If you get caught with feathered friends in Cary, the excuse "Ain't nobody here but us chickens" won't fly. But next door in Raleigh, Carrboro and, most recently, Durham, chickens are free to cross the road whenever they please. What gives?
Keeping domesticated chickens for eggs and meat is not a new concept, but most people imagine them on farms in rural areas. However, as interest in local and organic food has grown, people in Wake Forest, Carrboro and Raleigh have begun keeping a few chickens at home for food, fertilizer and even friendship. Meanwhile, in Cary, community groups are fighting for the right to poultry.
When Michael Manfre and his wife, Alissa, organizers of www.carychickens.com, moved to Cary, they were able to buy land large enough to accommodate berry bushes and fruit trees, but upon checking the local municipal codes, realized that they could not own chickens. "The only reason I can think of why people are against them is that it would make Cary look redneck," he says.
Cary Town Council member Don Frantz, who last summer voted against a proposal allowing chickens, said chickens could harm the town's image. "People choose Cary because they want to live in a suburban area, not the country. We are one of the premier towns in the state." He also expressed concern that the town would have to spend more money on staff to monitor the chickens.
When he was a child, Frantz's family had chickens, so his description of them as smelly and noisy comes from personal experience. "It's not fair to a neighbor to have to put up with that, especially in the small subdivision lots," he said, noting that residents are allowed to keep chickens on lots larger than one acre. "And how do we discriminate with people who want turkeys or pigs?"
Michael Manfre disagreed: "Chickens are not a gateway pet."
Yet, even with towns all around him allowing chickens, Frantz stands firm. "We're more concerned with what Cary needs," he said. "The other towns caved to political pressure."
Just a few miles away, in one of those other towns, a group of six guys from North Carolina State University have turned their off-campus house into more of an animal farm than Animal House.
"A couple of the roommates are majoring in horticulture and permaculture," said Stewart Bean, a graphic design major from Edenton, "so we thought, 'Why not?'" A communal house decision made them the proud owners and raisers of seven chickens.
Their chickens, two bought as chicks and the others bought off Craigslist as 3-month-olds, live in a homemade coop fashioned with recycled siding and fencing. A bed of hay is changed regularly to control the smell. People often stop by to look at or hold the chickens. The only problem they've had is a hungry hawk, perhaps inspired by Chick-fil-A's "Eat more chicken" ads; the bird swooped down and left behind a chicken's head. (Ironically, the hawk did not eat Truett or Jeannette, the chickens the guys named after the founders of the restaurant.)
But some Raleigh residents have had less success. Sandi Brinich also built a homemade coop and had been enjoying baking with her fresh eggs, but she recently got rid of her chickens after her neighbors complained.
"They're really low maintenance," Brinich said. "I gave them water, pellets and opened the coop door in the morning and closed it at night." Chickens truly do come home to roost, hanging out mostly around the coop and heading inside when the sun sets. (Roosters are not allowed per city ordinances, so there is no cock-a-doodle-dooing.) "But after awhile, mine were getting more adventurous and, since my yard is only partially fenced in, they started hanging around at my neighbor's house. She has a 2-year-old and didn't want him to have poopy feet."
Brinch posted "Chickens: Free to a Good Home" on Craigslist and had a dozen responses in five minutes. So Penelope, Emilene, Margery and Marsalla de-cooped to a five-acre farm in Carrboro. "They'll probably be happier there anyway," Brinich said, but come spring she may fence in her yard and start again with baby chicks.
Back across the town line, the fight for chickens continues. Cary resident Brie Foley and her husband, Gabriel, planned to defy the code and get chickens anyway, but they recently decided to hold off. "I don't want to besmirch the good name of chickens owners," Foley said.
Foley had consulted with her neighbors, and not only did they support her, they were excited. "One said she would take any extra poop I had for her garden," she said.
"Chickens are the cornerstones of perma-culture," she added, referring to the movement toward bio-intensive gardening for self-sufficiency and sustainability. "A lot of people have organic gardens—why not take it a step forward and make your own fertilizer?"
Along with producing eggs, shells that are returned to the soil via compost, and fertilizer, chickens also eat garden pests and table scraps. As to the argument that chickens are "not Cary," Foley counters, "Martha Stewart has chickens, and if any town would be a Martha Stewart town, Cary would be it."
Foley plans to keep chickens at her mother's farm in Virginia until the rules change. She doesn't plan to eat her chickens but said she would consider it if the chickens lived past their laying days. However, she would have them properly slaughtered by a butcher, as is required. As to the fear of some that a child will be traumatized by the sight of a neighbor chopping off a chicken's head, Foley says, "So what? People need to know where their food comes from."
Similar battles have been waged successfully around the Triangle. Wake Forest now allows residents to keep up to 10 chickens without a permit or checking with neighbors, and the Durham City Council voted in February to approve a similar proposal.
Kavanah Ramsier, a coordinator at Durham's SEEDS community garden, has been heading up the fight for Durham HENS (Healthy Eggs in Neighborhoods Soon) by speaking to local media, community groups and neighborhoods. "It has been an incredibly long process, almost a year and a half," she says. The group collected more than 1,500 signatures at events ranging from senior center meetings to the Eno River festival to bring a petition before the joint city-county commission.
Dr. Michael Martin, an assistant professor of poultry health management at North Carolina State University, says that fear is being used to drive people away from chickens.
"Fear of disease is a good sales pitch," he said. "You can get much further with the 'chickens have disease' than the 'chickens are smelly,'" he said. Martin noted that there have been fewer than 300 reported cases of avian flu in humans over the past 11 years and none in the United States. "All pets have bugs. Dogs and cats have hookworm and round worm. Reptiles have salmonella. They all use the bathroom in yards or cages or litter boxes. It just takes good common sense to keep them clean and healthy," he said.
Dr. John Barnes, a professor in the same program, agrees. "The people I know who have them are just as passionate and committed to their chickens as others are to their dogs or cats."
For his part, Manfre pledges to continue to "give a cluck about Cary." "Some neighborhoods have sports, crafts or dog parks," he said. "We want chickens."