Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Choking on chickens

No backyard roosts for me, but a fennec is fine

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Almost everywhere in North Africa, deserts and dunes are home to a cute little carnivore called the fennec fox.

With its oversized ears, shiny brown coat and tiny, fur-covered paws, the fennec looks like a plush-toy version of the larger foxes that inhabit forests around the world. They actually seem too cute to exist.

Given their adorableness -- imagine a mogwai from Gremlins crossed with a tribble from Star Trek -- some people try to keep fennecs as pets.

This is not easy, as even people who love these crazy canids describe them as remarkably high-maintenance little mammals -- and incredibly challenging exotic pets.

According to fennec websites, domesticated desert foxes chew up anything in front of them, are capable of tunnelling six metres below the ground and constantly attempt to escape if left outside.

Once they run away, they will not return home. They become feral if left on their own too long and typically cannot be re-domesticated.

And fennec owners run the constant risk of stepping on their beloved little critters, given their tiny size and tendency to move silently on padded feet.

In other words, you need to be kind of crazy to own a fennec, or at least have a lot of time on your hands.

And I feel the same way about the small but growing number of Winnipeggers who want to win the right to keep chickens in their backyards -- except for the obvious fact chickens are not cute.

All across North America, there is a growing movement in support of "backyard poultry," the practice of keeping chickens in or outside your home to serve as a source of food.

Given the inhumane conditions in some of the largest industrial poultry operations, I understand the idea intellectually. It also makes sense from a food-security perspective, in that people who keep a few chickens don't have to worry about where their next egg comes from.

But when it comes to actually living with chickens, my emotions get the better of my intellect, which isn't overly formidable in the first place.

Chickens are birds. Birds are descended from dinosaurs. Dinosaurs are mean. Or at least that's what I learned from watching Jurassic Park.

Chickens also excrete ammonia-laden guano pretty much everywhere they go. And in a confined space like a backyard, that means the end of any vegetation that can't handle massive amounts of urea.

As a result, my mind is made up: I don't want nasty little dinosaurs living next to me, functioning as little more than guano factories.

I've felt this way ever since two summers ago, when one of my more annoying neighbours -- the friendly, hyperactive guy across the street who always has the time and energy to work on his yard or home -- approached me with the idea of sharing a backyard chicken coop.

"Chickens are gross. I'd rather raise pit bulls. It's not even legal, anyway," I said.

"Nobody has to know," said my neighbour, whom I'll call Dave.

"It's not like they're silent. Someone will find out," I said. "Besides, I'm going to tell your wife about your plan."

Needless to say, Dave didn't get any chickens. I thought the issue was dead, until I visited the St. Norbert Farmers' Market and found chickens on sale to keep as pets.

According to the chicken lady, the rare variety of hens on sale at the market allowed them to occupy a loophole in the city's pound bylaw, which doesn't allow people to keep live poultry at home. These particular chickens were "exotic birds," she claimed, describing them as no different in the eyes of the law as parrots or cockatiels.

I believed this was the case last year, when River Heights Coun. John Orlikow sent me an article about urban chicken farming. Orlikow wasn't advocating the practice; he was merely interested in the topic.

But when I checked with the city, there was no effort underway to amend any animal-related bylaws.

That's still the case this year, as a St. Boniface family attempts to muster more support for urban poultry. But it turns out all chickens really are exotics, and therefore not OK to keep, according to Winnipeg's animal services agency.

In the mid-1990s, when I lived in Daniel McIntyre, the family next door had a pair of roosters, which I presume they kept for cockfights. On early June mornings, when I was roused from my shallow sleep by crowing roosters and forced to endure premature hangovers, I wished I owned a firearm and had the guts to use it.

So I confess I'm anti-chicken, despite the food-security benefits. This is an important admission to make during a civic election year.

But I have no similar problem with fennecs. Go ahead and get a desert fox, if you can legally obtain one.

Unlike chickens, these critters will run away and never come back.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 2, 2010 A4

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About Bartley Kives

Bartley Kives wants you to know his last name rhymes with Beavis, as in Beavis and Butthead. He aspires to match the wit, grace and intelligence of the 1990s cartoon series.

Bartley joined the Free Press in 1998 as a music critic. He spent the ensuing 7.5 years interviewing the likes of Neil Young and David Bowie and trying to stay out of trouble at the Winnipeg Folk Festival before deciding it was far more exciting to sit through zoning-variance appeals at city hall.

In 2006, Bartley followed Winnipeg Mayor Sam Katz from the music business into civic politics. He spent seven years covering city hall from a windowless basement office.

He is now reporter-at-large for the Free Press and also writes an outdoor-recreation column called Offroad for the Outdoors page.

A canoeist, backpacker and food geek, Bartley is fond of conventional and wilderness travel. He is the author of A Daytripper’s Guide to Manitoba: Exploring Canada’s Undiscovered Province, the only comprehensive travel guidebook for Manitoba – and a Canadian bestseller, to boot. He is also co-author of Stuck In The Middle: Dissenting Views of Winnipeg, a collaboration with photographer Bryan Scott.

Bartley appears every second Wednesday on CityTV’s Breakfast Television. His work has also appeared on CBC Radio and in publications such as National Geographic Traveler, explore magazine and Western Living.

Born in Winnipeg, he has an arts degree from the University of Winnipeg and a master’s degree in journalism from Ottawa’s Carleton University. He is the proud owner of a blender.

On Twitter: @bkives
Email: bartley.kives@freepress.mb.ca

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