It was only a matter of time until the growing North American campaign to allow chickens to be raised in urban backyards came to Winnipeg. A St. Boniface couple has posted an online petition to rally citizens to the cause -- what harm can two or three fowl pose?
Well, there are problems letting chickens roam the yard can pose, which is why municipalities that have studied similar requests have put clear, sensible restrictions on urban coops. Relatively quiet -- no roosters, please -- a chicken coop nevertheless must be kept far enough from a neighbour's property line, windows and doors to ensure odours, flies and aesthetics are not a source of conflict.
Vancouver is on the verge of following numerous other cities and towns in North America in changing its animal control bylaw to permit up to four hens to be kept in backyards only, within appropriate pens that have a coop, nest and run with the expectation they be kept sanitary and the birds humanely maintained. The birds must be protected from the wildlife (raccoons and fox) they or their eggs may attract.
Fears that urban chicken coops could become breeding grounds for avian influenza were put to rest through consultations with a variety of British Columbia human and animal health authorities, including the B.C. Centres for Disease Control, that concluded the likelihood of disease transmission to be no greater than for that of other domesticated animals, such as cats and dogs.
In preparation for the inevitable, Vancouver city council also voted this month to fund its animal control branch to build a chicken shelter to hold castoff or stray fowl, should the trend turn into a passing fad. This recognizes that whenever animals are harboured within urban limits, an animal services agency will need to protect their welfare and keep them from becoming a nuisance for other residents.
The benefits of keeping backyard chickens include, of course, fresh eggs for the breakfast table. Chickens forage for bugs, such as grubs, and can contribute to pest control. Also, nitrogen-rich chicken poop is good garden fertilizer. Chickens and their coops need daily care. While they are not the "pet" many urbanites would desire, the motivated citizen, like the St. Boniface family, who seeks to get closer to their food sources would see the additional work and responsibility as a small price for the hands-on experience at the return in food security they and their children gain.
The passage of Winnipeg's Exotic Animal Bylaw in 1983 prohibited residents from harbouring most farm animals along with many reptiles, snakes and primates, grandfathering the right of those already in the urban limits to stay. The bylaw underscored the fact that a city is first and foremost designed for keeping people living in proximity happy and healthy. The rules bring a measure of peace to neighbourhoods where the daily habits and quirks of humans alone can test the limits of good fences.
But when animals fit the lifestyles of humans, and enrich city life, rules ought to be relaxed while respecting the rights of others. A number of cities have decided as much, giving Winnipeg a wealth of experience to lean on in responding to the local campaign to introduce regulated backyard hen coops.