Marit Mckenzie/the Gauntlet

Fowl play in Calgary

It is a human right to have backyard chickens

Publication YearIssue Date 

During the annual Calgary Stampede and Exhibition, horses are paraded through the streets and thousands of onlookers get up close and personal with livestock. Education about animal husbandry is encouraged, but when the rodeo leaves town, so does the notion of agriculture in the city. For a place that prides itself on western heritage and values, Calgary is proving to be unprogressive when it comes to urban chickens.

This month, the provincial courts upheld a city bylaw that bans people from keeping chickens in their backyards. Local food activist Paul Hughes challenged the bylaw stating that it violated his Charter rights. While other cities in Canada, like Halifax, Vancouver and Guelph, permit people to have backyard chickens, Calgary’s Responsible Pet Ownership bylaw does not allow urban livestock. For Hughes, who plans to appeal the ruling, the battle for backyard chickens is a fight for food security for all Canadians. 

There are approximately 300 Calgarians housing clandestine chicken coops in their backyards. Many of them boast producing the most delectable, vibrantly yellow-yolked eggs in the city. Some even say that urban eggs have higher nutritional value than factory produced eggs. Hens provide an inexpensive source of nourishment as well as an efficient means to dispose of organic waste matter like kitchen scraps. 

The average hen can lay one egg per day, meaning one backyard flock may exceed the needs of a household. This surplus is often shared in the community, strengthening relationships and building social capital — important resources that serve well in times of need. 

Backyard chickens enjoy freedoms that their industrial counterparts lack, such as roaming space and opportunities to nest. Factory hens are often enclosed in battery cages that are no larger than a sheet of paper, preventing them from spreading their wings, dustbathing and doing otherwise natural things like moving around. 

With so many benefits attributed to owning a chicken coop, it is a wonder why cities like Calgary would want to prevent it. 

The Egg Farmers of Canada, representing commercial chicken producers, raise concern about the welfare of animals being kept in backyards. They say backyard chickens risk salmonella infection that could spread to humans and between animals, while factory produced chickens are raised in a controlled environment where they are continuously monitored for disease.

While many support this argument, common sense would say otherwise. It seems more likely for disease to spread in spaces occupied by thousands of hens as opposed to a few animals in a yard. In 2010, a massive recall of half a billion industrial produced eggs in Iowa sparked governments around the world to prohibit battery cages. As a result, most countries in the European Union barred small cages, and in 2015, California will no longer permit battery cages for chickens. Banning small cages helps solve the problem of disease spreading as well as protecting the welfare of animals. The backyard solution is even more viable since most urban coops are spacious and allow for animals to move around, strengthening their immune systems which enables them to fight off disease more effectively. 

The noise complaint often levelled against urban coops is moot since roosters are not required for hens to produce eggs. People assuming they will be woken at the crack of dawn with a cock crowing are grossly mistaken. Hens are extremely quiet when compared to the incessantly spastic bark of some dogs. 

On the topic of dogs, there have been 28 fatalities in Canada as a result of bite injuries between 1990–2007. There have been no fatalities associated with hen attacks to date. Chickens get a bad rap for being noisy and smelly, but dogs can be just as odiferous.

The potential for chickens to attract pests and predators, like coyotes, is also a weak argument. Some pets, like small dogs, can attract predators, but they are not banned in the city. Pest attraction can also be avoided by properly maintaining the coop. In response to some of the concerns associated with urban chicken husbandry, the City of Vancouver designed a registration program and guide for individuals interested in keeping hens. Instead of seeing the challenges of urban agriculture as a closing of doors, Vancouver found a means to create a window of opportunity which promotes an otherwise positive endeavour.

A legitimate concern of some citizens is the affect neighbours with backyard chickens will have on property value. If kept well, urban hens are often undetected by neighbours and therefore will not decrease property values. In cases where the coop is visible, neighbours can rest in the comfort of knowing they will always have access to fresh, healthy eggs. 

The most ridiculous argument lodged against urban chickens is the potential for the spread of avian influenza, better known as bird flu. If bird flu was actually an issue in this hemisphere — so far it has only been found in Asia, Europe and Africa — it still does not follow that we should inhibit the development of urban agriculture. Whether rural or urban, chickens are susceptible to disease, as are humans. We cannot segregate animals and humans to prevent the spread of disease. We can, however, formulate better practices with sustainable systems that provide the basic essentials for health. Free running urban hens on a diet of organic kitchen scraps pose a better chance of withstanding disease than a caged, sedentary, factory-farmed chicken. 

Calgary’s Responsible Pet Ownership bylaw is arbitrary and contradictory. It says no person is allowed to keep livestock, with the exception of pigeons, in any area of the city. Under section 27 of the bylaw, the City of Calgary allows members of the Canadian Racing Pigeon Club or the Canadian Pigeon Fanciers Association to keep fowl. To allow hobbiests to keep pigeons but outlaw hens that provide food is the height of hypocrisy on the part of the municipality. This just goes to show that all the concerns raised thus far in regards to keeping chickens apparently don’t apply to similarly related fowl. This blatant contradiction only serves to weaken the plausibility of the law.

What, then, can be the true intent of the bylaw after shattering all its supposed grounds? 

If more people were to recognize the advantage of producing their own high-quality protein foods and started to build coops in their own backyards, big business would suffer. The powerful individuals orchestrating the agricultural industry have a vested interest in their product and they will do whatever it takes to secure their profits. History has shown that industry has a way of sliding its hands into the pockets of politicians and law makers — the fox always tries to find a way into the hen house.

But people like Hughes keep fighting for our right to food security and sustainable food production that weans us off the toxic teat of the industrial food system. As the divide between the rich and the poor continues to expand, and in an age of growing instability where we need to find ways to provide for ourselves, the option of urban chickens has more relevance than ever. 

The United Nations Declaration for Human Rights, of which Canada is a signatory, states “everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.”

The benefits of backyard hens are fundamental to our inalienable rights, and more people should be fighting to secure our access to sustainable food choices.