Backyard Chicken Ethics

Photo credit: Trish Tervit

As far as food goes, you can’t get much more “local” than raising chickens in your own backyard. But many cities forbid the practice. Zoning laws generally prescribe where you can and cannot raise animals for food. But such laws are not uniformly enforced, and when they are enforced the reason is not always entirely clear.

See this recent story by David Rider, for the Toronto Star:
Toronto’s backyard chicken farmers wait for the sky to fall

The story explores the plight of those Torontonians who opt to raise chickens in their backyards, a practice forbidden under Section 349 of the city’s Municipal Code. The focus is on the 3 chickens raised by Trish Tervit and her daughters.

What are we to think, ethically, of this lawless behaviour? I’m sympathetic. The ban on backyard agriculture is exceedingly broad, and (as far as I can see) goes beyond whatever public-policy objectives those who drafted it could reasonably have had in mind. Limits on the number of chickens raised, or chicken “density,” perhaps, would make sense. An outright ban does not.

It’s also worth noting that this is an example of the very best kind of law-breaking, namely the rather open form of law-breaking in which the law-breaker violates what she sees as an unjust law, and does so publicly, happily risking the consequences of her behaviour. It is, in other words, a minor form of civil disobedience.

What values lie behind this bit of backyard activism? In Tervit’s words, “…it’s teaching kids a little about where their food comes from, that there are ways to sustain yourself, and that chickens can walk around and eat grass and be chickens, as opposed to other ways egg production takes place.” So the objective, here is educational — generally, a worthy kind of goal. But the bigger point, here, ethically, is that when the relevant behaviour doesn’t hurt anyone else, there shouldn’t be a law against it in the first place.

(For more on these themes, see my earlier posting on “What’s the Point of Urban Farming?”)
Disclosure: Trish is a friend of mine. The eggs are delicious!

About Chris MacDonald

I'm a philosopher who teaches at Ryerson University's Ted Rogers School of Management in Toronto, Canada. Most of my scholarly research is on business ethics and healthcare ethics.
This entry was posted in agriculture, kids, law, local, urban farming, values. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Backyard Chicken Ethics

  1. Lex says:

    When I lived in Toronto, my 90-year-old Ukrainian neighbour had 5 chickens and a rooster in her backyard. Yes, the rooster crowed from time to time, although he was a bit on the lazy side and tended to sleep in. No-one ever complained.

    People who want to live in completely sterile environments might want to think about emigration to the moon.

  2. Paulette G says:

    Unfortunately the sky has fallen on backyard coops in Toronto. This mornings paper said that enforcement would proceed. Seems the topic was not even seriously considered for discussion. Basically people have been told, if you want to raise chickens move to a farm. I can see both sides to city farming, and I think the city side is looking at what would ensue from people misusing/ mistreating /not maintaining coops – and what special knowledge any investigator would have to have in order to determine if a coop was being properly maintained or not. Seems to have been a concern for added infrastructure (and of course costs) were this to be made legal. The major concern is not for those who properly care for the birds (an consider their neighbors), but for those folks who must have enforceable legal guidelines, which would have to be written. So much much easier from the city management perspective to keep the status quo.

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