Envisioning the End of ‘Don’t Cluck, Don’t Tell’
NY Times - April 29, 2009
In the modest backyard of Rosemarie Morgan’s 1890-era house, about a half-mile from Yale University, there is a small Buddha, azalea and forsythia, Japanese cherry and plum trees, and an Amish-made chicken coop with five residents — four who lay eggs and Gloria, who is barren but one heck of a watchdog.
The fowl are technically illegal under New Haven’s zoning code, which prohibited raising hens and other livestock when it was updated during the 1950s. But these days, many dozens of backyard hens are generally tolerated under the city’s informal enforcement program — call it “don’t cluck, don’t tell” — that mostly looks the other way. With urban fowl increasingly common, Alderman Roland Lemar has introduced legislation that would allow residents to raise up to six hens.
Ms. Morgan, a Victorianist at Yale who specializes in Thomas Hardy and grew up with assorted animals in England and Scotland, may not be the face of modern agriculture. But she’s a perfect representative of a tiny sliver of it — the vogue for urban farming that has cities around the country updating and tweaking zoning codes.
To Ms. Morgan — whose other Rhode Island reds and hybrids are named Brunnhilde, Tosca, Carmen and Mimi — the zoning fight is a little baffling.
“It seems extraordinary to me that you could have a cat or a dog or a caged bird, but you can’t have a chicken,” she said the other day, sprinkling corn in the yard for her little brood. “Slightly barbaric really.”
Of course, not many New Haven residents or Yale professors were raising chickens a few years ago. But some combination of the locavore craze, the growth of immigrant communities with traditions of raising hens and the recession making the idea of free eggs or milk in the backyard attractive, cities and suburbs around the country are reviewing all manner of critter ordinances.
Seattle recently allowed residents to have up to three goats. Minneapolis just legalized beekeeping.
At the center of the Brave New World of urban ag is the humble hen, whose care and keeping is the subject of Web sites like thecitychicken.com, urbanchickens.org, backyardchickens.com, or Just Food’s City Chicken Meetup NYC, which has 101 hen-friendly members in New York.
Ms. Morgan, whose East Rock neighborhood was once known as Goatville, took up raising hens when she lived in the Berkshires and, along with some friends, resumed it when she moved back to New Haven seven years ago. She likes the fresh eggs and the link to our vanished natural past. She’s very fond of her feathered friends, who eat bugs and mosquitoes and don’t make much noise other than a triumphant squawk when laying.
“The eggs are fabulous,” she said. “And it’s very emotionally fulfilling. They’re not exactly pets — they still have a wild way about them, but they’re very smart and easy to have around. And noise? They’re not as loud as blue jays, no worse than a cat’s meow, certainly quieter than a barking dog.”
Most municipalities are much less hospitable to roosters (consider that next door every dawn) than hens. But the clear trend is toward being more permissive. Jennifer Blecha, who did a doctoral dissertation on people’s attitudes about urban livestock, surveyed the zoning codes of American cities and found 53 allow hens, 16 prohibit them and 9 make no mention. In general, Ms. Blecha said, cities are much more tolerant of domestic livestock than suburbs.
“People like the idea of I take care of them, and they take care of me,” she said, explaining that the personal agrisystem of feeding food scraps to chickens that, in turn, produce breakfast, has enormous appeal.
Of course, not everyone is happy. New Haven’s head of code enforcement does not like the idea of adding chicken coop inspection to his portfolio. On the New Haven Advocate’s Web site, one resident lamented the presence of “these foul, filthy, half flying, eat anything rats in the East Rock nabe.” And any health scare involving animals — see: swine flu — can lead to a pushback, though advocates say the real threat is from factory farming, not small urban populations.
Owen Taylor of Just Food, which promotes local agriculture in New York, said the key is for people to explain their plans to their neighbors, so they know what to expect. He praised New York’s codes, which deal with potential bad behavior (smell, noise, rodents) rather than the existence of the hens, for allowing responsible fowl behavior and punishing those who create a nuisance. Citing New York street wisdom, he added, “You deal with it on a coop by coop basis.”