Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Do You Care About Animals? Why Turning Backyards into Barnyards is a Great Idea!

(If you want to skip ahead to the Action Alert, scroll down and look for yellow.)

You may already know that -- after two years of growing community momentum -- Denver's City Council is getting ready to consider a new Food-Producing Animals ordinance. The ordinance is still in draft form, and Sustainable Food Denver (along with all of the members of the Sustainable Food Policy Council) have been actively soliciting feedback.

Recently, a woman who is associated with a vegan advocacy group here in Denver has started sending letters to members of her organization, other animal rights organizations, and Denver neighborhood organizations. She, as an animal rights activist, opposes the Food-Producing Animals ordinance and the general practice of keeping backyard livestock. She is strongly urging City Council to vote against the ordinance.

Now, I want to be clear -- I very much support everyone's right to their views, opinions, and dietary choices. I also understand that conflicting opinions are going to be a part of the process, especially when we're dealing with an issue as public as this one.

However, no matter how passionate someone may be about a topic, facts still matter. The author of the anti-FPA letter makes a number of claims, and they're generally based in fear-mongering and fallacy. It's worth noting that the author's sole source to back up her claims is United Poultry Concerns, a website that sells a book entitled "The Holocaust & The Henmaid's Tale: A Case for Comparing Atrocities.

I'm going to address the many myths that were present in the anti-FPA letter, and counter with facts about the keeping of backyard chickens and goats. But, before I go any further, I want to say again that I have great respect for those who choose to follow a vegan diet. In fact, there are several vegans (and vegetarians) who support the work of Sustainable Food Denver. Here is what a few of them have to say:

"Six years ago I made the decision to move from a vegetarian lifestyle to a vegan lifestyle. Not everyone is willing or able to make that sort of decision. With this understanding I am compelled to support the Food-Producing Animals ordinance. I am hopeful that families who choose to raise chickens and/or goats will halt consumption of animal products derived from factory farming processes and continue to cultivate compassion for the animals they care for. Additionally, I believe the ordinance has the potential to influence and create laws protecting farm animals from cruelty and abuse." --C.B.

"As a vegan I actually applaud and wholeheartedly support the Food Producing Animals ordinance. I feel strongly that my friends and acquaintances with chickens and/or goats care deeply about these animals and care for them as they would any other companion animal in their lives. They have chosen to take a stand and remove themselves from the vicious circle that contains animal cruelty through factory farming. It would be a shame to take wholesome and kindly produced milk and eggs from them and their children." --T.H.

"I'm a vegetarian that loves eggs, however, I haven't eaten meat for 16 years. I know that the meat eaters outnumber the vegans and vegetarians, so I choose to work with them in our society. I think the benefits of raising your own chickens are far better than the nasty conditions of the chicken warehouses. The more of us that aren't supporting the corporations slaughtering our precious animals, the better off we are at saving this planet. We can only take one step at a time and if Denver households find it easier to raise chickens, they won't go to the local grocery store to support the evil American meat business." --A.H.

If your goal as an animal rights activist is a 100% vegan society, then be honest about that and work toward it through education and outreach. However, in lieu of a purely vegan society, I can't fathom why anyone who truly cared about animal rights would prefer that consumers get their eggs and dairy from Concentrated Animal Feed Operations (CAFOs) as opposed to backyard barnyards. Not every backyard chicken-raiser is going to be perfect, to be sure -- but on average the backyard barnyard is a far cry more humane than CAFOs.

Here are some photos of the types of places where the vast majority of Americans get their eggs and dairy:

In contrast, this is where my family gets its eggs and dairy...

All right, let's get to looking at the points that the anti-FPA letter raised. Later in this post, look for the Action Alert to learn how you can help!

Myth: FPAs are bad for cities, resulting in numerous complaints and an increase in enforcement costs.
Fact: The actual experience of cities that have tried FPA ordinances is that the result is either positive or neutral for the city's agencies. A professor at DePaul University did a study of 23 cities across the country that had recently enacted chicken keeping ordinances, and the study showed very few problems, with a "positive" or "neutral" assessment of the overall impact. Cities like Seattle and Portland allow the keeping of hen chickens and dwarf goats without a permit, and Seattle even recently voted to make its laws more progressive (going from 3 hens up to 8). We can also find evidence of the lack of negative impact closer to home. Fort Collins and Longmont recently enacted chicken-keeping ordinances, and both cities had the option of "sunsetting" (cancelling) the new rules after one year. Neither city chose to invoke the sunset.

Looking at the FPA policies of other cities across the country is a fundamental part of countering each of the anti-FPA arguments. If FPAs were truly so hazardous, disruptive, etc, then cities that had tried allowing FPAs would be undoing the laws at the first opportunity. Instead, we see the opposite occurring -- every week there is a new city (large or small) that decides to allow the keeping of FPAs in some form, and cities that had previously passed FPA ordinances are often expanding them.

