Legalize Chickens DIY - Part 1

We've received a lot of questions over the years about how people interested in keeping chickens can legalize chickens in their area. The typical arguments against keeping small flocks of backyard hens are silly, to say the least. They're so silly!

But even though disallowing pet backyard flocks is silly, you don't want to violate the law and put your pet hens at risk of being taken away---or worse, euthanized. So, first things first: make sure chickens are legal in your area *before* you get your hens. If chickens are not already legal in your area, you'll have some work to do. But how do you go about it? The problem is that legalizing chickens is a complex issue, because codes and regulations governing keeping chickens can vary so much depending on where you live, and many people haven't the faintest idea how to even begin.

For instance, one My Pet Chicken customer wrote with the bright idea that if she violated her local laws, she would get a free lawyer appointed to defend her if she got caught. Well... no. That's not how it works. Except for some narrow exceptions having nothing to do with chicken keeping, unless you are violating criminal law, you have no right to appointed counsel. Don't violate the civil or municipal codes thinking you can deal with the fallout later. This is a seriously bad idea on many levels.

But even when we get more reasonable questions such as "how do I write a good petition?" there's no easy way to answer, because it depends so much on where you live and how the specific laws or codes read in your area. That said, we can start breaking it down so you can determine how to approach the problem and legalize chickens in your area.

Legalize Chickens - Step 1: Gather Information

A.) Find out exactly which codes are prohibiting chickens in your area and what they say.  

This may be self-evident to some of you, but it bears discussion. Sometimes chickens are prohibited by zoning laws; sometimes by health codes. Sometimes, they're prohibited by a combination. Sometimes the issue is an HOA. Sometimes someone at your local town hall will just presume chickens are illegal to keep in your backyard... but as it turns out, there is no such prohibition on the books. Sometimes it happens that the prohibition only applies to "livestock," which may or may not include chickens. Depending on the way your local laws are written, small flocks of chickens may, quite rightfully, be regarded as pets rather than as income-producing livestock. Be sure to read the definitions of "pets," "livestock" and so forth as regarded by your local laws. It may be possible to remove the prohibition simply by changing the way the law defines pets or livestock. Do your basic research and figure out whether or not you're allowed to have chickens. If you're not, find out which laws prohibit them.

rare chicken breeds: mille fleur D'Uccle

Laws that outlaw livestock may not have contemplated keeping a few "show" breeds like this tiny Mille Fleur D'Uccle hen, chiefly for pleasure.

B.) Find out who can change the existing laws or codes.

Once you know what the exact laws are in your area, you'll need to find out who can change them. Municipal codes are often controlled by your town's mayor and/or city council. They may be handled by a zoning board. Health codes may be written or rewritten by the local Board of Health, or by committees appointed by city officials and/or local government bodies. In many cases, people want to jump right in with a petition! But starting with the idea that you just need a good petition is wrong, or at the least incomplete. A vague petition asking your local town council to allow chickens may not be especially helpful if the town council has no power to directly change the laws you oppose.

You'll need to approach the right body, and learn what the process is to getting those particular codes changed. After all, if it's the Board of Health that needs to make the changes, scheduling meetings with the mayor will be of limited use. Instead, find out who you need to contact, and learn how the individual/s who can change the law got appointed or elected.

C.) Find out if the people who can change the laws/codes already have a position on the matter

Has the "legalize chickens" issue come up in your area before? It can be helpful to know what position each board or council -member held the last time this was addressed---or if there are new people who will be looking at the issue this time. Can you check voting records? Is there information that can be found in the archives of your local paper? Even if you find out some councilors are already opposed, that doesn't mean they can't be persuaded this time. We haven't seen any logical reasons to oppose your right to keep a small flocks of hens in your yard, and in many cases, you may find that the last time this came up, the people fighting for their rights were less informed than you will be.

