Saskatoon watches as Reginans make the case for urban hens
City | Gregory Beatty
UPDATE: Despite 13 delegations speaking in favour, Councillor Shanon Zachidniack’s motion to study a pilot project was defeated in a tied vote at Regina City Council.
In the early 1970s, CBC TV had a game show called This Is the Law hosted by Austin Willis. It started with a short clip where Paul Soles would act out some (usually innocuous) scenario, then a police officer would suddenly appear and arrest him. Then a celebrity panel (Hart Pomerantz was my favourite) would try to guess what law they’d broken.
The law was inevitably obscure, and likely not enforced much if at all. But it was always a law that was still on the books somewhere in Canada.
Got the idea? Good. Here’s one for you, set, as it happens, in Regina.
Two neighbours on a sunny Sunday morning in July step out on their shaded back steps, nod ‘Good morning’ to each other, and head down to their backyard coops.
One neighbour keeps three hens, the other 10 quail, and both set about gathering fresh eggs for breakfast. As they return to their kitchens with their bounty in straw baskets, a police officer suddenly appears and arrests the neighbour with the chicken eggs.
The quail egg neighbour? They head inside to their frying pan and start cracking.
Okay panel, why the pinch?
Well, under Regina’s current animal bylaw, you can keep as many quail (or pigeons, ffs!) as you like. But keep even one chicken and you are, in the immortal words of Judas Priest, “BREAKING THE LAW!”
That could soon change if a motion by Ward 8 Councillor Shanon Zachidniack passes. The motion, which will be presented to Regina City Council on Jan. 31, proposes that a pilot project be set up where 20 applicants will be licensed to keep between three and six hens for two years.
Zachidniack is putting the motion forward with support from the local advocacy group Queen City Chickens.
“It’s a small ask, but it will allow us to do some research because when this issue has come before council previously there are those who think it’s a good idea, and those who think it’s bad, and that’s where it gets stuck, said Zachidniack at a teach-in at Hampton Hub in late November. “To get beyond that, we want to see what happens if we allow 20 locations to have urban hens, and put in some [regulations] that reflect best practices in other cities where urban hens are allowed.”
Some of those cities include Calgary, Edmonton, Vancouver, Kitchener and Guelph.
“Queen City Chickens research tells us there are around 40 municipalities in Canada that are doing this, so we are by no means at the front of the pack,” says Zachidniack. “We do know there are people in Regina who are already keeping chickens, but currently it is unregulated. I think it is reasonable to put in parameters on how people keep chickens safely.”
Zachidniack has a Masters in Environmental Studies, with a focus on community food security. For her, that’s an important selling point for the pilot.
“As we know, food prices continue to rise. People want to be able to have that level of control over their own food, whether it’s gardening or keeping hens, so I think it’s a good step to take,” she says.
Amy Snider from Queen City Chickens also presented at the teach-in.
“The group was originally called Regina Chicken Underground,” said Snider. “I knew a few of the members, and suggested at one point we stop being underground, so we decided on a new name.”
Networking with sister organizations across Canada, including Bridge City Chickens in Saskatoon [see sidebar], has helped QCC develop a solid platform to advocate for urban hens.
“The current animal bylaw in Regina does not allow for the keeping of livestock, and chickens are one of the animals listed,” Snider says of the current legal situation. “Quail and pigeons, though, are not listed in the bylaw.”
Snider was recently in the news when she revealed she has a prescription to keep four hens as emotional support animals.
“The doctor wrote the prescription in 2020,” recalled Snider. “I flew under the radar for three years, then this spring I was on CBC talking about my hens, and just after that someone reported me.”
“It wasn’t a neighbour. My neighbours all love my hens. But bylaw officers came by, and I showed them my prescription. They took it to the City, and they looked at it, and dropped the case,” she said.
When Snider first got her hens, she recounted, she used recycled materials like fence posts and doors to build a coop in her insulated garage.
“The only thing I had to buy was a heated dog bowl to keep their water from freezing, a heater, and a treadle, which is a contraption they can eat from where food doesn’t spill and attract pests. But very little beyond that,” she said.
