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Gapers Block published from April 22, 2003 to Jan. 1, 2016. The site will remain up in archive form. Please visit Third Coast Review, a new site by several GB alumni.
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Tuesday, July 16

Gapers Block

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When I was growing up in Pilsen, it was common to see hens clucking around the neighbor's front yards. Though the agrarian fantasy to convert Chicago into one big urban farm may not appeal to everyone, growing your own food is an excellent way to limit the impacts of industrial farming and decrease your carbon consumption. And, as New York writer Manny Howard and others have demonstrated, raising chickens is not out of the realm of possibilities for an adventurous urban gardener.

photo by Carrie Smith

Independent locavores and groups like MadCity Chickens based in Madison, WI, are building urban chicken coops to feed themselves and to "educate the urban population on the benefits of raising one's own food, and to bring to light the misconceptions people might have about the raising of poultry in an urban setting." In Chicago, however, one's right to raise chickens is in serious question.

At a Chicago City Council hearing on December 12th, 2007, 18th Ward Alderman Lona Lane's proposed ban on chickens will be voted on for approval. According to Chicago's Municipal Code, keeping roosters or chickens for slaughter is illegal. However, there are currently no ordinances that would prevent a Chicagoan from having chickens as pets or maintaining a chicken coop to produce eggs.

Alderman Lane is concerned with chickens because of an increased potential for spread of the avian flu virus, chicken waste attracting rats, and the illegal slaughter of chickens on residential property. While her concerns have merit, they do not logically imply the need for a city-wide ban. Avian influenza should be a more serious concern for large industrial farms, and the proliferation of rats in Chicago, unfortunately, cannot be pinned to chickens but is a much broader problem relating to the improper disposal of waste.

Chicken-rearing (for eggs) provides an affordable option for food insecure families, seriously eliminates the food miles eggs normally travel to get from farm to table, and allows families to re-connect to farming traditions in an urban setting.

Alderman Ed Smith, Chair of the Committee on Health can hold the amended ordinance in committee instead of reporting it out to the Council on Wednesday December 12.

Call and email your Alderman before Wednesday Dec 12, 2007. Tell him or her that you want to preserve the right for responsible chicken owners to raise chickens (hens) as pets and for eggs. Ask your him/her to ask Alderman Lona Lane (18, who proposed the amendment) to ask Alderman Ed Smith (28, Chair of the Committee on Health who heard and approved the amendment) to "HOLD IT IN COMMITTEE" rather than reporting it out to the Council session.

Key aldermen include:
• Alderman Lane — if you know someone in the 18th ward, ask them to contact her about this issue!
• Chairman Ed Smith — he needs to hear (primarily) from Alderman Lane and (also) from other aldermen
• Other aldermen listed in the original proposal: Olivo-13, Foulkes-15, Cochran-20, Zalewski-23, Mitts-37)
• Members of the Committee on Health (Chair, Ed Smith-28; Vice Chair, Cardenas-12 ; Thompson-16; Fioretti-2; Dowell-3; Harris-8; Dixon-24; Burnett-27; Austin-34; Mell-33; Colon-35; Reilly-42; Shiller-46; Moore-49) Committee lists are here.

Alderman Lane and the Chicago City Council need to hear from you. Below is a sample letter to send to your local alderman. Write before the hearing takes place on December 12th, 2007!

Dear Alderman (your alderman's name here),

As a resident of Ward (Ward Number), I was saddened to hear of the proposed ordinance completely banning the ownership of chickens in Chicago, and I urge you to speak up against it. The problems cited by Alderman Lona Lane and others (noise pollution, rats, and avian flu) are worst-case scenarios that are almost entirely avoidable with good management and appropriate regulations.

While many Chicago residents have made noise complaints related to chickens, the vast majority of these are because of roosters. Backyard roosters have already been banned in Chicago and are not of interest to most residential egg farmers. Hens do not make noise that would bother neighbors. Furthermore, they give communities in need the means to produce their own food.

I appreciate Alderman Lane's concern regarding the risk of chickens spreading avian flu. While avian influenza has infected some independent farmers, it is in crowded commercial farms that particularly dangerous mutations of the virus are likely to form. The truth is little is known about how the virus spreads. While the response by the USDA and local governments targets chicken owners (as this proposed ordinance does) it does not hold the poultry and egg industry accountable.

Alderman Lane also claims that chicken waste attracts rodents. Rats are sustained by suitable habitat and access to food, which includes garbage and animal droppings. While chicken litter does create this risk, unsecured human food waste is much more likely to attract rats and the answer in this case is for chicken owners to simply do what all residents are obligated to do, which is secure their waste.

While these are valid concerns for the sake of safety and respect, I believe that producing food on residential property is a fundamental right, whether one resides in a city or rural area.

Please do not allow fear and exaggeration to take away my right to produce food for myself and lead a healthier and more sustainable lifestyle.

Thank you for your time, and keep up the good work!

Your Name Here

In the meantime, if you are pondering the idea of building your own mini-chicken coop here is some food for thought:
Mad City Chickens
The Ethicurean resources guide
Growing Gardens Portland resource guide


About the Author(s)

Anna Barnes is a youth organizer and Jesse Rutschman is an educator. Together they are novice community gardeners who aspire to one day raise chickens in the city. This article also appeared on the WorldChanging Chicago blog in a similar form.

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