People with chickens, people with bylaws

For publication in The Kamloops Daily News, Saturday, Jan. 31

There are two kinds of people in this world: those who have chickens, and those who have bylaws.

So, as I enjoy planning my chicken coop for spring, I think of my city cousins, and sympathize. They will not know the joy of collecting eggs, watching hens scratch happily in the yard, or lopping off their heads come dinner time. No, they must make do with supermarket chickens, those commercially raised birds you see turning on a spit in the delicatessen section. Just not the same.

Chickens are fascinating creatures, and deserving of more respect than they get. When I was 10 or 12 years old, I went to my friend Franklin Endreny’s house on a day he was assigned to decapitate a few chickens for the freezer.

Chickens, as you may know, generally like to run around a bit after losing their heads (thus, “running around like a chicken with its head cut off.”) Frank was a very efficient executioner, and not at all emotional about it. (As Phil Gaglardi once said, “If you’re going to cut the head off a chicken, you don’t pet it for three hours first.”)

I will never forget watching drop-jawed as one particular headless chicken ran away from the chopping block, flapped up and over a fence, and kept going.

Most people don’t believe me when I tell them this, or they say it was all just a coincidence, that the chicken didn’t really know what it was doing. But the story of Mike the Headless Chicken convinces me otherwise.

The story goes that a Colorado farmer named Lloyd Olsen was sent out to the yard by his wife one evening in 1940 to get a chicken for dinner. He picked out a young victim named Mike. Lloyd’s aim was slightly off, and while the capon’s head was removed, one ear and most of the brain steam was missed. At least that’s the scientific explanation for what followed.

“On the first night after decapitation, Mike slept with his severed head under his wing.” That’s a quote. Apparently, when Mike woke up he fumbled the ball, so to speak, and dropped his head, at which point a cat ate it. I’m not making this up.

Anyway, Mike went on tour for more than a year, bringing in some pretty good money for Lloyd, who charged admission at country fairs. Poor Mike choked on his dinner one night in a Phoenix motel — seems he’d had trouble swallowing ever since he lost his head, and Lloyd couldn’t revive him.

Point is, chickens are more than dinner, although they are that too. They’ve gotten a bad rap about noise and smell and all that. I haven’t read so much bafflegab about the trouble with chickens as I have in the City staff report presented to council this week.

It’s highly unusual, to begin with, that staff would basically ignore direction from council and come up with a report to their own liking instead. In fact, I’m not aware of it ever happening before.

Back on Dec. 9, Bonnie Klohn of the Urban Hen Committee asked council to amend its animal control bylaw to allow a pilot project in which 40 families with lots of less than an acre would have three chickens.

This, she said, would provide an opportunity to assess the impact of urban chickens. Council unanimously approved a motion directing staff “to draft a pilot project concept for Council’s review in consultation with the Urban Hen Committee to permit poultry on lots smaller than one acre.”

But when staff returned with a report, it was nothing of the kind. Instead, it recommended that council “not approve the Urban Hen Pilot Project and therefore maintain status quo for keeping of chickens within Kamloops.”

Although the report acknowledged there may be benefits to allowing urban chickens, it launched into a litany of supposed problems that are, frankly, a bit of a stretch.

For example, staff worried that training the 40 pilot-project families in good chicken husbandry “would create participants that are ‘more responsible’ than the average person would otherwise be.” And the problem is?

Again, I’m not making this up — that’s what the report says. Then there’s the concern about who would dispose of the chickens in the pilot program if council decided not to go ahead.

And what if, Heaven forbid, chickens got loose, or people just set their chickens free when their laying days were over? We could have feral chickens roaming around the city creating havoc. 

Besides, chickens might upset dogs and cats, the coops might smell, the chickens might make noise, blah blah.

I’m not surprised that councillors Denis Walsh and Tina Lange, who moved and seconded the original motion for a pilot project, were miffed at staff. What is surprising is that council, after having unanimously requested the report, split 4-4 on the staff recommendation to renege instead of telling them to go back and try again.

A tie vote defeats a motion so the Urban Hen folks don’t get their consultation on how to accommodate chickens in the city. At the least, when next there is a full council in attendance, the matter should be reconsidered.

I have high respect for City staff, but it would seem they forgot that the purpose of a pilot project is to identify real problems — not stuff conjured up on word processors in City Hall — and gain experience on whether they can be managed.

For example, the answer to disposing of chickens is to cut off their heads and have them for a tasty meal. I’m confident the pilot project would have confirmed that.

Worrying that chicken owners will become too knowledgeable about chickens is highly creative but, again, something that could be better answered via a pilot project rather than no project at all. Common sense suggests the more people involved in urban-chicken farming, the more general knowledge of good practice will increase.

As for noise and smell, chickens cluck, roosters crow, but roosters aren’t allowed within City limits anyway. Chickens scratch about during the day and go home to their coops to roost at night. A pilot project would be a great way to assess whether these things can be managed.

There are volumes of information on controlling noise and smell. Indeed, as I happily design my own coop, I realize there’s a lot that must be considered — ventilation, adequate space, feeding devices, winter warmth, ease of maintenance, safety from predators.

I already have an offer to provide me with a few free chickens and a rooster, and can hardly wait for the snow to melt so I can get busy. For my urban friends who will never know the joys of chickens, I promise to report back from time to time on progress.

And maybe you can visit some time — you know what we’ll be having for dinner.

About Mel Rothenburger (7710 Articles) is a forum about Kamloops and the world. It has more than one million views. Mel Rothenburger is the former Editor of The Daily News in Kamloops, B.C. (retiring in 2012), and past mayor of Kamloops (1999-2005). At he is the publisher, editor, news editor, city editor, reporter, webmaster, and just about anything else you can think of. He is grateful for the contributions of several local columnists. This blog doesn't require a subscription but gratefully accepts donations to help defray costs.

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