Snider spent $24 for a bag of feed too. From May 5 to Aug. 7 this year, three hens paid her back with 278 eggs. The fourth, a hen named Omelette, is a little older and has stopped laying.
Eggs aren’t the only benefit of urban hens, Snider said.
“In summer, chickens eat ticks, mosquitoes, grasshoppers, worms, and other pests they find in my garden,” she said. “They can also eat food scraps, and they turn it all into eggs and fertilizer.
“Their poop is a valuable source of nutrient,” she adds. “I’ve actually seen it for sale at garden centres for $10 a litre. I just have to laugh. People are paying for this (chicken) shit? So it goes back to my garden, which produces some of the food we eat. It’s a good way of living, I think.”
The pest benefit comes with a qualifier. While Snider does have a run for her chickens, she also lets them “free range” in her garden. She has a fenced backyard, and in three and a half years has never had a chicken escape, or received a complaint from a neighbour. But under the proposed pilot, chickens would be confined to an enclosed coop and run.
Myths and Misconceptions
Queen City Chickens has assembled an informative Q&A doc to dispel a surprisingly long list of myths and misconceptions people may have about urban hens.
“A lot of people who don’t want chickens in the city have experiences on farms,” said Snider.
“Some of those are good, and some are not. Some people have been chased by roosters and are afraid of chickens, others will think of the smell of the coop. But those are problems that come with having roosters, or hundreds and even thousands of chickens,” she said.
The proposed pilot is for between three and six hens only. No roosters will be allowed, so no danger of “Cock-a-Doodle-Doos!” ringing out in Regina neighbourhoods at some ungodly hour this summer.
Concerns about disease, smell and noise are to be expected. But again, most people’s perceptions are likely based on larger-scale farm operations. These are backyard coops. And regulations will be in place, including a 2.5 metre setback from the property line.
“It’s like any other animal, if you take care of them in a way that is hygienic, they will stay healthy and not spread disease,” said Snider.
“With avian flu, I’d say it’s a bigger concern for people who feed wild birds. And if it does become a concern, we can contact those licensed to keep chickens and let them know they need to take special precautions, like not letting wild birds intermingle with their flock. Right now, we don’t have any ability to do that,” she said.
Before people are licensed under the pilot, QCC proposes they be required to take an online course from River City Chickens in Edmonton.
“RCC offers consultation to groups and officials in other cities that are considering a chicken bylaw,” said Snider. “They educate people so they are knowledgeable about the welfare and safety of chickens, and provide information for bylaw officers on what to look for if they are called out on a chicken infraction.”
Chickens are like any animal, said Snider. They are a responsibility. And while some people may not look after them like they should, that’s true of any animal. But under the bylaw there will be a process to report them, and if they aren’t handling their chickens properly they could be fined and even lose their chickens.
“It won’t just be a free-for-all. In fact, right now it is a free-for-all,” said Snider. “The regulations, plus having people take an online course on urban hens, should lower the number of issues that come up. In Edmonton, they have one or two calls about chickens a year, for any issue.”
Bridge City Chickens has been down the path Queen City Chickens is treading and they’re watching with interest as a motion for a pilot urban hen project reaches Regina City Council on Jan. 31, says BCC spokesperson Tricia Ashbee.
“In 2017, we put forward a proposal to legalize urban hens in Saskatoon,” says Ashbee. “Much work went into it, and we had strong, diverse support: community associations, counsellors, animal control, university poultry experts, and more,” says Ashbee.
“When the proposal for a pilot project reached Saskatoon City Council, the vote was split 50/50. As a result, the bylaw change was defeated,” she says.
Since then, says Ashbee, the City has developed some new committees in areas like environment and sustainability that, in her words, “align more closely with the values and goals of hen-keeping.”
With QCC’s proposal for a pilot as a backdrop, BCC is gearing up for another push to change Saskatoon’s animal bylaw to allow urban hens.
“We have been engaging residents through information booths, community association meetings and social media,” says Ashbee. “Education is one of the most important roles our group provides. Most concerns about urban hens are easily resolved with knowledge and a supportive community.”
BCC is currently finalizing its proposal and circulating a petition to gather citizen support. It intends to submit a motion to council soon, says Ashbee.