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Pluck for pets that cluck

Source: Houston Chronicle
Date: June 16, 2008
Byline: Carolyn Feibel

It's legal in Houston to keep chickens as eco-friendly pets, but break the rules and you might lose your fine-feathered friends

Lady Bird likes to sneak inside and lay eggs in the dog bed.

Gertie, named for Gertrude Stein, is the dominant hen.

Princess, Henny Penny and Daphne complete the backyard flock. They just celebrated their one-year anniversary, pecking away at a carrot cake from the local bakery.

"They are treated as pets, and then some," admits their owner, Kathryn Pait. "They are spoiled rotten."

Pait, a Woodland Heights resident, is one of a growing number of Houstonians who are spreading the eco-gospel of urban chicken ownership. They describe chickens as a fun and feathery part of an environmental, self-reliant lifestyle: the eggs produce food, the manure makes wonderful fertilizer and helps in composting, and the birds provide pest control and companionship.

"I went from going out all the time and enjoying the night life of Houston to sitting out by the compost pile and watching my chickens," Pait says.

Yes, it is legal to keep chickens in Houston, if you follow the rules.

The coop must be at least 100 feet from the nearest neighbor's house. The chickens must be enclosed by a fence; they cannot run around loose. And 30 chickens is the limit, unless you have an unusually large lot.

Yet even as the new converts build coops for their Ameraucanas or Rhode Island Reds, other Houstonians are finding that chicken-ownership is under siege. Conflicts over chickens seem to be growing in Houston, even as more residents are proclaiming the multiple benefits of backyard flocks.

"It is a culture clash with a lot of people who are used to a more rural lifestyle," says Vincent Medley, an operations manager of the city's Bureau of Animal Regulation and Care.

"People who are moving in are clashing with the older residents," says Kent Robertson, chief of BARC. "The noise is definitely the thing that gets them busted."

Poultry enforcement in Houston is strictly complaint-driven.

Last year, BARC logged more than 800 complaints about chickens — almost triple the number of complaints from a decade ago.

This year, the agency has written 150 tickets for poultry violations in just six months. That's more than all the tickets written in the previous two years.

"What's wrong with chickens?" asks Jesse Cuellar, a retired cobbler. A BARC officer has just knocked on his door and told him his chickens have to go.

It's quarter to 10 in the morning. A white rooster is crowing loudly and strutting in the tiny yard. Five other chickens scuttle nervously around on the packed dirt. The nearest houses on this Northside Village street are just 12 feet away. Even if Cuellar built a coop, he does not have enough room.

Jesse Clay is sympathetic but firm. The BARC officer gives Cuellar three days to get rid of the birds, or he will come back and write tickets.

Maria Quiroz has a different problem. Her Edgebrook lot is big enough. But she put the coop in the wrong place, too close to a neighbor's house. Moving the coop to a far corner will resolve the distance issue, Clay tells her.

But, there still are too many chickens. Quiroz, who grew up in Mexico, listens carefully as her daughter translates. She has three days to cull the flock down to 30.

"If I see over 30, it'll be $100 ticket per chicken," Clay says.

"One hundred!" Quiroz exclaims, then quickly finds a solution: "I'll cook a mole."

To most of the people Clay speaks with this day, having chickens at home is part of their heritage.

"My family was farmers," says Blanca Kroneman, 46, who grew up in El Salvador. "My husband wants healthy eggs."

Kroneman, who likes to let her chickens forage in the trees, agrees to keep them in the fenced-in yard.

Clay also visits three houses where he suspects cock-fighting. He says the signs are clear: the roosters' combs have been cut off, their spurs sharpened. One yard in the Third Ward has 25 roosters and just a few hens. Clay points out a roll of chicken wire, lined with black fabric. It is easily staked out to make a "pit," Clay says.

All the chickens must go, Clay tells the woman, who says they are all her husband's. No matter where the coops are placed, they're too close to the other homes. A new town house is being built behind the fence.

"People who move in aren't going to tolerate that," Robertson says. "The more condos and new houses come in here, the more these things will go away."

If you want to keep chickens in Houston, just keep hens. Roosters crow constantly, not just at dawn.

Hens will produce eggs without the roosters, which simply cause trouble, many chicken-lovers say.

Some of the new chicken-keepers do not have the required yard space, but they stay under the legal radar by not owning roosters.

Hens are quiet, and gifts of fresh eggs keep neighbors placated.

Antonio Villarreal says his neighbor's roosters have ruined his life. The roosters crow all night, he said. Earplugs do not help, and he cannot shut his windows because he has no air-conditioning, he says.

Villarreal says sleep problems forced him to quit his evening janitorial job and take a lower-paying one farther away.

BARC officials told him they can do nothing, because the owner has followed the rules. They referred the case to the Houston police, who handle noise complaints. Villarreal is eagerly awaiting the court date in August.

"It destroyed my life, it destroyed my property," he says. "I just want to go to sleep."

Robertson says the city has no plans to adjust the chicken ordinances, either to make them stricter or easier.

Noisy chickens, he says, are a minor priority compared to aggressive stray dogs, unvaccinated pets and rabid wildlife.

"It's part of what makes Houston such an interesting city," Mayor Bill White says. "We still have a part of our rural heritage in some of our historic neighborhoods, but people need to be mindful of their neighbors and the rules."