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The story of Fuzzy Feet: Has the urban chicken's time finally come?

The one they called Fuzzy Feet for her fancy feathered pantaloons no longer lives behind the small bungalow on Genesee Street.

Gone too are her companions — Henrietta, Buffy, Blondie and Penny. They were spirited from the house where they scratched and clucked and roosted to an undisclosed location. Now they are chickens on the lam from the law, or at least from Tampa municipal code #19-76.

So no longer does Ginger Lyons get home after a long day to visit her girls in the back yard and hear their murmurings and cluckings. (No crowing. The girls did not crow.) Gone are the fresh eggs and the fertilizer for the local community garden. Gone are the girls that gave Lyons and her boyfriend, a retired veteran, a small sort of peace, the way good pets will.

In case you hadn't noticed, chickens are hip. Chickens are hot. Chickens are all about the local food movement. Their presence no longer makes yours the kind of city where folks put on their good overalls for a trip downtown. Blogs discuss "outlaw" and "urban" chickens. Actual bumper sticker: Wherever chickens are outlawed, only outlaws will have chickens!

In other places, rules on keeping chickens are somewhat looser. Backyard hens just got legal in unincorporated Pinellas. In Tampa's Ybor City, chickens strut around like they own the joint, and in a way they do, their ancestors having arrived a century ago with Italian and Cuban immigrants. Ybor chickens are, to use a legal term, "wild" and therefore allowed.

In my own Tampa neighborhood is a (legal) parrot that routinely screams like a woman being murdered. I prefer the (illegal) roosters pluckily announcing the morning. Backyard chickens have thrived even in the nice neighborhood where the mayor resides.

Tampa rules say "fowl" must be 200 feet from the next house, and in dense neighborhoods where you can stand in your side yard and rap on your neighbor's window, this is not possible. But Tampa also has a sensible don't-ask-don't-tell chicken policy. Unless there's a complaint, says code enforcement director Jake Slater, they do not hunt down illegal chickens. You could say they let sleeping chickens lie.

Lyons' neighbor Eric Haase said the hens were loud. "The health risks posed by keeping those animals on those postage-sized lots, it's just crazy," he said. The code enforcement officer found their quarters clean and not smelly. But those 200 feet …

If you need a reason to like lawyers, here's one: Mina Morgan, who does animal law, took the case for the price of courthouse parking, gas and fresh eggs. She argued the girls were pets exempt from the distance rule. By a 4-1 vote, the chickens lost.

So Lyons found the girls a new family, "a good home" in an undisclosed location. (I did not ask how far from the next house.) She misses them.

"Sometimes, it isn't easy to enforce the code," acknowledged Ernie Mueller, the city's attorney on the case. "But it is the code, and people have an expectation to have the code enforced."

Here's the thing about evolving cities: Rules can change.

On March 15, the Tampa City Council takes up urban chickens. Expect pro- and anti-chicken lobbying. And if we're lucky, the council will figure a way to balance concerns of cleanliness and noise (parrot, anyone?) with the growing number of city folk who happen to like chickens.

The story of Fuzzy Feet: Has the urban chicken's time finally come? 03/01/12 [Last modified: Thursday, March 1, 2012 7:12pm]
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