Backyard Battle: Fighting Philadelphia's Ban on Chickens

Backyard Battle: Fighting Philadelphia's Ban on Chickens
By Jonathan Hartley

Maureen Breen may be Philadelphia’s least likely outlaw. Her red brick home in the Fox Chase neighborhood is surrounded by a riot of flowering plants, herbs and vegetables — a veritable urban gardening utopia. Only after walking a few steps up the twin home’s driveway does one get a glimpse of Breen’s bandit birds. Her backyard flock of four egg-laying hens is technically in violation of the city’s ban on a wide variety of livestock that also includes larger mammals like sheep, cows and pigs. But laws can be complex, and the city’s enforcement of the ban on chickens is perhaps best described as uneven.

To visit Breen, an assistant clinical professor of accounting, at her home is an experience in the disconnect between the noise and filth that some legislators fear will pervade if they allow chickens in Philadelphia and the reality that she argues is the norm. Her birds are clean, well-cared for and beloved by her neighbors. And like most backyard chicken owners, she does not keep a rooster, so the flock is much quieter than the average dog.

With the city’s resources and attention diverted to more pressing matters, citations for violations of the livestock ordinance are relatively rare. Responsible owners like Breen can often remain unnoticed.

Before buying her new chickens, Breen, MBA ’87, educated herself on the ordinance. An exception in the law that allows chickens to be kept for educational purposes offered a layer of security for her new pets. An educator at heart, she began offering seminars on responsible chicken-keeping out of her home.

Despite her efforts, in October 2012 she came home to find a citation from Philadelphia’s Animal Care and Control Team (ACCT) had been left on her door.

To protect her pets and avoid further action from ACCT, Breen enlisted the help of friends from outside the city to move her birds off-site until she could fight the citation. She then posted a photo of the citation to the Facebook group Philadelphia Backyard Chickens. The group, founded by Weaver’s Way Co-op, serves as a forum for Philly chicken owners to share knowledge, ask questions related to the care of the birds, and, occasionally, provide advice and support for those cited by the city.

Members of the group suggested that she contact the Public Interest Law Center for legal assistance. An attorney there, Amy Laura Cahn, sought to clarify with ACCT and other city agencies as to whether the chicken-keeping seminars Breen taught at her home would exempt her from the law. Despite multiple inquiries, she received no clarifying response.

After several months, Breen’s run-in with the city reached an effective stalemate and under cover of the possible educational exception to the chicken ban, she brought the flock home (with the enthusiastic approval of her adjacent neighbors, she notes).

Chicken in a backyard with SEPTA train in the background

With her pets back at home, Breen considered laying low and accepting the safety that legal gray areas seemed to afford her, but that didn’t feel right. She credits her father, a Drexel-educated engineer, with her deeply held belief in seeking to fix a problem rather than avoiding it. “I thought there were ways I alone could be OK, but I said, ‘No, this is a problem.’ I was raised to fix a problem. That’s what launched me into this as a movement,” she says.

At the time her citation letter arrived, Breen, who worked in accounting for 25 years before joining the LeBow faculty, had been an average member of the Philadelphia Backyard Chickens group — she posted photos, asked questions and shared lessons learned. It wasn’t until her citation and encounter with the vagaries and intricacies of city law and bureaucracy that Breen felt inspired to take on a more active role. After the ordeal, she became the self-described “person leading the cause for change” as the group’s community outreach coordinator.

To find a solution, she undertook a self-guided education in chicken regulations both in Philadelphia and elsewhere. She also learned that Philadelphia’s chicken ban is an anomaly among large cities in the United States. Of the 10 largest cities in the country, only Philadelphia and Detroit ban the birds, and of the 100 largest municipalities, 85 percent are chicken-friendly.

The trend, as Breen discovered, is certainly toward legalization. Among towns in the counties surrounding Philadelphia, Jenkintown is the most recent to begin allowing chickens with a law passed in 2013.

With local and national trends in her favor, Breen has expanded her chicken advocacy from in-home seminars and a steadily growing Facebook group, to giving presentations at neighborhood meetings throughout the city espousing the benefits of chicken-raising. Her pitch begins, of course, with the obvious benefit: fresh eggs. But the utility of raising chickens goes well beyond self-sustaining nutrition; they are true omnivores and can significantly reduce the amount of food waste that ends up in a landfill. They’ll happily eat common kitchen scraps such as the tops of tomatoes, pepper seeds, wilted lettuce and even a Halloween pumpkin. When allowed free range of a yard, they also provide effective pest control by eating insects.

As she lists virtues and reassures interested listeners that the labor involved with raising chickens is minimal compared to what’s required for the average family dog, she’s inevitably asked about noise. “It’s the number one concern,” says Breen. “People think it’s the hens that crow, but it’s only the roosters.”

Breen’s backyard is a proving ground for the truth of her pitch, and she regularly invites those who are curious or skeptical to meet her birds for themselves. Her four hens mill about in the fenced yard and scratch at the dirt in the flower beds. Their hushed clucking is only disturbed by the occasional SEPTA train passing on the tracks just beyond the back fence. Despite that constant reminder of urban life, the experience has a certain rural tranquility. “It’s like explaining why it’s so fun to watch a fish tank. It’s just really kind of nice to sit and watch the chickens,” Breen says.

The in-person experience has become a major part of Breen’s pitch to neighborhood leaders and, most recently, Councilman-At-Large Al Taubenberger. Their meeting happened somewhat by chance as Breen presented at the Fox Chase Homeowners Association on a night that the newly elected Councilman Taubenberger was in attendance. She approached him and gave her pitch about the need for new legislation.

Taubenberger joked that she was the first person to lobby him as a councilman, and he subsequently invited her to bring a chicken to his office for a meet and greet. At the meeting, he helped educate her on the necessary legal steps to change the law.

“I learned that I need to get nine council people positively oriented toward chicken legalization. I’m trying to recruit chicken owners in each council district to approach their councilperson,” Breen says.

Maureen Breen and her chicken

Through the Facebook group, she has successfully mobilized people living in a number of the city’s 10 council districts to petition their representative, and is actively seeking more. She has also drafted a new version of the livestock ordinance that removes chickens from the list of banned farm animals and places them under the same category as dogs and cats. It’s a simple fix, and Breen feels that enough laws are already in place to protect quality of life.

Breen estimates that she adds more than 20 members per month to her Facebook group as backyard chicken-raising gains popularity throughout the city. It’s an issue that certainly isn’t going away, and Breen is determined to see the fight through to full legalization.

Despite continued opposition from some members of Council, she’s hopeful that with continued lobbying by chicken owners, the law can be changed within the year.

Photography by Shea Roggio

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