Part of the new economy will be, I hope, the resurgence of kitchen gardens and, consequently, the demise of the wasteful and banal green grass lawn. Interested in what other people are doing with their yard space, I read The Urban Homestead by Kelly Coyne and Erik Knutzen, a couple living in Los Angeles who are quite committed to living a low-impact and healthy life. Kelly and Erik opt for homemade and wholesome food instead of food packaged and processed, conserve water and energy through technology and conscientious consumption, and grow as much of their own food as possible. They even keep four chickens in the backyard for fresh, organic eggs from hens that fill their crops on a variety of feed in a coop with a spacious run.
Not to rile the vegans here, but eggs are great if you want to bind, coat, emulsify, thicken, or glaze in the kitchen, or if you are just hungry in the morning and have a hot pan handy. That said, we should all realize that the majority of the eggs on the market in North America come from caged hens that never see the light of day, and barely have room to move, let alone flap their wings. I hope I don’t need to argue the case from the hens’ perspective for you—it must be like sitting in the middle-back seat on a road trip that never ends.
While the well-established egg industry will have us believe the “conventional” systems bring consumers what they want at a price they are willing to pay, all the while hens are well-cared for, it is hard to imagine individual birds in the average flock size of about 20,000 get much in the way of personal service in their “small group setting,” an industry term for the stacks of crowded cages. This living arrangement is unfortunate for the chickens, but might also pose environmental and economic problems for us down the road.
So, in search of an alternative source for the conveniently packaged, economic, delicious and useful source of protein, some city-folk in North America are deciding to keep a small number of hens in a spirit of humane and respectful animal husbandry, self-sufficiency, and healthy living. As awareness of the poor quality of life egg-laying hens suffer spreads and the “green” movement continues to grow, the urban chicken debate has touched many cities, including Ottawa.
As it stands, chickens are classified as livestock under Ottawa City Bylaws and no livestock may be kept in residential zones. If you would like to keep a gigantic cockatoo, however, along with a menagerie of cats, dogs and other small animals, go for it.
In 2009, Vancouver legalized keeping up to four hens per lot, provided chicken-keepers confirm knowledge of proper hen care, register chicken ownership with the city and give hens the required space and conditions set out in Section 7.16 of the city’s bylaws.
Coops must be clean, with natural floors, such as wood chips or dead leaves, and each hen must be well-fed, have a perch, a nest box, and at least a 60 cm by 60 cm space of sheltered coop and at least a metre by metre area of roofed outdoor enclosure. Coops must be free of rats, and chickens must be locked in at night and may not be slaughtered on the premises. Manure must be composted or put in the garbage and chickens must be kept for non-commercial purposes. Finally, and importantly, the final line of law prohibits a hen to be kept in a cage.
These requirements seem quite reasonable (magnanimous even) compared to the conditions of industrial henhouses. Consider the above requirements compared to the “Recommended code of practice for the care and handling of pullets, layers and spent fowl,” published by the Canadian Agri-Food Research Council, to which all industrial egg producers in Canada must to adhere. For a two-kilo bird, the minimum cage floor space allotted for its entire adult life is equivalent to a space 22 cm by 22 cm—an area smaller than a standard sheet of paper.
Keeping chickens probably isn’t for everyone, but I have trouble coming up with reasons why people should be prohibited from keeping them in a safe, responsible and unobtrusive manner if they want to. Others are quick to worry about noise, smell, pests, and the slippery slope to urban buffalo. These concerns are legitimate, certainly, but we should consider that four chickens make less noise than a car, manure can be composted easily, feed can be stored properly to keep pests out, and that most folks will be happy to have the line drawn at egg hens, without wanting to bring in other livestock. With a few chickens, people can enjoy keeping a useful pet, eat cheap, hen-friendly eggs, gather extra fertilizer for the garden, and reduce demand on industrial egg producers.