Winnipeg is in the midst of an ambitious and long overdue overhaul of the Responsible Pet Ownership Bylaw. Most of the changes – including improving regulation of exotic animal ownership and replacing the city’s outdated and unscientific ban on pit bulls with tools to promote responsible dog guardianship – will benefit animals, as well as public health and safety.

Opinion

Winnipeg is in the midst of an ambitious and long overdue overhaul of the Responsible Pet Ownership Bylaw. Most of the changes – including improving regulation of exotic animal ownership and replacing the city’s outdated and unscientific ban on pit bulls with tools to promote responsible dog guardianship – will benefit animals, as well as public health and safety.

Animal Services and city council should be commended for taking bold, science-based and compassionate action to strengthen the bylaw and bring it into the 21st century.

But there is one aspect of the RPO bylaw review that’s for the birds: Animal Services is recommending a two-year urban agriculture pilot project that would allow the keeping of backyard chickens in the city.

The idea of keeping a flock may sound idyllic. Stop by the Little Red Barn Sanctuary and you’ll see that hens are incredible animals whose social and inquisitive nature makes them a joy to be around. They are also highly intelligent and have cognitive abilities on par with cats and dogs. It’s no wonder consumers are increasingly uncomfortable with the idea of purchasing eggs from standard factory farms at which hens spend their lives crammed in tiny cages unable to walk around or engage in any natural behaviours that make life worth living.

Many urbanites are also conscious of their ecological footprint, and are keen to produce their own food and feel connected to the land and animals from which it came.

Unfortunately, sourcing eggs from backyard chickens is not the solution. When people choose to keep backyard chickens as a source of egg production, one thing they may not realize is that chickens can live for more than 12 years. Yet for most breeds, egg production begins to decline relatively early on in life.

At commercial egg factory farms, hens are generally slaughtered at 12-18 months of age, and turned into meat or else composted or disposed of in landfills.

Just like dogs and cats, chickens require medical care. But finding veterinarians who are willing and able to treat chickens can be extremely challenging, especially in urban centres. As with other companion animals, the costs of medical treatment for chickens can be significant. The cost of nutritionally adequate, high quality feed over the course of a chicken’s life is also considerable.

When backyard hens are no longer wanted – whether due to the amount of work and costs involved in caring for them or because their egg production has declined – they are often abandoned, relinquished to already overburdened shelters and sanctuaries, or sent to slaughter.

Then there are our notoriously treacherous Winnipeg winters. Even in less frigid areas of the country, people who decide to keep backyard chickens often realize keeping them comfortable while giving them enough space to roam and engage in natural behaviours is extremely challenging during the winter months.

As we wind our way through a years-long global pandemic, public concern about zoonotic disease risk is at an all-time high. Chickens are susceptible to diseases that can cause serious illness and even death to wild and kept birds, as well as humans.

In 2020 alone, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported salmonella outbreaks linked to backyard birds in all 50 states. In recent months, cases of bird flu in Canada linked to backyard birds have had devastating consequences for wild and farmed birds alike.

On top of that, there’s the cost of overseeing an urban chicken program. Unless the city substantially increases funding and training for Animal Services to inspect and monitor backyard coops, overseeing an urban chicken program will take up precious resources that could be devoted to protecting other animals in the city.

Public resources will also be spent responding to noise, wildlife and animal-welfare complaints that will inevitably be made by neighbours and other concerned residents.

One of the most important benefits of urban agriculture efforts, such as community gardening, is improved food security for those in need. Not so with backyard chicken keeping. According to data from Toronto, the average cost of setting up a chicken coop that complies with that cty’s standards is $1,022.95. These costs are compounded by the need for coop upkeep and substantial outdoor space requirements, putting urban chicken-keeping out of reach for most, if not all, low-income Winnipeg families.

Diverting significant public resources to what would essentially boil down to a hobby for some of the city’s wealthier residents simply cannot be justified. Want to truly protect egg-laying hens from cruelty and suffering while reducing environmental harm caused by the food that you eat? The reality is the best thing you can do is reduce the amount of eggs and other animal products you consume. Or better yet, leave them off your plate all together.

Kaitlyn Mitchell is a Winnipeg-based lawyer with Animal Justice. Brittany Semeniuk is veterinary nurse and animal welfare consultant with the Winnipeg Humane Society. Colleen Walker and her family operate the Little Red Barn Sanctuary located in Charleswood.