SALEM, OREGON – The urban chicken movement reflects a growing uneasiness among city dwellers who have come to rely, perhaps too heavily, on outside resources. As we become increasingly troubled by the economy, the environment, food safety, animal welfare and emergency preparedness, many of us strive to become more self-reliant. Now learning what our grandparents understood, we are gardening, canning food and raising chickens for eggs – activities that provide a sense of security and relaxation in an urban setting. There can be obstacles to living a more sustainable life, however.
My husband and I spent three years turning our backyard into a permaculture system where everything works in harmony and little is wasted. It began with a vegetable garden. Soon, we were digging up lawn to make room for a second garden, then some fruit trees and berry bushes. Next, we installed a small greenhouse and a composter. Things were coming together, but there was one thing missing – chickens.
When we looked into the legality of keeping chickens, we discovered they are not specifically mentioned in the city code. Instead, there’s a list of “approved land uses,” which include raising a 100-pound potbelly pig. A different section of the code prohibits “livestock” in the city. Later, we discovered the city’s definition of livestock includes poultry, but we weren’t worried because it also includes “all species of swine,” yet pigs are permitted. We reasoned that if you can have a pig, then certainly it would be OK to have a few harmless little hens. Because Salem’s ordinance was vague, confusing and contradictory, we gave ourselves permission to build the chicken coop.
Soon, half the yard remained traditional lawn and flower beds, and the rest had been converted into a productive ecosystem that would sustain us, while saving money and resources. My girls had just begun to lay beautiful eggs when the unthinkable happened.
In August 2008, I was shocked to discover a code compliance officer at my door. A neighbor had seen my chickens while working on his roof. It wasn’t about noise or smell. He just saw them. I refused to give up my pets without a fight.
Surely, I could reason with the people who make the rules. After all, the government should work for the people, and we were in line with what the city was promoting – community gardens, sustainability, recycling and natural pest control.
With my four hens in foster care, I devoted the next six months to researching the subject of urban chicken keeping and formed a group called Chickens In The Yard (C.I.T.Y.). We discovered cities like Portland, Seattle, Denver and New York already allow a limited number of egg-laying hens, and many more were joining the urban chicken movement weekly.
We prepared a 60-page informational packet for our city council that addressed every possible concern and included written testimony from officials in chicken-friendly cities describing how hens have benefited their communities.
The nine months of grueling deliberations that followed were unexpected. Others must have been surprised, too, because the Salem chicken issue landed on the cover of The Wall Street Journal. Despite the national spotlight, a positive recommendation by city staff, overwhelming community support, and the endorsement of 12 of Salem’s 19 neighborhood associations, the majority of our elected officials voted against the proposed ordinance in October 2009.
In the national spotlight
As word of our plight spread, more people began to contact us for advice, largely due to the media attention we received and the thorough research packet for which we have become known. With so many inquiries, we produced a documentary about our struggle to join the urban chicken movement so that others can learn from our experiences. The film’s primary purpose is to educate, raise awareness and dispel some of the chicken-keeping myths. We also created a website, Chicken Revolution (www.Chicken-Revolution.com), dedicated to helping people who want to change their city ordinances.
We may have lost the battle here in Salem, but we are winning the war nationwide by helping others convince their public officials to do what we have not (yet) accomplished. While awaiting the results of this year’s election, and hoping for more pro-chicken council members, we have turned our attention elsewhere. Most recently, two other Oregon cities, Forest Grove and Gresham, passed chicken ordinances using our research. It’s a good feeling to know we’ve helped families in Oregon, North Carolina, New Jersey, Minnesota and Kansas enjoy chickens in their yards.
Today, there is a thriving community of what we call the chicken underground. These otherwise law-abiding citizens keep hens because they believe the benefits of fresh, homegrown eggs outweigh the risks. Chickens are delightful pets with hilarious antics and personalities that many people enjoy. They will continue to raise urban hens illegally and look forward to the day they are no longer considered outlaws.
What began as a humble attempt to regain custody of my pet hens grew into something I never could have imagined. In the beginning, I was known as “the Chicken Lady,” but after months of struggling for the right to raise backyard chickens and with no end in sight, my husband began to call me “the Che Guevara of the Chicken Liberation Front.” Eventually, friend and fellow C.I.T.Y. member Nannette Duryea Martin brought that image to life by creating our new logo, “Che Chicken,” and the Chicken Revolution was hatched. Living a more sustainable life shouldn’t require a revolution, but in cities where elected representatives are more reluctant, that’s what happens.
I never dreamed when I picked up my baby peeps at the feed store that it would lead me to become a political activist, public speaker and, now, a documentary filmmaker. In spite of the difficulty of having to temporarily give up my own chickens, I find solace in knowing I have made a difference in other communities around our nation. Along the way I’ve made a lot of good friends and discovered that “chicken people” are some of the most down-to-earth, genuine people I’ve ever met. I’m honored to be among them.