Crystal Sherris never expected her house to be surrounded by officers demanding her to give up her loved ones. But she was harbouring illegals thought to be a danger and a nuisance to the public: chickens.
It started in the spring of 2011 when Sherris, a farm girl who grew up with animals, decided keeping hens in the backyard of her Edmonton home would be a fun and cheap way to raise her own food.
But like many people who get into urban chickens, she saw them as more than just discount omelette factories—they eat insects and kitchen scraps, make fertilizer for the garden and are a ticket off of the industrial-food-industry treadmill.
So she bought six birds—females only, no roosters to cock-a-doodle-doo—from a local farmer, converted an old dog house into a coop, and quickly became fond of her little harem of backyard hens.
Her girls pecked the bugs and slugs in the yard, made some mighty tasty eggs and started following her around the yard like cooing puppies.
“I absolutely loved it,” says the 44-year-old mother of two and local record-company employee. “They have personalities and I was actually surprised at how fun it was.”
The only problem? Chickens have a bad reputation—noisy cluckers, stinky poopers, carriers of deadly disease and magnets for predators—and, unknown to Sherris when she bought her hens, are forbidden in Edmonton at residential addresses. After nearly one year of hassle-free urban farming, bylaw enforcement officers came knocking. Someone had tipped off the fuzz and her flock had to go. She pleaded with the city for more time and asked for a special permit to let her keep the birds. Sherris says the bylaw officers were patient and respectful but were handcuffed to the rules: chickens don’t fly here.
Sherris didn’t go down quietly, keeping her birds for months in defiance of the city’s bylaws. She did numerous interviews in local media, joined the Canadian Liberated Urban Chicken Klub (CLUCK) and filed a constitutional challenge with the city of Edmonton last September arguing the bylaw violates her charter rights—similar to a challenge her food-activist friend Paul Hughes filed and lost with the city of Calgary in 2012.
For her, as soon as she realized the city could take away what she considered an important way to feed her family, the issue became bigger than chickens.
“When you’re in a city and you have people saying you can’t grow your own food—that is such a serious problem. All we need is one crisis for people to realize how serious it is and how backwards we are,” Sherris says.
CLUCK, along with the River City Chickens Collective, are trying to change Edmonton’s rules. River City Chickens first asked Edmonton City Council in 2010 to consider allowing a limited number of households to keep chickens for a year as a way to gather empirical evidence. But they got nowhere. They’ve made multiple presentations at city hall since and have a pro-chicken petition signed by more than 1000 people. Still nothing.
The birds and the bees
There’s a growing food-security movement in Alberta, indeed the world, attempting to transform cities from concrete bunkers into creative agriculture spaces. Supporters argue that egg-laying hens are an economic and safe way to guarantee good food for families. Picture cities full of earnest urban homesteaders trying their best to go back to the land, banging together coops next to their backyard beehives and potato patches.
There are 40 municipalities in Canada that allow urban hens—usually limited to four to six birds, no roosters—including Vancouver, Victoria, Guelph and Gatineau. And pretty much every major American city is chicken-friendly: New York City, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Seattle and dozens more. Back-to-nature Portland allows hens, bees and even goats. Goats!
Fort Saskatchewan, a 15-minute drive up the highway, allows backyard chickens. Red Deer, a city that’s never specifically banned urban poultry, is nine months into its one-year Urban Chicken Pilot Project and could soon vote to create new bylaws allowing households to keep a regulated number of hens.
Charity Briere, a member of CLUCK Red Deer and owner of six hens, says there’s no reason not to update the rules.
“We have approximately 40 homes [in Red Deer] with chickens and there hasn’t been a single complaint,” Briere says. “My most wary neighbours are now my hen-sitters when my family goes out of town and they get a kick out of it—especially the fresh eggs!”
But there are concerns. Keith Scott, Edmonton’s coordinator of animal control, says his department gets 10 to 20 chicken-related complaints per year, usually when a rogue urban chicken or farmer’s hen flaps over the fence into a neighbour’s yard.
“There are a lot of myths out there as far as chickens go,” Scott says. “It’s not as glamorous as you think.”
The veteran animal-control expert points out that chickens, like any animal, aren’t reproductive forever. That means they’ll eventually stop laying eggs. Scott is concerned that owners will tire of chickens that aren’t contributing to breakfast and that his already overtaxed department will be tasked with rounding up abandoned hens.
“We don’t have the processes in place or even the resources to deal with that,” he says.
The Edmonton Humane Society, where stray chickens could end up, is busy enough housing the dozens of lost or unwanted cats and dogs without having to create new infrastructure to handle the birds.
“At the present we’re not equipped to take in poultry … we really aren’t able to look after them here,” says Travis Grant, spokesperson for the Edmonton Humane Society.
And Scott warns that chickens “aren’t the cleanest animals around” and could carry diseases, including bird flu. But North America, in hundreds of years of keeping poultry, has had only one case of avian influenza ever—and that was a recent case of a young woman catching the deadly disease in China.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the national public health group in the US, has cautioned backyard chicken owners about the risk of salmonella after recent outbreaks of infections linked to chicks from a mail-order hatchery. However, a recent report by the Public Health Agency of Canada, Raising Chickens in City Backyards: The Public Health Role, suggests urban poultry can be kept safely.
“Overall, the risk of pathogen transmission given backyard chicken keeping appears to be low and does not present a greater threat to the public’s health compared with keeping other animals allowed by similar bylaws, such as dogs and cats,” the report states.
Would-be Edmonton egg ranchers are rightly optimistic. Consider newly-elected mayor Don Iveson, who told the Edmonton Journal last September during the election that “noisy dogs are a bigger problem than chickens would be.” He suggested licensing them like pets and said Edmontonians have kept backyards chickens for decades without bothering anyone.
“There are some properties in Garneau where … hen keeping is grandfathered back to when it was the city of Strathcona,” Iveson says. “I had friends who lived in a house next to a house that was grandfathered in and had chickens for 100 years. And unless someone points them out to you, you don’t know they’re there.”
Then there’s the new Edmonton Food Council, a group formed last year to work on local food issues.
Fresh, Edmonton’s 2012 strategy for encouraging urban agriculture, recommends looking into backyard chickens. Hell, there are even eggs right in the fresh logo.
But words in a report don’t mean hens in the yard. Jennifer Fisk, the food council co-chair, said it’s too soon to say if they’ll be working on legalizing chickens in the near future.
“There are literally hundreds of opportunities that could be pursued to advance food and urban agriculture within the city of Edmonton,” Fisk says. “So we want to be smart and thoughtful about what we tackle first and what we look at in the longer-term strategy.”
Members of CLUCK and the River City Chickens Collective are optimistic they’ll hear some positive news on the chicken front early this year. But without a clear commitment to the cause from elected officials, many chicken lovers are going underground—hiding their hens like political radicals in a repressive regime. Sherris, the rebellious and outspoken voice of the chicken fight in Edmonton, says she knows plenty of folks who defy Edmonton’s bylaw.
“A lot of people keep chickens under the radar,” she says. “They don’t want to talk about it or have people find out about it. Because once the city finds out, you’re a target and then it’s harassment.”
But she says she is tired of having to worry about the law peeking over her fence—she’s looking to sell her house and move on.
“For me it’s over for this city,” Sherris says. “I want to live without having to worry about enforcement.”