Myth: Urban FPAs will attract predators to Denver neighborhoods.
Fact: Small mammal predators are a fact of life in the city. Outdoor cats, squirrels, birds, and – most especially – our garbage, all ensure that predators will continue to stick around. In fact, with our city’s trash system, there are probably several dead chickens right now in every block of Denver. They’re in the dumpsters – the chicken carcasses that people throw away after dinner, or grocery store rotisseries throw out whole if they don’t sell by the end of the day. This isn’t to say that if you put a live chicken in front of a fox then the fox won’t eat it, but it’s not correct to think that a few chickens would impact the predator population when there is already such a vast abundance of available food for them to eat. Note from Sundari: I have a neighbor that keeps cat food on her front porch. I watched a fox walk down my street, go up her steps, and eat out of the bowl!

Myth: FPAs will get loose and damage neighbor's gardens.
Fact: The proposed FPA ordinance requires fencing adequate to keep the animals contained. If someone's animals get out, they're not following the ordinance. It's interesting to be concerned about the impact that chickens (who weigh about 5 pounds each) and dwarf goats (who weigh 50 pounds and can't dig) could have on a neighbor's garden, compared to the possible impact of a 100-pound dog on the loose.

Myth: Passing an FPA ordinance will increase the likelihood of on-site slaughter.
Fact: The proposed ordinance expressly prohibits the slaughtering of FPAs in a residentially zoned district. Slaughtering on-site is against the law now, and it will be against the law if the FPA ordinance passes. Yes, there will always be people who don't care about the law. But, since those people don't follow the laws anyway, they're just as likely to slaughter FPAs now as in the future.

Myth: Eggs and dairy are bad for peoples' health.
Fact: I believe that diet is a deeply personal choice. We are all different people with different body chemistries, and not everyone can thrive on the same diet. For every vegan advocacy group that states that eggs and dairy are dangerous, there are groups like the Weston A. Price Foundation that say that an exclusively vegan diet is dangerous. What can be reliably proven is that the eggs and dairy produced by healthy, ethically raised animals is safer than what comes out of CAFOs (due to antibiotics, bacterial contamination, and a host of other dangers).

Myth: Raising animals is not environmentally sustainable, because the grain used to feed them is grown on land that could be used to grow other crops.
Fact: The above isn't a misstatement, but more of a misdirection. There are a number of factors that each person considers when deciding what to eat, and land use concerns are something that motivate some folks to choose a vegan diet. However, this discussion is not about whether everyone in the world should be a vegan. (That is a separate discussion, and if 100% veganism is the anti-FPA advocate's goal, then she needs to be upfront about that.) The backyard FPA issue is about how those people who do choose to consume eggs and dairy can best obtain that food. From an environmental point of view, it goes without saying that the well-documented pollution of CAFOs is a significant environmental hazard. It is also more ecologically sound to consume food that is produced in your backyard, rather than food that has been trucked in from somewhere else.

Myth: FPAs attract mice and rats.
Fact: The recommended method for storing animal feed is in a sealable, airtight container (like a big tupperware tub). It is certainly in the FPA owner's interest to keep the food sealed so that mice aren't attracted to it. However, let's also remember that lots of people throughout the city have birdfeeders, and they can also choose to leave cat food on their front porches if they choose to.

Myth: FPA ordinances result in an increase in FPAs being turned in to animal shelters.
Fact: The DePaul University study does not support this idea of a negative impact. If an FPA owner wants to re-home their animals, there are multiple options available to them. Denver is surrounded by lots of rural space, and those "country folk" have the sense to recognize the value of an FPA -- especially if it's being given away for free. This includes roosters that occasionally show up by mistake in a chick order and older non-productive hens. It also includes baby goat offspring. There is a significant demand in the agricultural communities surrounding Denver for dwarf dairy goats.

Myth: FPAs will result in an increase in noise and odor.
Fact: First of all, FPAs are much quieter than many of the critters that are currently residing in Denver backyards. Secondly, the FPA ordinance will address the issue of disruptive animal noise. In the unlikely situation that your chickens or dwarf goats are creating a disturbance, there will be consequences. The same goes for the odor question. Poorly cared for animals of any species are likely to smell bad. However, it is not challenging to maintain FPAs in a way that does not produce an odor or nuisance to neighbors. 

I want to close this section by saying that I have had the following people (among many others) visit my backyard barnyard -- seven City Councilmembers, the former mayor's chief of staff, the Zoning Administrator, the head of Neighborhood Inspection Services, the director of Animal Care and Control, and a Principal City Planner. If anyone is trained to spot problems with backyard FPAs or their impact on the neighborhood, it's these folks. Everyone inspected my little barnyard and saw that things were just fine (and I'm not even the best barnyard-keeper-upper I know!).

