Things that Bother Me about Denver’s Proposed Livestock Ordinance


Denver is poised to pass an ordinance allowing livestock in people’s backyards, specifically, up to eight chickens and two goats. Keeping backyard chickens as pets isn’t necessarily a bad idea, if you did it right, and I wouldn’t have a fundamental problem with that. We have even toyed with the idea of adopting chickens ourselves. But this is something very different.  It would create a new class of backyard animals, animals that are valued for their meat, milk, or eggs.

There are so many things wrong with this ordinance that it is hard to know where to start. So don’t get me started. Oops — too late. In no particular order, here is what bothers me about the ordinance.

1. Predators.

If you are alive and awake in Denver, you have to be aware that predators are a big issue in the neighborhoods.  In fact, in some cases it even outpaces that perennial favorite, crime.  People tell tales of coyotes and foxes killing pets, or threaten to go out and shoot the predators.  What will the addition of chickens and goats to our neighborhoods do in this situation?  They can only make it worse, putting cats and small dogs at greater risk.

Chicken blogs on the internet readily admit that predators are the most serious problem a chicken owner faces.  Chickens spend more of their time outside relative to dogs, cats, and house rabbits, some of which may spend almost their entire lives inside or outside only when supervised.  Just as with dogs and cats, some chicken owners will act knowledgeably and responsibly to protect their chickens.  But predators sometimes get past even knowledgeable owners. A few years ago, Monroe Farms (a local CSA operating in Weld County) lost much of their flock of chickens to predators.

2. The phrase “food-producing animals.”

This ordinance is styled as a “food-producing animals” ordinance. The phrase is misleading; it is a livestock ordinance. These animals are not just “producing” food. They ARE food.

The ordinance forbids onsite slaughter — a concession, probably, to concerns about Santeria, a religious group that practices animal sacrifice. But in fact, some proponents of urban chickens are talking openly about creating businesses focused on taking your animals offsite and slaughtering them. It is not just about the dairy and eggs; it is about livestock.

What do you think is going to happen when owners get roosters from hatcheries? Chicks are hard to sex, and “mistakes” may not be evident until the chickens are six months old.

Goats pose an even more serious problem.  The ordinance allows female goats for their milk; but goats don’t give milk unless they have baby goats. So keeping goats for milk, by definition, implies that there will be more baby goats on the way. Half of these will be males, and what is going to happen to them? Most likely, they will wind up being slaughtered one way or the other. Soon, like pot-bellied pigs and other animal “fads,” the market will likely be saturated even with female goats, who will wind up in shelters or slaughtered as well.

With this ordinance, it is also likely that on-site slaughter, though illegal, would increase. Calling this ordinance a “food-producing animals” ordinance is evasive and demonstrates that the proponents are afraid to tell people what they are really trying to accomplish. This is a livestock ordinance.

3. The idea that this is “sustainable.”

This ordinance was put forward by the “Sustainable Food Policy Council” recently formed in the city of Denver.  It is being widely promoted by supporters on the grounds that this is a move towards “sustainability.”

Here are two facts that those considering the ordinance might want to think about. Over 90% of all the mammals on the planet (by biomass) are humans and their livestock. In fact, livestock have proliferated to the point that they are heavily implicated in climate change. Estimates vary from 18% of all greenhouse gas emissions (FAO) to 51% of all greenhouse gas emissions (WorldWatch). And so what we want to do to be sustainable is — to bring more livestock into the city?

The other fact is that eating more than one egg per day significantly elevates your mortality risk. The risk goes up the more eggs you eat and diabetics are even more seriously affected.  The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition was disturbed enough by this to write an editorial about it some years ago (AJCN 2008; 87:799–800).

Urban chickens pose a salmonella risk, just like factory farmed chickens. “Emilio DeBess, public health veterinarian for the Oregon Department of Human Services, says his department occasionally sees outbreaks of salmonella associated with chickens in Portland, where hen-free neighborhoods are becoming the exception, not the rule.”

If you want something sustainable and local, there are a number of really easy and inexpensive ways to do this.  Cut back or eliminate your meat consumption. Go into your back yard and plant some beans and collards; a packet of seeds costs just a couple of dollars. By contrast, to get properly set up with backyard chickens can cost several thousand dollars. But instead of looking at something cheap, healthy, and sustainable, the “Sustainable Food Policy Council” is working on something which is expensive, not healthy, and not sustainable.

4. It caters to a small minority of Denver residents.

Most people wanting to keep backyard chickens want to keep them as pets, with the eggs as a side benefit, and have no intention of having them slaughtered.  In Portland, Maine, the ordinance allows chickens as pets but prohibits slaughter.  The recent Fort Collins ordinance, which was endorsed by the Humane Society of the United States, allows hens, but again prohibits slaughter.

There are basically four groups of people involved in the so-called “food-producing animals” issue, besides the larger general public:

1. Hard-core livestock people, whose primary or exclusive interest in keeping animals is for meat, milk, and eggs.

2. Chicken enthusiasts who would treat their chickens as pets, eating the eggs they produce but keeping the hens until they die of old age.

3. Animal welfare people, such as the Humane Society of the United States, and vegetarians and vegans concerned about the treatment of animals.

4. Neighborhood activists concerned about the predators, noise, and smell, as well as the “feel” of a neighborhood which has livestock animals.

This ordinance basically caters only to the first group, which is actually a rather small minority of people in Denver. The second group, the chicken enthusiasts, would be satisfied with an ordinance that allowed chickens to be kept as pets; the overwhelming majority of people wanting to keep chickens fall in this camp. The interests of the third and fourth groups are being largely disregarded.

