Hens in the City

Knoxville's Urban Hen Coalition wants to legalize hens within city limits

Chad Hellwinckel is confident he can win over almost anyone who objects to the legalization of hens within city limits—if they'll give him time to explain.

"There's a lot of prejudice," he says. "When you say you're in favor of legalization of chickens, people think we mean roosters also. But hens are female and they don't cock-a-doodle-doo."

With the help of local attorney and fellow Parkridge resident Brandy Slaybaugh, Hellwinckel has formed the Urban Hen Coalition to fight such misconceptions. Their ultimate goal is to make it legal for city dwellers to keep small numbers of laying hens.

"The way it works right now, what's not legal is poultry—you could have a duck or a peacock or an emu, but poultry is forbidden," says Slaybaugh. "That's why a lot of people locally have switched to ducks and are eating duck eggs. But hens are no louder, and they're more reliable layers."

The coalition is an early entrant among a quickly increasing number of groups nationally, notably in Madison, Wis., and Portland, Ore., that promote city hen ownership as a logical extension of victory gardening. Just a few of the benefits they tout: economic boons for urban families, the superior nutrition of eggs from cage-free hens that feed on bugs and grass, and the emotional satisfaction of a return to simpler times.

But first, the nitty gritty. UHC representatives have met twice with the Animal Control Board. Ronnie Nease, Knox County's director of environmental health and also the Knox County Health Department's rep on the city Animal Control Board, is assisting the group in putting together a workable ordinance, one that has the best chance of endorsement by the Metropolitan Planning Commission.

"We're trying to come up with something that allows them to have their hens but would also be enforceable from an animal control standpoint," Nease says. "We need to make sure we have some control over it, so your neighbor doesn't put 50 hens in your backyard and let them run loose all over the neighborhood. We can't have that."

The current statute makes it unlawful "for any person to keep, harbor or confine any animal of the swine species or type or poultry in any building, structure, shed, corral, pen or enclosure within the corporate limits of the city," with a few exceptions, like livestock shows.

"It considers chickens as livestock, and it's been on the books for a long time," Nease says. "If you read the city animal ordinance, it talks about driving pigs and livestock down the street, and dates from the days when there was a stockyard and slaughterhouse in what's now the Old City, near Lay's Market."

It's not specified in the language, but Nease says he imagines the original restrictions were meant to address sanitation concerns. "That would be my guess—sanitation and the odor," he says. "But I wasn't around back then."

Nease has engaged the city Law Department, which he says is weighing issues such as zoning and whether a whole new statute is in order or if existing policies can be amended. "They're hoping to have something soon," he says. Once they do, Nease and the group would take their proposal back to the Animal Control Board, which would make recommendations to the chief of police (who it reports to), who would in turn send a proposal to the mayor and then to City Council if all along the chain of command agree. Or, the statute could be sponsored directly by a City Council member.

Either route will definitely require a code that "protects the senses" of a hen owner's neighbors. "That includes noses—some people are really worried about the smell—and ears, which means roosters are going to be illegal," says Hellwinckel, who is a research assistant professor of agricultural economics at the University of Tennessee. Mature hens lay eggs with or without a rooster starting at about age six months; mating with a rooster is only required to fertilize eggs that will hatch into chicks.

Such reproduction is not a goal for the group, which will include a limit on the number of hens one family could keep, probably six, in proposed codes. "We're terrified people will think we mean flocks of 100," says Slaybaugh. "A good healthy hen will lay an egg a day for years, so with three hens a family would never need to buy an egg again."

Another important distinction: Flocks could only be kept for personal egg consumption. "You cannot sell them," says Hellwinckel. "You can't kill them for meat and even when they get old, they'll probably have to go to the vet's to be killed or your country farmer friend who will kill them and eat them."

Animal lovers have concerns that would need to be addressed, too. "The hens will have to be kept in confined coops with wire mesh on top and on the sides, of a certain gauge to protect them from raccoons, possums, and neighboring dogs," says Hellwinckel.

Hellwinckel first floated the idea of the coalition on the Knoxville Permaculture Guild's Ning social networking website in December, and says Slaybaugh really kicked it into gear in March. They now boast about 60 members through that site and 186 fans of the Urban Hen Coalition page on Facebook. "We've had a good response from Old North Knoxville, Moreland Heights, and Fourth and Gill, along with some West Knoxville and even people from out of the city limits," says Slaybaugh.

But the members are not very active—yet. "We're keeping a low profile, letting the animal control board take the lead," Hellwinckel says. "We have a big network of people to call on, but we'll wait to start raising a ruckus until it goes to City Council for a vote."

Both the leaders do anticipate soothing some ruffled feathers down the road, says Slaybaugh. "There's a stigma involved—people think of ugly coops from country bumpkins who have cars parked in the yard," says Slaybaugh. "We'll have to convey that the people wanting this are educated and informed. We're regular people, not all hipsters, or hippies, or all anything.

"Already at the meetings with the Animal Control Board, people are bringing up questions like, ‘What if a hen dies? Will you eat them?' It kind of bothers me, that some of the people who are raising the questions are the same ones continually buying eggs from factory-raised hens. I can't imagine a backyard hen situation that could compare in horror to a factory."

Originally from Hollow Rock, Tenn., population about 600, Slaybaugh says she will own hens once the codes are in place. "It's important for my son to know where his food comes from—he's 6," she says.

Hellwinckel may keep hens at some point, but he's far more interested in building sustainable permaculture systems in the city. "One of the vital parts in the nutrient cycling systems is having small animals," he says. "A lot of city codes were developed in a time when our country had lots of energy available, and they're starting to hinder us. In the future we're going to have to look for smart solutions close to home. Hens in the city is just one part of what we're fighting to get."

Updated: Added comments by Ronnie Nease, Knox County's director of environmental health