Domestic chicken keeping needs more regulation to protect human and animal health

Ranging free in the yard. Image: thedabblist/Flickr/creative commons.

Colorado has received a lot of attention recently as one of the first states to allow recreational marijuana, but it’s also legalising other things. Denver, one of the USA’s hottest urban real estate markets, is surrounded by municipalities that allow backyard chicken flocks.

This isn’t just happening in Colorado. Backyard chickens are cropping up everywhere. Nearly 1 per cent of all U.S. households surveyed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported owning backyard fowl in 2013, and 4 per cent more planned to start in the next five years. That’s over 13, Americans flocking to the backyard poultry scene. Ownership is spread evenly between rural, urban and suburban households and is similar across racial and ethnic groups. A 2015 review of 150 of the most-populated U.S. cities found that nearly all (93 per cent) allowed backyard poultry flocks.

Our lab group analyses health issues that connect humans, animals and the environment. In a recent study with University of California, Davis animal scientist Joy Mench, we examined urban poultry regulations in Colorado – the only state that collects and makes public animal shelter surrender data. Our findings suggest that, as backyard chicken farming spreads, states need to develop regulations to better protect animal welfare and human health.

Chicken owners in cities like Los Angeles are seeking a closer connection with their food..

When animals roamed the streets

U.S. cities once were powered by animals. Horses provided transport through the early 1900s. Pigs and hens fed on household garbage before municipal trash collection became routine. Thousands of cattle were driven up Fifth Avenue in New York City daily in the late 19th century, occasionally trampling children and pedestrians.

To reduce accidents, disease and nuisances, such as piles of smelly manure and dead animals, early public health and planning agencies wrote the first ordinances banning urban livestock. By the 1920s, farm animals and related facilities such as dairies, piggeries and slaughterhouses were barred from most U.S. cities. Exceptions were made during World War I and World War II, when meat was rationed, encouraging city dwellers to raise backyard birds.

How civilians could help during World War I. Image: USDA.

Locavores and animal lovers

The local food movement has helped drive interest in raising backyard birds. People want to grow their own food. In response, cities across the country are modifying regulations and overturning long-standing bans to legally accommodate backyard chickens.

Surveys show that backyard chicken owners are concerned about where their food comes from, how it was produced and possible risks associated with eating industrially produced meat and eggs. They believe their birds have a better quality of life and produce safer and more nutritious eggs and meat than commercially raised versions.

Risks to humans and chickens

However, raising backyard chickens is not risk-free. As one example, an outbreak of highly infectious H5N1 avian influenza in Egypt resulted in 183 confirmed cases and 56 deaths between 2014 and 2016. The majority of clinically confirmed cases were linked to close contact with diseased backyard birds.

In the United States, contact with backyard poultry is associated with hundreds of multistate salmonella outbreaks every year. A 2016 USDA survey of backyard poultry owners found that 25 per cent of respondents did not wash their hands after handling birds or eggs. In another study, the majority of backyard owners knew little about identifying or preventing poultry diseases.

Number of people infected with salmonella in four 2015 multistate outbreaks linked to backyard poultry. Image: CDC.

Commercial poultry facilities protect birds against a variety of diseases by injecting vaccines into growing chicks while they are still in the egg. Many backyard growers do not know to request vaccinated birds when they purchase chicks or eggs. In 2002 an outbreak of exotic Newcastle disease in California originated in backyard flocks and spread into commercial poultry operations. Operators had to euthanize more than 3m birds. They received compensation from USDA for doing so, which cost taxpayers US$161m. USDA also had to restrict poultry exports, which caused economic losses for commercial poultry producers.

Many animal control and welfare agencies around the country oppose allowing urban livestock. Some activists argue that it can foster abuse, inhumane conditions and the development of backyard “factory farms,” and increase burdens on thinly stretched animal shelters and rescue groups.


Few rules for backyard flocks

We began our study by reviewing every local law in the state of Colorado pertaining to livestock. Then we looked at Colorado animal shelter and rescue data for 2014 and 2015. We wanted to see whether counties with large commercial operations were likely to prohibit raising backyard birds; when most ordinances originated; and what animal care standards were written into local laws.

We found that 61 of 78 Colorado municipalities allowed backyard chickens, and only 13 municipalities explicitly banned the practice. Local laws most commonly controlled for coop design and placement, prohibited owning roosters and limited the total number of birds allowed. Unlike commercial guidelines or typical standards for domestic cats and dogs, most ordinances did not require vaccination or veterinary care.

Very few regulations required humane slaughter or disease reporting. Only four municipalities required owners to provide birds with food; 16 required water, and two mandated veterinary care as warranted. Many owners understand that water and food are basic necessities, but when cities do not codify these requirements, animals have little legal protection and are not officially entitled to veterinary care even when they are sick, injured or dying.

