Chicken Little

Text by Kristin Pazulski
Images by Adrian DiUbaldo

Tink struts around in the hay as if she owns the place. Tink’s space isn’t huge compared to the yard surrounding it, but for an urban backyard chicken coop, it’s roomy and un-cage like. An old television stand with a ramp created from wood found in a nearby alley creates a lookout for Tink and the four other hens Trish Thibodo and Thomas Chairez just purchased. A kitchen cabinet turned shelter sits against the wooden fence, so the hens can spread their wings for a jump if they want.

Thibodo and Chairez decided to add chickens to their family last spring. As gardeners, they sacrificed a large chunk of their yard in Denver’s Berkeley neighborhood for a coop to hold living compost creators.

“[Chickens] help create perfect compost. We enjoy gardening a lot, so that was a big reason [for getting them], and then I really like the idea of … having your own eggs,” said Thibodo, who added that since getting fresh eggs from one of Thomas’ co-workers, she does not like store-bought eggs. “I can’t even eat the organic free-range eggs.”

Coinciding with the buzz around local food production and greening efforts is a growing interest in backyard chicken coops in residential, even urban, settings. A few major cities, like Los Angeles and New York, allow residents to have chickens without attaining a permit. In 2008, the city of Fort Collins approved having chickens in yards, and Colorado Springs allows residents to have up to 10 chickens without a permit.

In Denver, residents who want chickens have to go through a permitting process, which entails meeting with both Animal Control and the Zoning Administration, and having the city’s Department of Environmental Health visit your home. The city estimates the process could take about two months and costs $150-$350.

According to the city’s Zoning Administration spokes-person, there are less than 15 chicken permits in Denver (but more than 15 chickens because each permit likely includes more than one chicken).

Some, like James Bertini, think the process is too much.

“I’ve talked to many people who have gone through the permit process or have attempted to do so, and many of them experienced a great deal of frustration because it’s not a streamlined process,” said Bertini, who, although he has not gone through the process himself, is leading the charge to have chickens allowed in Denver without a permit.

Bertini is prevented from going through the permit process because he lives in an industrial zone, where even with a permit livestock is prohibited, he said. He does own chickens, though he won’t disclose their location or whether they are documented, and said he knows of people in Denver who have chickens without permits.

Two councilpersons support Bertini and have spoken with him about possibly getting the zoning laws changed to allow for a few chickens without the extensive permit process.

“It’s incredibly cumbersome and expensive,” said Councilman Chris Nevitt (District 7) of the livestock permitting process.

During initial conversations with Bertini, Nevitt and Councilwoman Carla Madison (District 8) offered to ask city council to allow for three chickens without a permit, but Bertini and the food-producing community saw that as a defeat.

“We had made a calculation about what my colleagues would be willing to go along with without much work,” said Nevitt. “But the food producing animals community said, ‘We would view that as more of a defeat than a victory because that’s not enough.”

At the time, council was tackling a rezoning of the city and rewriting large sections of the zoning code. The livestock requirements were not rewritten in the new code, which was approved this past June. But with budget-planning coming to an end, the council could have time to tackle the livestock issue in the new year.

Nevitt likes the idea. He said the food-producing community has been educating the public about the ease of keeping chickens.

“I think people are being won over, but as with anything new there are people who are opposed to it. Some of my colleagues have gotten calls, like, ‘Oh my God don’t allow chickens. My next-door neighbors are going to have chickens. There are going to be chickens everywhere! And they are going to smell like nasty chicken poo,’” he said. “So it’s important for the pro-food-producing-animals people to educate that member of council that, no they aren’t stinky, no they aren’t noisy.”

But aren’t chickens stinky and noisy? Isn’t that why we have these laws and an arduous permitting process in place?

Tink was chatty the day the VOICE visited Thibodo and Chairez. As she clucked and milled about, once she even seemed to try to get our attention by raising her cluck over our voices.

But Dove, their chocolate lab, was louder.

Tennis ball in mouth, she growled amicably at Thibodo waiting for her to play. Ozzie, their Shih Tzu poodle mix, was constantly whimpering for attention during the visit. The dogs weren’t annoying, but certainly made plenty more noise than Tink and company.

As I crouched in the hay inside the coop, I could spot a few dots of chicken poo, but couldn’t smell a thing besides hay. Thibodo and Chairez are using the deep litter method, where the chickens break up their own waste and it just drops under the hay, creating a natural compost to be extracted next spring for the couple to use in their garden.

As Councilman Nevitt said, “We have rules against things that are stinky; we have rules against things that are noisy, and we have rules against things that are dangerous or are a danger to public health, so if your animal is neither stinky, noisy, nor a danger to public health, why should we care what kind of critter you have?”

Thibodo and Chairez’s experience with the permitting process was positive. Animal Control lost their initial letter, and zoning required them to get letters of support from their neighbors, which they later learned is not always a requirement, but both departments were helpful. The entire process cost them $150 and lasted about six weeks. They even met neighbors during the two weeks a pink zoning sign hung on their house, announcing the future arrival of the chickens.

“It’s just kind of a long process, but the interesting part, at least for our neighborhood, [was that] we ended up meeting a lot of people because people were like ‘oh you’re getting chickens. That’s so cool,” Thibodo said.

Although positive, they think the process could be shorter and less expensive, and they would prefer people to be able to have up to eight chickens without a permit.

“After having gone through the process, but more so just after having chickens, they really are not disturbing … I guess it’s like any animal or pet that you have, I’m more advocating [that] people should understand what they are getting and how you provide proper housing and proper run size for them,” she said. “But whether you have a permit or not isn’t going to determine how well you treat them or if you are giving them what they need.”

After Thibodo and Chairez decided to get chickens, a friend introduced them to Sundari Kraft of Heirloom Gardens. In partnership with the Denver Botanical Gardens, Kraft teaches a backyard chicken keeping class, which Thibodo and Chairez took. Denver Urban Homesteading, started and managed by Bertini, also holds classes.

With Kraft and online research, Thibodo and Chairez learned what they needed to do to take care of chickens in their yard, and after attaining a permit from the city of Denver, they ordered six chicks online (yes, you can just go online and order chicks to be sent via mail). The chicks were born on a Tuesday in June, and two days later Thibodo picked them up at the post office.

Now the five chickens (one was a rooster and so was sent to Thomas’ co-worker’s house in Englewood, where they allow roosters) are part of the family. Although Dove and the couple’s other dog, Ozzie, don’t care much for the chickens, Millie, their cockapoo, has made herself their protector. She’ll spend most the night running outside to check on the coop, and then sleep during the day.

Tink and company, who are five-months old this month, are not laying eggs yet. Usually chickens begin laying in their fifth to seventh month. Thibodo has been checking the nests each day, looking for the first egg. She hopes to have them laying by December, although cold weather decreases egg production. Once the chickens start laying eggs they should have about eight eggs each week.

While many chicken owners intend to enjoy their pets on the dinner table after their egg-laying days are over, Thibodo said that won’t happen in their home. Though not a vegetarian (anymore), the fact that Thibodo knows each of the hen’s individual personalities so well, and her obvious affection for each of her “girly girls,” will keep the hens from becoming an entrée.

“I couldn’t eat them. … I think that if we were raising chickens for meat, then I would probably have a little bit different relationship with them,” she said.

But as it is, each one is another little addition to their family and entertains the couple every day.

 “All those adages about chickens that are so true, like don’t be such a chicken and the sky is falling, the sky is falling. It is kinda funny; those are all true, is what I’ve discovered. You walk in and it’s like—oh you’re the big scary human,” Thibodo said, although she has since won them over with treats.