How time flies when you’re eating fresh eggs. As of yesterday, it’s already been one year since the Missoula city council voted to allow chickens inside city limits.
Public opinion at the time largely favored this move, at least judging by the horde of people who descended on a city-council hearing last fall wearing t-shirts reading “I’m pro-chicken and I vote.” Councilwoman Stacy Rye, who proposed the chicken ordinance, told me recently that she’s never seen as much interest from constituents as she did on the chicken issue — and that that interest was overwhelmingly positive.
Still, some people were worried. In a New West video report produced last fall, Councilman Jon Wilkins — who eventually voted against the measure — shared his concern. “If you allow chickens in the [city],” said Wilkins, “you’re going to get neighbors against neighbors eventually, because something’s going to go wrong.” Added Missoula resident Will Deschamps, in the same video: “People usually move to town to get away from farm animals, and it troubles me that people don’t really realize what’s going to come if they start having a bunch of chickens next door to them.” (The video, which I highly recommend, is at the bottom of this post.)
Proponents of the new ordinance felt that such concerns were exaggerated, but, just last month — as if to prove that Wilkins and Deschamps had the right idea, if not the right animal — PEAS Farm workers stirred up a minor controversy in the Rattlesnake by slaughtering three pigs with gunshots to the head. A nearby resident called police, and soon everyone in Missoula seemed to have a strong opinion one way or the other about an event I’m hoping we can all agree to refer to as “Slaughtergate.”
As reported in the Missoulian, PEAS Farm Director Josh Slotnick saw the brouhaha as coming at least partly from the “harsh juxtapositions” that arise from having a farm in a residential neighborhood. “Most of us just aren’t that familiar with where our food really comes from,” he told the Missoulian.
The neighbor who brought the initial complaint responded that her only concern was the use of a gun in a residential area, and she had the law on her side: though shooting may be an accepted pig-slaughtering practice, it’s also illegal inside Missoula city limits.
To the extent that Slaughtergate exemplifies the kind of conflict between neighbors that Wilkins and Deschamps were warning about, could it be a harbinger of things to come? In response to ever more widespread concerns about health, the economy, and dwindling oil supplies, a growing number of U.S. cities — 65 percent and counting — are allowing residents to own animals that are traditionally associated with rural areas. If there really is an inherent tension between city and country, this sort of clash should soon be breaking out all over.
So far, however, Missoula’s urban chickens — which are specifically what Wilkins and Deschamps were concerned about — are remarkable for how little trouble they’ve turned out to be.
“All in all, we don’t see any huge problems with the chickens,” Missoula County Animal Control Supervisor Ed Franceschina told me this week. Franceschina’s records show a total of just 14 complaints about chickens in the last year.
Considering this record, Wilkins says he’s changed his mind. “I was worried that there would be a lot of complaints, but it seems to be going all right,” he says.
In fact, more than one chicken owner I spoke to said that having chickens had improved neighbor relations, like Julie Gilbertson-Day, who used to keep chickens at her house in the University District.
“It actually helped us get to know our neighbors better,” she says. “Families stopped to show the chickens to their kids. People knew who we were because we were the people with the chickens.”
Leigh Radlowski, another Missoula chicken owner, agrees. “Most people are really positive,” she says. “They may not want chickens wandering into their yards, but that’s fair enough. It’s what you’d expect with a dog, too.”
Unfortunately, dogs — not to mention cats and other marauders — haven’t gotten this memo. Both Gilberston-Day and her sister — another area chicken owner — have lost chickens to cats, and Missoula resident Liz Dye lost some to a couple of dogs.
“Some Golden Retrievers from a couple of blocks away got out one day,” says Dye. “We came home and there were chicken feathers all over the yard. Two of our chickens were just gone, and there was half of a third one.”
But even this potential source of conflict didn’t amount to much. Dye says her neighbor was apologetic and paid for the damages.
In fact, it seems the only real problem with the chicken ordinance so far is getting people to buy the required licenses, which cost $15 and are good for one year. As of Monday, the city had issued only 38. No one knows how many Missoula households own chickens, but everyone I talked to is sure it’s more than that.
Gilbertson-Day thinks more chicken owners would register if the city made the licensing process easier. “It’s not well-known how to get a license,” she says. “If you could do it through the mail, it would be much more common.”
Of course, if Missoula’s chicken owners are lax about licenses, they are no worse than Missoula’s dog owners. And with only four animal-control officers for all of Missoula County, Franceschina has no plans to start seeking out unlicensed chickens.
“If we get a complaint or we’re at the house anyway, we’ll check for a license,” he says. “But otherwise we have much more important things to worry about than chickens.”
For more like this, read the rest of the Missoula Notebook.