Reuters

Are chickens pets-with-benefits or neighborhood nuisances that turn backyards into D.I.Y. slaughterhouses?

At this point in the locavore narrative, urban chicken-keeping has vocal advocates and an adamant opposition. Some cities welcome backyard poultry with open arms, while others are more skeptical. As the practice grows, the two sides seem prepared for a long, drawn out war on the value and propriety of chicken-keeping within city limits. 

Urban farmers generally view a backyard coop as a natural extension of their garden and a convenient, eco-friendly source of protein – though no academic study has examined the environmental impact of the practice. Some even see their charges as pets with benefits.

On this side, we have Martha Stewart, that doyenne of domestic perfection, and Susan Orlean, the sensitive, bestselling New Yorker writer played by Meryl Streep in Adaptation.

Their neighbors take a more jaundiced view. Protest groups in cities across the country have helped devise bills to ban or restrict the practice. These opponents argue that chickens are smelly and noisy and a potential health risk; that the coops are eyesores that potentially bring down property values; and that they attract rodents and predators, like coyotes, endangering chickens as well as children.

And then, of course, there is the potential slaughterhouse next door. "Botched slaughter is all too common," writes Ian Elwood, of Neighbors Opposed to Backyard Slaughter, an anti-urban animal outfit in Oakland. "But even slaughter that is performed 'correctly' is still no treat to witness or hear."

Due in part to such concerns, Boston, Detroit, D.C., and Toronto prohibit the keeping of livestock within city limits. Chicago, like New York City, views chickens as pets and has no limits on ownership, though slaughter is forbidden. But suburban Naperville and Northbrook are considering bans, while Evanston has set a limit of six hens per household.

Many cities in the West are going in the other direction. In 2010, Seattle raised its hen limit from three to eight per household. Some animal-friendly residents of Portland, where residents can keep up to three hens without a permit, have been running a tour of local chicken coops since 2003.

In Vancouver, Mayor Gregor Robertson sees chickens in every lot as part of the city's destiny as the world's greenest city -- and launched Operation Chicken to make it happen. In 2009, the Vancouver city council voted unanimously to allow backyard chickens. A year later, the city released detailed guidelines for keeping backyard hens, including what kinds of properties, proximity to property line, and type and number of chickens (four hens).

Perhaps no city is as divided over the chicken question as Oakland. City officials are considering allowing residents to raise and slaughter not just chickens, but goats, rabbits, ducks and other animals, in their backyards. Backers argue that it would help alleviate food deserts.

Oakland's anti-slaughter group sees the practice as a socio-economic problem. NOBS argues that the city's approval of the slaughter of chickens “would serve the needs of a small group of people interested in creating artisan animal products instead of serving the low-income communities.” They've posted flyers around the city, playing up fears of stray chickens wandering the city and children witnessing grisly scenes of animal killing.

Despite this opposition, some degree of urban chicken keeping is most likely here to stay, and compromise is probably inevitable in many municipalities. Attacks like that of NOBS appear more likely merely to inflame the process.

Photo credit: Mike Blake/Reuters

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