By Peter Jamison • April 5th, 2017
After a month of debate dominated by confusion, anger, fear and enough bad puns to last a lifetime, it appears that a proposed ban on chickens in the nation’s capital is headed toward ignominious defeat.
Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) had quietly slipped the fowl-banishment provision into a raft of legislation accompanying the budget proposal she released last month. It launched a wave of activism — complete with a new coalition to protect the rights of yard hens and a petition that garnered more than 700 signatures — that helped sway key members of the D.C. Council.
“Pardon the pun, but I think the chickens have already come home to roost on the likelihood of this remaining in the Health Committee markup,” Council member Vincent Gray (D-Ward 7) said Friday, stating that he, along with at least two other members of his five-seat committee, planned to block the ban from advancing.
Gray’s quip wasn’t the worst — by a long shot — at an hours-long committee hearing Friday at which the idea of outlawing the raising of backyard chickens in the District was not so much earnestly opposed as laughed out of the room.
“It’s just so absurd that it almost makes your jaw drop,” said Council member Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3), expressing astonishment that large sections of Bowser’s 2018 Budget Support Act were devoted to what she considered quixotic animal regulations. Among others that seem destined for defeat are a requirement that all cats within city limits be licensed and that dog feces have to be removed from private yards within 24 hours.
Gray said the anti-poultry policy was “one of the most ridiculous issues that I think we have had to endure here.”
That didn’t stop him from taking obvious delight in trying to keep up with some of the levity-infused testimony of pro-chicken activists.
Aaron Rosenzweig, a resident of Gaithersburg, Md., who came to city hall to show his solidarity with fellow chicken enthusiasts in the District, drolly compared chickens to dogs and cats. “Nobody has ever been maimed or mauled to death by a chicken,” he asserted.
Gray interrupted Rosenzweig’s testimony at one point with a chuckle. “You’re turning this into a shell game, sir,” he said.
Council member David Grosso (I-At Large) said he would vote to remove the chicken ban from the budget legislation. The other committee members, Brianne K. Nadeau (D-Ward 1) and Brandon T. Todd (D-Ward 4), have not taken a position.
If the committee blocks the ban from advancing as part of the budget process when it votes on May 17, the measure could still be considered as a separate bill. However, Gray said he doubted the ban “will ever see the light of day” again as independent legislation.
Chicken-raising has in recent years become a popular — and legal — agrarian pastime in American cities including New York, San Francisco and Portland, Ore.
Residents in Arlington, Va., and Montgomery County, Md., have also fought in recent years for zoning changes that would allow them to keep chickens. The Rockville City Council in Maryland voted in 2015 to allow residents up to five hens.
District officials have said little about their rationale for banning chickens. Last month, when asked about the ban, Bowser said she wanted to “keep neighborhoods safe, and clean and rodent-free.” (D.C.’s animal-control laws actually explicitly condone pet rodents.)
“It’s not usually the chickens that are the problem but what they leave behind,” she said.
Live poultry have been linked to salmonella infections. Last year the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention traced eight salmonella outbreaks across the country to backyard fowl, resulting in more than 200 hospitalizations and at least one death.
D.C. Department of Health officials said the language is meant to clarify what is actually an existing ban on chickens. Last year the city suffered defeat at the hands of a pair of chicken-raising antitrust attorneys who live in Chevy Chase and who sued the District when the Department of Health warned them to remove the birds.
The litigation — which centered on ambiguities in D.C.’s Animal Control Act concerning the legal status of chickens — ended with the city beating a retreat and issuing Allison Sheedy and Dan McInnis a permit to keep their four backyard birds.
Chicken owners said they were gratified that the outright fowl ban would not advance, but that the District needed to liberalize its existing regulations, which include the requirement — hard to follow for those without large properties — that a chicken coop be placed at least 50 feet away from buildings occupied by humans.
“I’d like to see them adopt more reasonable restrictions,” said Winkie Crigler, an attorney from Tenleytown.