On the positive side, we found that most shelters had not yet experienced an increase in chicken intake, and reported that people were interested in taking in stray chickens. But several organisations were concerned that they would receive more chickens in the future as the number of homes with space for stray birds decreased.

Setting higher standards

We found several cities with model ordinances that safeguarded avian and human health. Fort Collins, home to Colorado State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine, requires annual permitting fees that are collected by the nonprofit Larimer Humane Society. The agency educates owners about disease prevention and husbandry and connects them with veterinarians and agricultural extension agents.

Nonprofit animal welfare agencies often depend heavily on donations to run animal shelters and care for strays. Fee systems such as that required in Fort Collins can help them cover costs of managing unwanted and stray animals. And streamlined permitting overseen by animal welfare agencies and veterinarians can prevent many backyard diseases or catch them early.

The ConversationBased on our survey of Colorado, we believe cities need to carefully consider their backyard chicken regulations and develop strong legal frameworks that protect animal and human health and welfare. In particular, they should develop rules that require food and water, mandate veterinary care and connect owners with animal welfare agencies.

Catherine Brinkley, Assistant Professor of Community and Regional Development, University of California, Davis and Jacqueline Kingsley, Master's Degree Candidate in Community Development, University of California, Davis.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

Could twin towns bring Britain back together?

An unlikely pair. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Twin towns: an irrelevant novelty to most of us, a peculiar name on a village’s welcome sign. But could linking one British town to another – a domestic reinterpretation of this long-standing European practice – help bring Britain back together in a time of national crisis?

Born in the aftermath of World War II, town twinning aimed to foster cooperation and solidarity across Europe. Communities entered formal alliances, nurturing friendships and shared histories. Coventry forged links with Dresden and Volgograd, then Stalingrad, marking the devastation faced by their citizens during the war.

The democratisation of Greece, Spain and Portugal during the 1970s led to a new wave of twin towns across Europe, as did the fall of the Soviet Union a decade later. Since its inception, the focus of town twinning has been on uniting people through relationships. It is a testament to the initiative’s success that many of these remain to this day; Coventry recently enjoyed a performance at the city’s cathedral by Volgograd’s children’s choir.

While European relations have improved since the 1940s, unity at home has received less attention. As a result, Britain is riven with deep economic, political, educational and cultural divides. These fault lines are increasingly determined by geography, with a growing gap between our big metropolitan cities and almost everywhere else.

In comparison to other European countries, we face staggering levels of regional inequality; six of the ten poorest regions in northern Europe can been found in the UK. As outlined by Alan Milburn, the government’s former social mobility tsar, “the country seems to be in the grip of a self-reinforcing spiral of ever-growing division. That takes a spatial form, not just a social one.”

These divisions are poisoning our body politic. As Adam Smith argued in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, putting yourself in someone else's shoes is vital for developing a moral compass; in doing so "we conceive ourselves enduring all the same torments, we enter as it were into his body, and become in some measure the same person with him..." But this is difficult when we have little interaction or experience of those with opposing views.

This is increasingly likely in geographically polarised Britain, with the places we live dominated by people who think alike. Our political leaders must commit time and energy to bridging these divides, just as the leaders of Europe did in the aftermath of the Second World War. By forging links between different parts of the country, a new era of domestic town twinning would do just that.


School exchanges between sister towns would offer an opportunity for children to be exposed to places, people and perspectives very different to their own. This would allow future generations to see things from an alternative and opposing perspective. It may also embed from a young age an awareness of the diversity of experiences seen by people across our highly unequal country.

MPs would be encouraged to spend time in their constituency’s sister town. First-hand exposure to voters in a very different part of the country would surely soften the views of even the most entrenched parliamentarian, making for a more civil debate in the Commons. Imagine the good this would do for Parliament today, with Brexit gridlocked because of the unwillingness of MPs to compromise.

In 2016 the Carnegie UK Trust launched its Twin Towns UK programme, a pilot linking twenty towns across the UK to examine how they might develop together. Emerging benefits include a reduction of insularity and a greater awareness of the bigger picture. Its focus was not on bridging economic divides – towns with similar socioeconomic characteristics were twinned – but initial outcomes from the scheme suggest a broader programme of domestic town twinning could have a powerful impact.

Looking further back, Camden has been twinned with Doncaster since the 1980s, a relationship that unionised Camden Town Hall workers forged in a display of solidarity with striking miners during the 1980s. Funds were raised to feed families of striking workers at the pit and Camden locals even drove north to deliver presents at Christmas. Though the relationship appears less active today, it serves as a powerful reminder of twinning’s capacity to bring people from very different places together.

As we prepare for Brexit it’s imperative that we protect existing twin town relationships with our European partners. This is of vital importance when we know sadly many of these are under threat from austerity and gloriously un-PC mayors. But we should look to breathe new life into these traditions too, where possible. Domestic town twinning would do just that: a step towards bringing Britain back together, just as a continent was reunited after the devastation of war.

Ben Glover is a researcher at the think tank Demos.