Keeping up with CLUCK, Sarasota's urban chicken campaign

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all photos Kaley Soud/Catalyst

“Whereas at the request of the organization known as Citizens Lobbying for Urban Chicken Keeping (CLUCK) and other interested citizens, the City Commission wishes to amend the City Code so as to permit the keeping of chickens within the city limits,” proclaimed a Sarasota city ordinance ratified this past February, signifying the conclusion of an 18-month battle CLUCK waged to keep the animals. Eight months later, any and all nutrition-conscious Sarasotans can harvest their own eggs, all within the comfort of their own backyard.

Sarasota’s chapter of CLUCK came into being in May 2009 in response to local interest in re-legalizing chickens. Chickens have been allowed for most of Sarasota’s history, but were banned in the year 2000, partially in response to a man’s hoard of 45 chickens. The first interest meeting attracted 47 people, which encouraged the man who started the movement, Jono Miller (’70), to press onwards.

Before the ordinance was passed, people who were discovered illegally housing chickens either had to have their pets taken away or were subject to a daily $50 fine. CLUCK’s proposal to reinstitute backyard poultry met much resistance in its earliest stages,

with friction stemming from resident’s misconceptions that all chickens are loud, feral and dirty. The fear and negativity first associated with the idea of this kind of urban farming was eventually overcome by the reality of their domestication and their egg production.

“One of the main benefits is that the eggs you get from your chickens are infinitely better than store-bought eggs,” thesis student and post-poultry owner Jacqlyn Bender explained.  “They have less cholesterol, they don’t have to be refrigerated and, besides, they taste exponentially better.”

A statistic from states that backyard chickens have 25 percent more vitamin E, a 33 percent more vitamin A and 75 percent more beta carotene, along with “significantly more” omega-3 fatty acids than factory-farmed eggs.

Factory-farmed chickens live their lives without ever touching soil or being allowed their naturally-varied diet of bugs and seeds. These restricted environmental conditions are designed so that the chicken is able to produce cheap eggs quickly. After those eggs are processed, they sit on grocery store shelves for days at a time, allowing air to seep through the naturally-porous shell, severely degrading both the nutrition and the taste.

“I attended the community board meeting where they initially rejected the idea,” Bender said. “People just don’t like the idea of having chickens because they consider it like bringing the farm into the city.  Everyone was saying ‘my property values are going to go down,’ ‘they’re going to smell,’ ‘they’re going to attract all kinds of animals,’ ‘chickens have parasites,’ ‘I don’t want to deal with the noise’ – all of which is myth.”

“They do carry disease,” Miller explained to Sarasota residents. “If you look at the Center for Disease Control (CDC), there are about six diseases that can be transmitted from chickens to humans.  But when compared to other domesticated animals, there are about three times as many diseases that you can get from a dog or cat than you can a chicken. We argued that, yeah, there is some risk, but as long as you wash your hands and aren’t stupid about it, it’s no greater risk than owning any other pet; in fact, it’s less than most, so it’s not a valid reason to tell people they can’t have an animal.

“Some people want their children to grow up knowing where their food comes from, to know what is in the eggs they’re eating; there are people opposed to factory farming, people who need manure for their gardens and of course the people who recognize chickens as interesting pets,” Miller articulated. “People should be allowed to own chickens.

“The six cities most attractive to college graduates are all cities that allow chicken keeping, from Austin to Ashville to San Francisco – these are where young people migrate,” Miller said. “It’s part of a series of prohibitions, along with music at night and bicycle accessibility that scares away the younger generation that Sarasota lacks.”

With this in mind, it’s no surprise that a substantial amount of the CLUCK campaign was advocated and supported by New College students and alums. It was the combination of Novocollegian letters and the assuagement of the fears of crack-of-dawn crowing and disease ridden feral fowl that eventually changed the Commission’s mind. “Four hens can only make so much noise,” Miller affirmed.

Chickens’ nitrogen-rich droppings enrich compost, they peck up grubs and other garden pests along and they aerate the soil with scratching in their quest for tasty morsels. The ordinance allows only four hens per coop and one coop per backyard, big enough so that each hen has four square feet of space to nest upon. Roosters, a common fear and primary reason for the initial rejection of this plan, aren’t required for egg production; when a young female hen matures she will start laying eggs whether the males are around or not.

As to the noise, chickens have about 24 different vocalizations, but due to natural sound reduction over distance, they will be quieter than the native songbirds flitting betwixt the trees. As to the care of chickens, it is not more difficult than keeping other pets, outside of coop building, which has to fit specific parameters and keep chickens warm enough, cold enough and safe from the many predators who would make quick work of clucking hens.

“Never forget to bring your chickens back into the coop,” Bender stressed. “You can let them run around in your yard during the day but if you forget to return them to their coop when the sun goes down, the likeliness of the chickens getting eaten improves exponentially.” Bender offered this cautionary tale having had two of her own chickens killed by dogs – one of many tragic Novocollegian tales of chickens meeting untimely ends.

Sarasota’s CLUCK blogspot lists reasons why people should own chickens: from better eggs to free fertilizer, the benefits of raising chickens are not limited to home life – it even boasts that “toasted chicken feathers could reduce the cost of a single hydrogen powered car by over five million dollars.”

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