Crying foul on Aberdeen's anti-chicken law [Editorial]

Frank Turner posed an interesting question to the Aberdeen City Council last week: "On what moral authority do you determine what pets people are and are not allowed to have?"

Turner's interest in the question is far from academic. He moved from Seattle to a home on Chesapeake Court in Aberdeen a few years back. As he, his wife and their two children set up their residence, they made provisions to keep six chickens as pets. As a bonus, they were well stocked with fresh eggs.

In July 2012, the Turners got a notice saying Aberdeen's code precludes raising poultry in the city limits. Shortly thereafter, Turner appeared before the city council to make a plea that he and his family be allowed to keep the chickens.

"They're very clean animals and help control the insect population," he told the city council at the time.

Though Mayor Mike Bennett expressed sentiment that the city would entertain changing the law, that never happened, prompting Turner's return to the council last week. At his most recent appearance before the council, he made note of a complaint that had been filed against someone else in the city regarding ducks, but no action was taken by the city.

Clearly there is justification for having laws on the books to limit the numbers of certain kinds of animals in certain areas. Generally, there's a limit to how many dogs, cats or parrots can reasonably be accommodated in a single family house. In addition, wildlife regulations generally preclude certain beasts from being kept as pets at all.

Enter any pet store in Harford County and beyond, though, and the menagerie from which a companion animal can be chosen is substantial. Beyond dogs, cats, parrots and goldfish are a range of rodents, reptiles and even the occasional primate. Over the years things like Pygmy goats and potbelly pigs have waxed and waned in popularity. Historically, homing pigeons have been kept in rooftop coops in the cities of Europe and North America.

Importantly, a coop for six chickens hardly constitutes a livestock rearing operation. From a distance such a structure could well be difficult to distinguish from a doghouse.

So what is it that distinguishes chickens from parrots, cockatiels or even cats, small dogs and rabbits when it comes to a municipal law that allows all the aforementioned except for chickens? It's clearly not size or birdness.

If the problem is that chickens are raised on an industrial scale for food, that's a matter that can be addressed. Reasonable limits are in place – though not strongly enforced – on the numbers of dogs and cats people can keep in residential areas. Prohibitions against owning two or three Labrador retrievers weighing 120 pounds each would be scoffed in our culture. Where's the harm, then, in allowing for a half dozen chickens weighing a few pounds each to be kept in a back yard coop?

While it's not a matter of paramount importance, Aberdeen should change its code to allow city residents to keep a few chickens without fear of being ticketed. Actually, the city council should have taken action back in 2012 after Turner first brought the matter to light.

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