Action Alert: How You Can Help!

Once again, it's time to fire up those email accounts to contact our City Councilmembers and Registered Neighborhood Organizations! If you're not sure which way to point your emails:

Feel free to craft your own email from scratch. If you'd like to use a template, try this:
Subject: Backyard Barnyards are a Great Idea!

Dear _________,

I am writing to express my support for the proposed new Food-Producing Animals ordinance. Although the keeping of FPAs is allowed in many cities throughout the country (including Seattle, Portland, Chicago, and New York), there are still many misconceptions about raising hen chickens, ducks, and dwarf dairy goats in an urban setting. I want to share the following information with you:

- Removing the financial and bureaucratic barriers to the keeping of backyard Food-Producing Animals will have multiple benefits. It will result in improved access to healthy and affordable protein to Denver families, provide an alternative to industrially-produced food, and provide a way for our city's residents to participate in a sustainable local food system.

- Community Planning and Development, the Department of Environmental Health (including the Director of Animal Control), and the City Attorney's office all support the draft outline for a new Food-Producing Animals ordinance.

- Cities across the country have successfully adopted Food-Producing Animals ordinances, including some cities that allow these animals without a permit. DePaul University conducted a study of 23 cities across the country to investigate the impact of chicken ordinances, and found that cities rated the impact of the ordiance as either "positive" or "neutral" (link to the study at http://www.sustainablefooddenver.org). The adoption of FPA ordinances has not been shown to burden city agencies or increase enforcement costs.

-  The adoption of FPA ordinances has also not been shown to increase the incidence of small mammal predators within a city. The proposed Denver ordinance requires that FPA owners have a predator-proof enclosure for their animals, and there are additional measures that owners can take to protect their animals from predators. However, every Denver resident knows that predators are a fact of life in the city. Our current garbage collection system (with dead chickens in every dumpster in Denver) ensures that our predators have a consistent food supply.

- There are multiple avenues for FPA owners to "re-home" unwanted animals. Denver is surrounded by rural areas, and many "country folks" are typically more than happy to take FPAs (they do provide food, after all).

- The proposed FPA ordinance specifically prohibits the slaughtering of animals in residential districts. Slaughtering is illegal now, and it would be illegal if the ordinance passes.

To read the draft outline for the FPA ordinance, and for additional information, go to http://www.sustainablefooddenver.org

As a resident of your (council district/neighborhood), I strongly urge you to support Food-Producing Animals in Denver!

(your name)
(your address would be helpful)


greg said...

Please join the forum to discuss this topic on March 7, Auraria Campus, Tivoli 320. The timing is still a little uncertain, but will be somwhere around 5 or 6 pm.

Sundari Kraft said...

Greg, thanks so much for mentioning the forum!

It will be on Monday, March 7th from 6:00-7:30, at the Tivoli in room 320s. Folks can find more info here: http://heirloomgardens.blogspot.com/2011/02/denver-food-producing-animals-forum.html

Momma Bear said...

The irony of this vegan activist for me is that this is an animal rights issue, and it's us who should be riling us the activists, to support humanely kept animals that are, dare I say, loved and nurtured?

Sundari Kraft said...

The following comment was emailed to me by Kate Lawrence. She was unable to post the comment herself because she doesn't have a google account. The following comment is Kate's, and is posted with her permission:

"I am the activist referred to in the original blog, and I thank Sundari Kraft for pointing out the cruelty of factory farmed eggs and including the photos. The atrocious treatment of hens by industrial agriculture cannot be mentioned too often.
In my letter, I should have mentioned that I don't see factory-farmed eggs as a desirable alternative to backyard livestock. Folks who eat eggs would, I hope, demand humanely-raised eggs from CSAs and other small farms just outside the city or in outlying suburbs. As the demand increases, the price would probably decrease. This would allow folks to get eggs locally, create local business opportunities and support small farmers, and yet keep livestock out of the city."

Sundari Kraft said...

And now this is Sundari... here's my response to Kate's comment:

I agree with your hope that people who eat eggs would choose to buy them from humane sources. I routinely encourage non-chicken-owners to purchase eggs from CSAs and small farms. I'm not sure if increased demand would result in lower prices (typically, under the rules of supply and demand, higher demand means higher prices, not lower). It would be nice if ethically raised eggs could become more affordable. However, I would hate to see our small farmers start to cut corners in order to trim costs. It's also impractical for small farmers to increase their scale of production as a way to lower costs -- as they got bigger, their operation would likely grow less humane. Of course, the nice thing about a small backyard flock is that it's a way to get ethically raised and healthy eggs, garden fertilizer, and pets all together -- in an affordable way.