Northern Public Affairs

Cameron: A Curious Focus on Chickens…

Our Yukon correspondent, Kirk Cameron, on a community divided over the future of backyard chickens in Whitehorse.
The “brick” of paper delivered to Whitehorse City Council last month for a substantive overhaul of the Zoning Bylaw and related changes to others such as the Building and Plumbing and Animal Control bylaws was considerable (many hundreds of pages).  Changes to building height, density, building construction energy improvements, the list goes on, are “big” to say the least.
Yet, perhaps the single-most topic of debate surrounding all of this was the question of allowing Whitehorse residents to raise chickens, 6 per lot to be exact!  You would think this should be reasonably straight forward; “yes or no”, but as is the case with just about everything in the domain of public policy and decision-making, I was surprised by just how much work was involved in getting this one right (and approximately ½ of the population still believes we’ve gone the wrong way – we are, no question a community divided).
More than any other topic, the question of chickens “galvanized” the public debate.  And, although there is a bit of a humorous “edge” to this, as witnessed by one creative mind at the Yukon News whose heading says it all “Chickens in downtown Whitehorse – what the cluck?”, there are very strong views held by citizens on the basic “yes or no”, VERY strong views…
The citizenry issues really fall into six categories: what is a “chicken”, noise, “aroma”, human health implications, purpose and attraction of wildlife (the ones with teeth).  None of this is simple.
Defining “chicken” ended up being a fairly complicated matter, and I am happy to say we were educated by locals who are up on current technology able to determine sex of the chicken at a very early age (I now realize this is not all that easy to do with chickens under the age of 4 months.  And, the problem is that you just don’t want a rooster emerging.  This was the one common theme among a divided community; no roosters – way too noisy!!!)
Noise, for sure an issue if you have 6 cluckers in the yard on the other side of your fence, however, mitigated perhaps if you keep out those pesky roosters (see above).  Changes to bylaws so that the chickens can be declared a “nuisance” if too loud for the neighbors resulted, and the requirement for neighbors’ support before allowing a person to have chickens was also put into bylaw.
The smell is of course a concern resulting in considerable effort to ensure that chicken owners are responsible with the cleaning and maintenance of the coups and yards.  Notable here is that as much time and attention was given to the regulation of chicken coup construction as to increasing the energy efficiency construction standards for people buildings!  The coups will indeed be cozy, and the roof lines will not offend the neighbors thanks to close attention to these matters of chicken health and aesthetics.
There is also some question whether keeping chickens in high density human areas, in addition to the “aroma”, will result in the transfer of disease to us.  H5N1 and HPAI are, I am told, both the product of local flocks.
Now, an interesting sub-theme in the chicken debate is “why would anyone want to have these feathery fowl?”  Council reached the conclusion that there should be two main reasons, production of eggs, and as pets.  Although many in the community wanted the opportunity to raise chickens for meat on the table, Council did not “go there”.  I suspect the thought of the wood block and that shiny axe sitting by the woodshed was just a little too much, especially if one sits on the deck sipping coffee to enjoy a blissful summer morning, only to be disturbed by the commotion of the chase and then… well, you get the point!
And what of ursus arctos horribilis, the garden-variety grizzly bear?  Or, perhaps Wile E Coyote, or my friend Robbie’s neighborhood fox family?  The concern raised was whether a vote in favor of urban chickens will attract more of these guys (and gals) into our city subdivisions and downtown core; yes even the core of the city!  My son and I are entertained by the occasional bear on the clay cliffs beside our downtown residence, and coyotes and foxes can be spotted daily in the downtown.  The label “The Wilderness City” is indeed an accurate reflection of our existence in an “urban” environment where these creatures feel pretty much at home, or at least welcome to visit.  Seriously though, they are to be highly respected, but my sense is that we have a far greater issue with the proper management of our household garbage.  This summer a coyote and two bears have been killed by conservation officers due to their aggressive natures (one bear popped in to a suburban home through a window to check out what was being offered for breakfast).  In all cases, stomach content revealed extensive reliance on garbage and human food for their diet.  This is a far greater concern than the addition of another pet species in the City (dogs and cats are already a food source for city-dwelling carnivores).
So, what are the conclusions we can draw from this debate?
First, this reflects the nature of division that is common when people live in dense communities.  I thought I knew what I was getting into when I ran for Council, but I don’t think any of us understand just how many conflicts occur in our urban world until we find ourselves in the “hot seat” having to deal with these conflicts.  Chickens are merely a reflection of this ongoing controversial dynamic of a citizenry with the opportunity to define the “perfect” world that we strive to achieve.  Unfortunately for some of this citizenry this includes feathered friends and for others it does not.
Second, there’s a connection here between my first blog on food supply security for northern communities and the great chicken debate.  I believe we have a responsibility to find ways to mitigate the challenge of food supply chain disruption.  In a world of 7+ billion people where food supply is becoming an increasing concern, if we can do something at home for ourselves, we should.  A community with social accommodation of some domestic provision of food, whether community gardens or acceptance of a limited number of chickens, just makes good sense.
Finally, the Whitehorse “chicken question”, serves to highlight an important aspect of public policy.  There is rarely a subject brought before decision-makers that is simple with a clear sense of direction.  What on its face was a simple question of chickens, yes or no, became a debate on food source, NIMBY considerations, garbage, neighborhood aesthetics, public health concerns, indeed freedom to choose!   On this last point, one commentator responding to an article on the subject noted, “Whatup with that!  I can kill a grouse with a gun at 30 feet and feed it to my family.  I can kill a moose and feed it to my family.  If I have to pay for a vet to kill my chickens, it’ll be way cheaper to buy hormone-laden things at the grocery.”
And, two final comments from the Whitehorse citizenry reflecting the wildly divergent community perspectives on this one:
“good lord… City Council must be bored”, and,
“I am happy City Councillors took such a giant leap of faith, gee I know how tough that must have been.”

Photo credit: SMcGarnigle, used under a Creative Commons license.

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