From Exploitation to Companionship: Urban Chickens Find Justice in Minneapolis

Advocates for animals take their victories when and where they come, be they big or small, real or symbolic, overdue or ahead of the curve. Last week, a decision in Minneapolis was a very big, very real, and very forward-thinking victory for urban animals—particularly chickens.

As Ian Elwood reported, the city’s new farming regulations dictate that “chickens are viewed by the city more like companion animals and less like livestock.”  Not only do clarified rules prohibit chickens (all animals, in fact) from being kept in community gardens, market gardens, or on urban farms, but—perhaps most importantly– they cannot be slaughtered within city limits. Commenting on the possible benefits that might accrue from this decision, Mary Britton Clouse, of Chicken Run Rescue, speculates that urbanites will adopt chickens “as companion animals” rather than as objects of exploitation.  Provided that most urban animal owners currently raise chickens for eggs and either kill them or pawn them off on shelters when egg production drops, any effort that encourages treating chickens like companion animals is welcome progress toward animal justice.

The reason behind Minneapolis’ change of heart involves the failure of the JD Rivers Garden Project. Designed to teach children the virtues of gardening, the program decided to add chickens to its urban farm.  What better way to teach children the centrality and supposed importance of animals to agriculture. Or so it was thought.  Instead of lessons in the subtleties of mixed farming, children learned that neglected chickens suffer.  Vandals destroyed chicken coops, thieves stole chickens, ramshackle coops made of discarded chain link fences made poor homes, and—when you get right down to it—these animals were implicitly deemed unworthy of decent protection. Over the course of a summer, children who were supposed to learn the beauties of urban agriculture absorbed the lesson that, in the end, these animals don’t matter.

What they witnessed was emblematic of what’s happening nationally. The trend toward keeping animals on urban farms is growing rapidly and cities lacking the foresight of Minneapolis are repeatedly being caught off guard by unintended (but easily predictable) consequences. The short-sightedness of the urban farm animal trend is manifest in the fact that the surrender of unwanted chickens, as Chicken Run Rescue calculates it, has gone up 800 percent since 2001. Craigslist now has categories for “poultry swaps”—code for “please take my chicken I’m done using her.”

The brilliance of the Minneapolis legislation is that it recognizes the basic truth that urban agriculture thrives best when it exclusively cultivates a wide range of plants for people to eat.  In Elwood’s words, “Minneapolis can serve as an example to other cities that are considering adding animals to their urban farming laws. The city has taken great strides toward achieving food justice, while encouraging residents to grow bountiful crops without putting animals in danger.”

A victory indeed.