When did you last listen in on a conversation so odd that it was kind of like watching a train wreck? If you’re on the New HillEast listserv, it’s been since January 3rd, and you’ve learned more about chickens than you ever cared to know.
Recently covered in the Washington Post, Caryn Ernst opened the henhouse gates when she posted a link to a petition to change a DC law that permits keeping hens, but currently requires the pens to be more than 100 feet from a residence. Ernst and her family are part of a movement to re-introduce chickens in cities in an effort to produce local, non-industrial food, and give her daughters a better understanding of how their fried eggs and chicken fingers arrive on their plates. In September Councilmember Tommy Wells began work to ease the space allotment rules and require would-be hen owners to get the support of 80% of their neighbors. Ernst says her family has secured the support of their direct neighbors, and collected more than 25 consent forms from almost all the neighbors 150 to 200 feet in each direction from their home. One neighbor has offered her grassy yard as a grazing spot.
Ernst has avoided the listserv for the last week, tasking her husband Josh with scanning it judiciously. At my request, she took a peek, and regretted it immediately. “What I find interesting, but not surprising, is that the responses online completely contradict the conversations I’ve been having with people in person,” said the Hill resident of nine years. “Almost every day, people stop me on the streets to ask how the legislation is moving forward and to tell me how much they support the idea…Many had fond stories of raising chickens as a child (some in Capitol Hill) or visiting a grandmother or other relative with chickens…So I know there are plenty of supporters of the idea, they just have chosen not to engage in the discussion on-line, probably for the same reasons I’ve avoided it.”
The topic has sparked all kinds of serious, cheeky, irreverent and sometimes mean-spirited comment. The City Paper tracked the conversation in a blog post about the chicken mania and included a number of the listmember’s comments verbatim. As of early Thursday morning, the ruffled feathers seems to have quieted down, thankfully. You can join the New HillEast listerv here.
Amy Cocuzza said it was the “raging nonsense on the list” that swayed her opinion towards the right to have hens. “There was definitely obnoxious noise on both sides, but I thought that at least a few of the pro-chicken folks were able to lay out fairly elegant arguments in favor of the initiative — and I thought they did a tidy job of addressing the anti people’s concerns. The No Chickens group, on the other hand, devolved into a retarded mélange of name-calling and fear mongering.”
She likened the conversation to something like this:
Anti: Disease! Smell! Noise! Booga-booga!
Pro: [reasonable counter-argument complete with citations]
Anti: You’re a doody head!
Anti: You wouldn’t want chickens if you ever left your house. Get a life, recluse!
Anti: Only a jackass would want chickens in the city — move to West Virginia, hippie!
Cocuzza, who has lived in the 400 block of 17th Street SE for five months, reminds participants that “the whole point of the Hilleast list is that we are also an ACTUAL community, the members of which will not-infrequently interact in the Real World.” She worries that the tone of the conversation doesn’t bode well for community building that needs to be directed at more significant issues.
Timmy Shinns has done his share of mocking the pro-chicken faction. “To be very honest, I don’t feel that strongly about the chicken issue, but I’m certainly not going to sign a petition to get the no-chickens law changed in the District,” he said. “I know only a few things about chickens, and all of these data points suggest that I would not want them as neighbors – they cluck, they poop, they march around in a disorganized fashion, they cluck more… I have a feeling that if my neighbors traded in their hound for a hen I would notice.”
The city is still a long way from having open arms to Ernst’s project. Charles Allen, Councilmember Tommy Wells’ chief of staff, said the bill that revises the law was referred to the Committee on Health, “but from what I understand, the Department of Health is looking at reviewing the regulations and submitting new regulations (likely not the exact same as in the bill, but most likely similar in intent) for approval.” The legislation would then be unnecessary, and any proposed new regulations would be put forward for public comment and review before taking effect.
David Cranor, who lives on the 300 block of Kentucky Avenue, is frustrated. “The ‘this is a city and we don’t have chickens in the city’ argument I find closed-minded (not to mention wrong, most cities in the world do have chickens, DC is an anomaly, not the rule),” he said. “The calls to ‘move out to Maryland if you want chickens’ sounds very unneighborly to me as do people who try to paint wanting chickens as some sort of moral failing (anti-social, etc…). Ironically, I won’t even raise chickens. Too much work. But I would like to get the free-rider benefits – cleaner Bay, CO2 reduction, better public health, fewer bugs – of having neighbors who raise chickens.”
Cranor thinks the rudeness and anxiety in the online discussion comes up because the issue challenges people’s ideas of what their city, neighborhood and home is. “People are afraid of change and there is probably a sense that it is the new people to the neighborhood who want chickens. Notice they always say ‘Why would you move into the city if you wanted chickens…’ as in you haven’t always been here, which may be a false assumption.”
Everett Volk gardens in a new community garden run in the alley bounded by 17th, 18th, C St. & D St., SE, and has planted food in both his front and back yard. He says his engagement in the dialogue is on two levels.
“First, there’s my concern about the issue, which I think relates to larger environmental questions regarding the rise of corporate agriculture, people’s disconnect from the food chain, and, really, a general disconnect between people and the natural environment. I’m a gardener. I cannot produce sufficient food for a family of four with the space I have, but I can ensure some portion of our diet is grown locally and with a zero carbon footprint.”
Volk said he engaged so often and sarcastically in the dialogue because he thinks the “anti-chicken folks were a bit too blusterous. I mean, c’mon, we’re all going to get salmonella and avian flu because chicken keepers refuse to wash their hands? Sometimes, you just have to poke the hornet nest, and this time I did.”
The next step in the saga will take place in Councilmember David Catania’s Committee on Health. Ernst will be pushing for an opportunity to bring the conversation into the public legislative arena. She suggests residents contact Catania’s office if they would like to see the topic move to a public meeting.
For a purely amusing take on life with hens, see writer Susan Orleans video filmed at her New York country home.