The “Sustainable Food Policy Council” mentioned above appears to have numerous supporters of urban livestock: representatives from Sustainable Food Denver, Transition Denver, Feed Denver, and Slow Food Denver.  Katherine Cornwell, the head of the group, actually owns chickens in Denver.  I’m not quite ready to say that it’s a rubber stamp for the livestock lobby or describe how they arrived at the current draft; there may be some members who are questioning this ordinance.  But the suspicion exists.

I have a pretty good feel both for the popularity of backyard chickens because in recent years I have run into no less than four people (all in separate households) who have expressed interest in, or have actually owned, backyard chickens. These are not people, by the way, that I met through my organizational connections either, e. g. through Transition Denver or the local Vegetarian Society. They are neighbors, social contacts, or co-workers. All of them were interested in chickens as pets and intend to keep them until they die of old age. One of them actually owned a chicken for some time, illegally, in Denver. Another is a vegan (!) who says she will adopt some abandoned chickens and keep them for the rest of their lives, and will not eat the eggs herself.

The needs of the vast majority of people wanting chickens could be met by allowing chickens to be kept as pets. Many in this group understand intuitively that animals in urban environments should be pets. The hardcore livestock people (those more interested in the meat, milk, or eggs than in the animals) are a very vocal but rather small minority.  But it is this group which is driving the whole debate.

People only interested in the animal products are obviously a higher risk for creating animal welfare problems.  There are a number of potential problems associated with chickens and goats, such as mistreatment of animals, smell, noise, and anything surrounding general responsibility for the well-being of the animal. Owners of cats and dogs, of course, also pose a risk for all of these problems; but they at least have the incentive of caring for the animal as a pet. The hard-core livestock people would not have this incentive; their care would extend only to the animals’ productivity.

For example, the proposed ordinance would require four square feet of “permeable area” per chicken.  Four square feet?  That’s an area of two feet by two feet.  It’s better than the even smaller cages on factory farms, but not by much.  Most pet owners will do better than this with their chickens, but will someone whose purpose is just to maximize egg production take the same precautions?

5. The survey showing that there are few problems with chickens.

A survey done in 2009 by students of Dr. Hugh Bartling is currently being cited by supporters of the local backyard chicken movement. It shows a minimal number of complaints about chickens in selected cities.

The questions one could ask about this survey are numerous. Did they talk to any animal shelters? How prevalent were backyard chickens in the cities that did, or did not, have complaints? (If you get 1,000 dog complaints and 6 chicken complaints, that sounds pretty good, unless there are 200,000 dogs in the city and 6 chickens.) And, which cities had the complaints? Is there any pattern to these cities? Is there any correlation between the length of time the ordinance had gone into effect, and the number of complaints? It might take years (until owners grow tired of their animals, or the hens stop laying eggs) before problems would become apparent.

Moreover, one key problem with chickens — predators — may fly completely under the radar of city officials.  A predator attacking chickens is unlikely to generate a complaint, so the volume of complaints is a poor gauge of this problem.  The chicken owner is unlikely to complain and will probably feel sheepish about losing their chickens.  A predator attacking a dog or cat may not be obviously linked to backyard livestock, as the nearest chickens and goats may be a long distance away.  Evaluating predators would require an evaluation of the predator population, which would be a fairly complex undertaking.

All of these are fairly elementary questions, but ones not answered by the survey. We only have the survey in the form that it is being circulated by backyard chicken supporters, and it is not even clear from what is publicly available that it is Dr. Bartling’s work.  I sent an e-mail to Dr. Bartling, whose e-mail is listed on the survey, but never got a response.  A backyard chicken supporter e-mailed me to say that he does stand by the survey and is doing further work.  It is not Dr. Bartling’s fault, but personally I would be ashamed to have to cite the data in its current form as more than very preliminary evidence about backyard chickens.

An article in Animal Sheltering (November / December 2009) about Mary Britton Clouse, who runs an chicken shelter in Minnesota, suggests a different picture.

Clouse says she and her husband have only recently started tracking the number of surrender inquiries they receive, but those numbers have exploded. Before the urban agriculture fad took off, she says, a big year for Chicken Run would have been about 60 birds, with the average running closer to 30. “Now, we’re pushing a hundred surrender inquiries just since March,” she says.

This ordinance is about livestock, pure and simple. The proponents act as if they are ashamed of this fact, so they are styling it as a “food-producing animals” ordinance, and advertising it as “sustainable” when this is clearly an expensive, unhealthy alternative that will further increase the number of livestock on the planet. The reality is the same no matter what you call it: it is about exploiting and killing animals.

Animals in an urban environment should all be wanted animals.  Here’s an obvious compromise: allow chickens to be kept as pets, and let people eat the eggs if they want; but don’t allow them to be kept as livestock. Forget about the goats completely.

Anyone who is a meat-eater and wants to get their chickens, eggs, goat milk, or goat meat locally needs to go no further than a CSA group (community-supported agriculture), which can offer anyone who wants this type of thing exactly what they want without bringing livestock into the city. A CSA could deal with livestock animals outside of the urban environment.  “Backyards into barnyards” is a bad idea.

(revised March 10 and 24, 2011)

UPDATE March 10, 2011: I added the section on predators.  I also somewhat revised the section on the survey after a backyard chicken supporter related her communications with Dr. Bartling, and added references to the ordinances in Portland, Oregon, and Fort Collins, Colorado, which are quite different from the draft of the Denver ordinance.

UPDATE March 24, 2011: The reference to Portland, Oregon was changed to Portland, Maine. I was only off by some thousands of miles.