Houston Chicken Farmers Trying to Escape the Coop

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Ken Cousino knows exactly when the move to legalize chicken farming in Houston took off. Isabella, a nearby nine-year-old, had been a steady customer at Cousino's Quality Feed and Garden, picking up fodder for her few pet chickens. One day, she entered in tears.

The city had arrived, she said. Told her she had to get rid of her chickens. Told her to forget her babies. Citing a city ordinance proscribing chickens from scuffling within 100 feet of a property line -- and pointing out a complaint from one of Isabella's neighbors -- the city had enforced a regulation that almost every major metropolis across the nation has trashed, or reduced substantially. Isabella found friends outside of town, and dropped the hens off. And then she turned to the city -- eyes less rheumy, a desire to reclaim her property sharpened by an experience on butt-end of an outdated ordinance. She started a petition. She wanted her chickens back.

"We had customers start signing her petition, meeting with neighborhood associations, garnering support for hens," Cousino said. "I've been about a year heavily involved. We had a seminar last November at our store, teaching people about backyard chicken raising, introducing new organic chicken food, looking for certified organic eggs. There was tons of enthusiasm, lots of interest."

At the same time Isabella was beginning her movement to reclaim her pets, Claire Krebs, a recent Rice graduate and recent returnee to Houston, realized that she'd come back to a city lacking what almost every other major metropolis offers. San Francisco has urban chicken farms. New York, all concrete and soot, allows them. New Orleans even provides 'Coop Tours,' taking tourists through Taj Mahal-esque abodes for local chickens. Hell, Bellaire even maintains a brief island of chicken legalization.

"I spoke to an animal control operator who works in Bellaire," Krebs said on Wednesday. "He said he's had one complaint about the chickens in six years."

And yet, here stands Houston, all but chicken-free, and here stood Krebs, confused by the situation. As both a Millennial and a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer, Krebs was, naturally, unemployed. Ample opportunity to ask around about this lack of coops, and to form Hens for Houston, and to generate a bit of interest in both adjusting the 100-foot restrictions and legalizing chicken waste as fertilizer. Abundant time to garner support from the Bureau of Animal Regulation and Care, and to assure neighborhood associations that her organization wouldn't change any additional localized measures. Plenty of time to assure any potential detractors that roosters - unnecessary for laying any eggs, as both Cousino and Krebs noted - would still be barred. "These eggs they're layin' don't need any roosters," Cousino said. "They're just periods. And these birds have periods every day."

Just look at San Antonio and Dallas, Krebs said. The former doesn't have a "setback" - the 100-foot demarcation Houston enforces - while the latter has shrunk it to 20 feet. And both have far fewer complaints per capita, almost none of which are related to the distance allocations.

"We looked at the actual numbers of these complaints, and they're almost always because of the smell and the mess and the animals running at large," Krebs noted. "We're not trying to change that - we believe no pet should be a nuisance, be it a chicken or a barking dog or a feral cat. And we're really trying to be good neighbors, which is why I think we haven't had any strong opposition."

Krebs pointed out that Mayor Annise Parker is already on-board with the measure, and would like to see language presented to the city council before the end of March lifting or amending this ordinance. "Things have really started moving quickly since we got back from the holidays," Krebs said. "We're going to be meeting with BARC next week to go over our proposal, and we're going to open it up to other stakeholders come Feb. 15."

Whatever the outcome of the forthcoming debate, there's one little girl watching the deliberation closer than others. And Isabella, according to Cousino, is eagerly awaiting the day she can go pick up her former hens, and bring them back home.

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