Pigeons are fine, but woman sick of nonfeathered friends

The Baltimore Sun

The chorus of cooing next door is hardly what bothers Marilyn Bachman about her neighbor's pet pigeons.

It's the stench. And the rats.

The Glen Burnie resident has told Anne Arundel County officials in no uncertain terms that she wants the coops gone.

But the pigeons' owners, Constantin and Elena Stroe, say they have rights, too.

"People have to take care of their own yards and not look in other neighbor's backyards," Elena Stroe said. "We try to respect the law, and we have the same rights as those complaining."

The dispute, a quirky twist on the age-old battle between personal freedoms and government intervention, has left both sides frustrated and local officials wondering how big their role should be.

County code does not limit how many pigeons a homeowner can have, and the coop appears to meet zoning requirements. There may be little officials can do except make sure the property owners keep things clean.

"There's really no good, clear guidance within any of the codes, but we're doing our part as far as monitoring. We've gone far beyond what most agencies would do," said Kyle Shannon, a sanitarion specialist with the health department.

Councilman C. Edward Middlebrooks, a Democrat whose office has been helping with the issue, said he is considering legislation but is wary of adversely affecting pet owners who are not causing problems.

"You'll have people coming out of the woodwork" if regulations were tightened.

Earlier this year, when the Baltimore City health department reviewed regulations regarding exotic pets and farm animals, a contingent of pigeon racers complained about a rule limiting ownership to 50 each. Officials ultimately relented, allowing 125 each.

On Friday, about a dozen pigeons hopped around in one of the coops, and a second coop was covered with a blue tarp. Like all the houses on the block, the backyard is fenced in. A smell wasn't apparent from Bachman's yard, and no rats were seen.

But neighbors say they're there, especially on hot days.

"They've gone into others' yards, and they shouldn't be here," said Donna Adams, who lives two doors down. "It's disgusting."

The Stroes have kept the birds on the property for years. But in the past year, Bachman says she noticed rats in her yard and decided to take action.

According to a complaint record from the Health Department, Bachman notified the county last August of possible violations. In a written report, the health officer who came to the scene confirmed the presence of rodents and spotted several burrows in adjoining yards. But the officer wrote that the problem appeared to be caused by birdseed that had fallen from the pigeon coop, which Stroe and his wife agreed to promptly fix.

Because there was no law on the number of pigeons and no obvious signs of cruelty, animal control officers couldn't order the pigeons' removal, said Lt. James Ritchie, commander of the county's Animal Control division.

But the Stroes also said they were willing to allow Animal Control to help them reduce the flock, which had grown to about 510 pigeons. On Aug. 31, 2006, the owners allowed a rescue group to take 62 birds from the property, and a week later, it removed 400 more. That left about 50 on the property.

Bachman, an elementary special education teaching assistant who has kept a meticulous record of her discussions with county and state officials in a notebook, cited no other problems until spotting rats again in July this year.

Once again, Animal Control officers visited the property and found that the coop presented no cruelty issues.

"He opened it up and let us take pictures - there was plenty of room, and it did not appear they were being abused in any way," Ritchie said. "I said, you know, the owner has certain rights also, and we can't violate his rights."

The coop itself also appears to be in compliance. There is no permit necessary if it's smaller than 64 square feet. And the homeowner has set rat traps and put out rat poison. Reports that some of the birds were sick, possibly infected with E. coli and salmonella, could not be confirmed.

"He's been working with inspectors, and that's a good thing," Shannon said.

Bachman said the efforts are a "Band-Aid" and the problems are likely to resurface. She described her crusade as a bureaucratic nightmare, with county employees across several departments and elected officials and their aides trying to assuage her concerns while adhering to county guidelines. She said county officials have complicated matters by not communicating across agencies.

"I'd like to see this situation completely resolved, before somebody gets bit by a rat," Bachman said.


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