retirement phase — so in both cases we need a place for those chickens to go."

Minneapolis animal control said complaints about chicken safety and conditions are very rare. Janelle Dixon, CEO of the Animal Humane Society, which serves seven counties in the Metro area, said chickens accounted for only about 28 of 24,000 animals that were brought to their shelters last year. The shelters are adopting a policy on Feb. 1 where they will no longer accept most livestock, instead referring livestock owners directly to rescue organizations.

Most who keep backyard chickens appear to take their role as caretaker seriously.

Nora Hagans of the Central neighborhood said she first got chickens seven years ago, and has since take steps to educate others about chickens through Hennepin County's branch of 4-H.

"It's important for us to have relationships with our food, whether it's for egg or meat," Hagans said. "It's also a great learning experience for sustainable agriculture and to not just throw away all the droppings, but to use that to be able to make soil and make this a healthier place."

Ten-year-old Amelie Brazelton's family keeps eight chickens in their backyard in a coop that she helped to paint. She likes having chickens, but said it isn't always easy.

"We used to have a really pretty chicken, her name was Sunbeam, and she got an illness where she couldn't walk," Amelie said. "So she stayed in my bedroom for a couple months, then she died because she couldn't keep herself healthy."

Brazelton and her friends play with the chickens all the time during the summer, and have even put on shows to teach neighbors about them. In the process, Amelie has become a bit of an expert on the birds.

"Chickens are awesome, but I wouldn't recommend getting a rooster because they can get a little bit mean," Amelie said. "If you're going to get chickens, it's a really good idea to give them a lot of space."

Council Member Johnson said he'll also be meeting with rescue groups and other interested parties before his final proposal to revise the chicken and animal control ordinances is released, which could happen sometime this summer.

"We're really thinking comprehensively here, how can we improve the outcomes for animals and make it easier for residents?" Johnson said. "If we make it easy, if we make it inexpensive, we're going to have better outcomes."

And to those who consider chicken issues to be just fluff?

"You're always going to have some listeners saying, 'Why is this a priority with all the other things going on in the city?'" Johnson said. "We're working on literally hundreds of things down at city hall, and there's room for chickens down there too."