A girl plays with her chickens in St. Joseph, Missouri.
A girl plays with her chickens in St. Joseph, Missouri. Whitney Curtis/Reuters

Urban-poultry laws need to be stricter about public health and animal welfare, according to one expert.

A brood of big, fluffy chickens wandering around a suburban backyard is becoming an increasingly common sight these days. A 2013 survey suggested that one in every 100 households in the United States keeps poultry, with more planning to do so. The birds have even been hailed as the new status symbol for Silicon Valley elites.

As the trend goes, so go city laws.

“There’s been a quiet revolution in terms of legalizing backyard poultry,” said Catherine Brinkley, an assistant professor of community and regional development at the University of California, Davis. Municipalities around the country have been changing their ordinances to allow the birds.

But according to Brinkley—who is a trained veterinarian as well as holding a Ph.D. in city planning—some of those new ordinances are missing vital pieces. In contrast to commercial farms, many urban birds are not covered by important public health and animal welfare regulations.

Brinkley came to that conclusion after analyzing municipal codes and animal shelter data from 100 different municipalities in the state of Colorado. In a recent paper published in The Journal of Community Health, Brinkley and her co-authors wrote that, although more than 60 percent of the municipalities she examined allowed keeping poultry (with another 22 percent neither explicitly allowing nor banning the practice), the majority of the municipalities that allowed backyard fowl were missing standards around permits, veterinary care or vaccines, or animal abuse protections.

Instead, most requirements in the ordinances—such as capping the number of birds allowed in a single coop, or banning roosters—seemed to be intended to head off nuisance complaints.

The problem is that, without consistent standards, permitting, and training, even the best-intentioned owners may be unaware of mistakes they are making. (A quarter of backyard poultry owners reportedly don’t wash their hands after handling their birds, for instance.) Furthermore, without specific animal welfare laws, authorities may find it difficult to intervene in cases of neglect or animal abuse.

Disease control is another issue. “There are some very serious concerns with having backyard birds near dense urban populations, especially if you don’t have great communication between public health and animal welfare specialists and owners,” Brinkley said.

Although urban poultry-keepers often believe that their birds, and eggs, are safer and more nutritious than products of commercial farms, many municipal regulations do not address sanitation, vaccination, or disease control. Indeed, urban poultry is linked to hundreds of salmonella cases each year in the United States. In Egypt, 70 percent of the people who came down with H5N1 bird flu in a 2015 outbreak reported exposure to backyard poultry.

In the absence of methodical record-keeping and permitting, cities might struggle to contain a public health problem if something did occur. “If there’s not that kind of system there, then it can be very difficult to control or even reach folks in an outbreak-type situation,” said Brinkley.

Although the study data was limited to Colorado, Brinkley pointed out that most large American cities now allow poultry. The good news is that these problems would not necessarily be hard to solve. As a model, Brinkley cited existing dog and cat regulations, which put in place requirements for permits, vaccinations, and health checkups. Authorities could also consolidate permitting and oversight with existing welfare agencies.

“If, in order to keep chickens, you had to get a permit from your local animal shelter, they could also offer, in exchange for that permit, an owner education course,” she said. “Then you’d know where to go if you had questions about husbandry or management.”

Backyard poultry can be a valuable addition to a household (and not just as novelty pets). They’re an important source of meat and eggs for many households and communities, and can help dispose of food scraps or keep gardens clear of pests like slugs and caterpillars. But if we’re going to have chickens in our cities, said Brinkley, it’s common sense to make sure we have the right system in place to protect the birds as well as their owners, neighbors, and the city as a whole.

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