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Backyard Hens Granted a 1-Year Trial

Chickens come before eggs in an ordinance revision making the animals more pets than livestock, and including a sunset clause should the birds become burdensome.

Wauwatosa has now joined the ranks of cities in which it is legal to own and keep chickens – for at least a year, anyway.

On an 11-5 vote Tuesday night, the Common Council approved a long-debated ordinance amendment to allow residents to keep, in coops and runs, up to four hens per household. But one provision is that the measure will be revisited and could be rescinded if, after a first year of trial, it proves to be troublesome.

How troublesome could a few chickens be? According to some council members, far more than any hoped-for fresh eggs.

Worries ticked off by opponents include sanitation and health issues, noise, odors, the attraction of predators and vermin, a drain on the city's regulatory resources, a decline in general property values, the heartbreak of dying chickens and even cholesterol.

Chicken-keeping was called a fad that will likely soon fade but, at the same time, a potential precedent-setter that could open Wauwatosa's gates to goats and pigs and the whole farm menagerie.

The bottom line for Alds. Cheryl Berdan, Don Birschel, Kathleen Causier, John Dubinski and Jim Moldenhauer, who voted against it, can probably be summed up thus: This is something we do not need, many do not want, that will benefit only a few in a small way, and that might bring us more problems than it could possibly be worth.

Majority comfortable with a trial basis

But those in favor solemnly swore that chickens might just be good for the image of Wauwatosa, showing that it is open to new ideas, even if this idea – keeping yardbirds – is as old as the hills, and once was practiced not only in the countryside but in cities, towns and hamlets everywhere.

Bringing yard chickens back into the urban environment has caught on elsewhere, supporters said, and has not proved to be a problem anywhere.

The ordinance provisions, especially that all adjoining neighbors must approve any homeowner's application to keep hens, and the fact that it is a one-year trial proposition, satisfied a solid majority.

The debate, though, was far-reaching, to say the least. The 14 aldermen who spoke had each done his or her own research on one or another aspect of the issue.

The lists go on

Some of the highlights:

Ald. Dennis McBride read a lengthy list of just the major U.S. cities that already have domestic chicken ordinances in place, among them Milwaukee, San Francisco, Portland, Seattle and even New York City – and "there is no more urban place in America than New York City," McBride said.

No alderman on either side of the issue has yet named a town or city that has so far tried and then rescinded a chicken ordinance, if any exists.

Alds. Birschel and Dubinski each named a host of predators that are known to inhabit Wauwatosa and environs and might be drawn closer and in greater numbers by the prospect of an easy chicken dinner: i.e., raccoons, possums, foxes, coyotes, mink, feral cats, hawks and owls.

Birschel also raised the prospect of a decline in property values, individually for those who might live near a chicken-keeper and broadly should Wauwatosa develop a "Ma and Pa Kettle" reputation.

Dubinski added vermin to the list of animals we would prefer not to attract, specifically rats that might crawl under coops after spilled feed.

Dubinski also related that while going door-to-door recently to gather nomination signatures for his uncontested re-election in April, he had informally surveyed each neighbor he encountered. He found, he said, that when asked "Chickens or no chickens?" nearly all of them said, "No chickens."

More animals enter the arena

Ald. Berdan looked into health issues, and found that chickens are subject to nearly 50 diseases, of which about one-third can be passed to humans.

Berdan also recalled that in her youth, staying at a relative's farm, she had to collect eggs from the chicken house in order to earn privileges. The mess of droppings and feathers repelled her, she said – "I hated it" – and she said that more than once hens drew her blood with a sharp peck. The birds are not all friendly, she said, and some are even cannibalistic on other hens' eggs.

Ald. Bobby Pantuso countered Berdan's disease claims with his research showing that dogs and cats harbor more communicable diseases than chickens, and he provided statistics on the number of fatal dog attacks each year in the United States (dozens), the number of dog attacks requiring medical attention (hundreds of thousands), and the number of dog bites or complaints overall (millions).

Cats, too, injure tens of thousands each year with punture wounds often resulting in infections, Pantuso said – yet Wauwatosa requires no permissions from neighbors to own either cats or dogs, while it would from owners of hens that hardly make headlines for ferocity.

Pantuso said, though, that while he would vote for the chicken ordinance, he would go on record now that he will be the first to move and vote its dismissal if, after a year, it proves to be a "zombie chickenpocalypse."

Berdan had earlier made reference to some 29 complaints Milwaukee had received regarding chickens since its ordinance adoption, but Ald. Greg Walz-Chojnacki said his research of our largest neighbor's experience showed that those complaints stemmed from illegal chicken-keeping – whereas no substantiated claims against permitted residents had been recorded.

Walz-Chojnacki also dismissed concerns raised in earlier debates (not repeated Tuesday) that eggs were an unhealthful food. Hopefully, he said, it is not the Wauwatosa Common Council's place to enter into a debate over people's eating habits.

If there are issues with this ordinance, he said, "surely we can find a higher value target than that."

Don't let your chickens cross this city

The new chicken ordinance will not go into effect instantly. The amendment itself, which is an addition to Wauwatosa's pet laws, does not contain some details, including the set permit fees.

It does establish that licenses will be required for each bird, unlike Milwaukee's one-permit for up-to-four-bird ordinance. It sets parameters for the size and construction of coops and runs – 16 square feet per hen, for instance, in a coop "constructed in a workmanlike manner."

It specifies that "No roosters shall be kept" and that "No chicken shall be slaughtered."

As mentioned, it requires the written consent of owners of "all adjoining or diagonally abutting properties, including those across an alley."

And, darkly, this statement:

"Removal of chicken. The city may impound or remove any chicken for violations of this chapter."

Wauwatosa Patch presumes that means violations by the owner, not the chicken.

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