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The chickens of West Central Spokane live in a coop near 24th and Mission, a modest little job of wire, sheet metal and bedding straw. The coop overlooks the river and has crushed oyster shells in the grassy yard. In the right light, the setting can feel almost pastoral.
But as chicken habitat goes, West Central — known locally as Felony Flats — can be tricky turf. Pit bulls and red-tail hawks patrol the neighborhood. Cars zip past on the streets. Curious kids crowd the fence for a view of the chickens.
“We haven’t lost one yet,” said Kim Pray, a 32-year-old law student, who owns the three chickens with her husband, Dave. “But we’ve learned to keep an eye out for them.”
The urban livestock movement can seem more whimsy than necessity, more social gesture than lifestyle. It can be viewed as a protest of the American industrial food system, but also strikes an old instinct: to raise and gather food.
“There is certainly a romantic nature to it,” said John Bottelli, a 37-year-old urban parks planner who also owns three chickens. His wife, a cellist, named them after classical composers. “It’s also an affordable way to get fresh eggs.”
In some cities across the West, the collision of these rural ideals and urban life can be jarring. In Missoula, Mont., the city council spent months debating an urban chicken ordinance last year before finally agreeing to allow residents to keep up to six chickens, no noisy roosters.
Raising chickens is legal in many cities with certain restrictions. Denver allows chickens with a $50 permit. Three hens are allowed as “pets” in Boise. Portland and Seattle also allow up to three hens.
In the Middle Ages, many European cities banned the practice of raising livestock, as neighbors decried the manure and the odors that emanated from the backyards of poorer residents.
“Many people think they are getting back to the way people lived, raising their own pigs and chickens,” said Dolly Jorgenson, a doctoral candidate in history at the University of Virginia. “What I’ve found in medieval sources is that we have romanticized the relationship between people and livestock in the urban environment. You may be okay with the smell of chicken poop, but is your neighbor?”
This story appeared in the preview issue of The New West magazine. For more information on the magazine, or to subscribe, go to www.newwest.net/magazine.