FORT LAUDERDALE — Big dogs are OK. So are turtles, rabbits and tropical fish. But don’t try to keep a chicken coop in your backyard in Fort Lauderdale.
Renee Rung has launched a campaign to persuade City Hall to change that. She wants the right to have a couple of hens so her family can eat fresh eggs for breakfast just like a farmer in Iowa.
She’s not alone. An urban farming movement has sprung up across the country in recent years. City dwellers have been questioning the logic behind ordinances that ban them from keeping poultry on their property.
A Hollywood family has been fighting the city in court to keep pet chickens, arguing they are part of their cultural heritage. A Delray Beach man pitched the case in favor of chickens in May to officials and neighborhood groups in that city.
Rung now has a vegetable garden where she and her three sons grow green beans, tomatoes, herbs and cucumbers. They pick mangos, blueberries and bananas from trees in their yard. She believes pet chickens would be the natural next step in an effort to go green.
“This is Fort Lauderdale, and no one wants to become a full-out farmer,” she said. “That’s not what we’re talking about. I like the idea of the chickens laying fresh eggs. It would be an extension of our vegetable garden. It would give our family a better connection to the food that we’re consuming and putting in our bodies.”
Chickens fall in a fine line between pets and livestock in the world of law and order. Cities created ordinances against livestock to avoid having a quasi-farm in the middle of neighborhoods, but a number of major metropolitan communities consider chickens to be pets, including New York City, Chicago and San Francisco.
The movement is so widespread that it has inspired magazines and web sites that offer advice on raising chickens in an urban environment.
Fort Lauderdale’s law dates back decades.
The ordinance makes it unlawful for a person to keep any animal in a residential area unless they are “animals capable of being kept as pets within a home” and are species that “generally are kept as pets and live in or about the habitation of humans.” The city’s list takes into account “dogs, cats, birds (excluding chickens, roosters and geese), rabbits, turtles and tropical fish.”
City zoning administra- tors said the ordinance was crafted to limit nuisances such as sanitation problems and animal noise. They get five to six complaints a year about chickens running loose.
After hearing Rung’s pitch last week, city commissioners promised to research the issue further. “I’m not ruling anything out, but I’m not making any promises either,” Mayor Jack Seiler said.
Genia Ellis, a longtime neighborhood activist and former president of the city’s Council of Civic Associations, takes a similar stance. She said the city must be mindful of a more ecologically-oriented populace and consider such ideas as pet chickens and community gardens.
“As the community changes and people’s interests change, city ordinances need to keep pace,” Ellis said.
Rung is not some Midwest farmer’s daughter, but grew up in Broward County. She said her family’s interest was piqued during a trip to Long Island where neighbors of some relatives had pet chickens.
Like others around the country championing urban chickens, Rung believes the eggs will be fresher and healthier to eat than their store-bought counterparts. She balks at arguments about noise and sanitation.
She said a couple of hens would be no more noisy nor create any more manure than a big dog. She had to educate city commissioners about the birds-and-the-bees when it comes to poultry.
She noted a rooster is not necessary for a hen to lay an egg and thus city officials shouldn’t be concerned about the loud crowing of a rooster.
“I would think most people would prefer to hear a few clucking hens than a jackhammer,” Rung said.
One of the state’s leading poultry experts — Gary Butcher at the University of Florida — said he is constantly fielding inquiries about whether cities should allow chickens as pets. He urges communities to keep an open mind to the idea.
Butcher, a professor of veterinary medicine, said pet chicken advocates are wrong in their belief that the eggs are more healthy, but he said cities should not blow concern about noise and waste out of proportion. He suggests allowing chickens with some restrictions — such as no roosters and a limit on the number of hens based on the size of the property.
“We are so urbanized now and there is a desire by some people to get back to nature,” Butcher said. “No one can give a really good, sound reason not to allow chickens if they are handled properly. You might as well not allow dogs and cats.”