Find out what the opposition said the last time this issue was raised. You're likely to find that previously the argument against keeping chickens was a matter of ignoratio elenchi---in other words, arguments from ignorance. For instance, it's common for opponents to argue that chickens create too much waste, ignoring the fact that a small flock of chickens actually produces less waste than dogs or cats (and the waste can be composted)! Unfortunately, some people will maintain a willful ignorance and will continue to argue the point as if it's valid, despite the facts. Reasonable people, however, when presented with this fact, will then dismiss the argument that chickens create too much waste. You already have the facts on your side, so you're already in a better position than the opposition!

Now that you know what sort of research to start with, you'll want to know your next step. Next week, I'll move on to Part 2, Crafting Your "Legalize Chickens" Proposal.

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K Christy
9 years ago

Livestock: To harbor or keep any live horse, cattle, swine, sheep or goat or to raise any chickens, rabbits, or fowl anywhere in the Village. Exceptions are animals kept in agriculture zoning districts or as allowed under special use.
This is the wording used in our very small village. We each live on 2 acres of property. Our village used to allow chickens, but someone with a very loud rooster got enough complaints that they put this law into effect. I am wondering if I could manipulate the "special use" wording? Thanks.

9 years ago
Reply to  K Christy

Keep in mind I'm no lawyer and cannot provide legal advice. If it were me, though, I'd actually start by looking at the definition of "pet" and "fowl" in your village as well. The definitions may overlap--that is, you may be able to argue that the law is contradictory if people are specifically allowed to raise other birds (fowl) as pets, but chickens are excluded. For instance, what if you wanted to raise ostriches... not for meat or eggs, but for pleasure? Seems like keeping chickens is a better idea, and would have less impact on the neighbors, yet chickens are specifically called out. I wonder why? Some of these laws make no sense.

Ken Littrell
9 years ago

What to do if the rule is vague--animals, pets, livestock, and poultry are never defiend and chickens are not mentioned in the zoning code, the section interpreted as banning chickens, and fowl is defined as any bird wild or domestic--but the chairperson of the zoning board takes the position that she once saw a definition that poultry means chickens and chickens means poultry and chickens are not a traditional pet, and our rather small town is a city (unlike the four largest cities in our state all of which ALLOW chickens with limitations) and chickens don't belong in a city?

9 years ago
Reply to  Ken Littrell

If the terms don't have a specific legal definition in your local statutes or precedents, the doctrine of plain meaning suggests that the words used carry their ordinary, everyday meaning. "Poultry" generally means domesticated birds, including chickens. But the word "pet" refers to an animal kept with care and affection, for pleasure rather than utility. Chickens easily fit into the pet category. (While you may get eggs, it's certainly cheaper and easier to buy them at the grocery store than to care for pets!) But this doesn't mean you should simply keep chickens and damn the consequences--I'm not advising that! What it means is that you could possibly have a legal battle on your hands about the ordinary meaning of the words, or what your motivations are for keeping them (pleasure or utility). You might find there is a precedent you're not aware of that does assign the words a specific legal meaning. You'd want to consult an attorney... or be prepared to represent yourself (not recommended!). However, if you phone around and present your argument cogently, you might be able to ID a pro-chicken-keeping attorney who would volunteer pro bono (free) representation if the case ever came to court. I'll touch on that more in future installments of this series.

Stevee Salazar
9 years ago

I feel so lucky to live in a town that has no limits or restrictions. I love my chickens!

9 years ago

I wish I could keep my hens if I ever move back to where I used to live (they don't allow chickens). Maybe it's because it'll disrupt the peace of my quiet neighborhood? Or they put the law into effect to not draw wild animals to the neighborhood (we got red-tailed hawks and a host of other raptors, and coyotes). We live right next (and I mean, the fence is 10 meters away) to this protected habitat place, which is pretty much a barren hill with yellow grass and a ton of rabbits.
Still want to bring my girls.

9 years ago
Reply to  Yizhen

Remember, hens don't disrupt peace and quiet any more than cats do... and they're far quieter than dogs. Plus, they don't draw predators. Those myths have been debunked. Read about them in this blog post about the 6 Silliest Arguments Against Backyard Chickens.

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