TAMPA — They climb onto your lap, craving affection like a cat. You can pet them.
"They're lovey,'' said Susan Ramos of the hens she raised along the Hillsborough River in West Tampa when her kids were little.
Yes, hand-raised chickens. Domesticated.
Ramos calls herself a city cowgirl. She would like to start a business selling coops to people who have embraced the locavore movement, which espouses eating locally grown foods, at a backyard level. So first, Ramos, 45, sought clarity on Tampa's chicken regulations.
She learned that keeping chickens in Tampa is essentially illegal.
The code, in effect since 1990, requires farm animals, including fowl, to be enclosed in an area at least 200 feet from neighboring homes. That's two-thirds the length of a football field.
"You would pretty much have to own a whole city block to meet that requirement," said Thom Snelling, Tampa's director of planning and development.
At a City Council meeting Thursday, someone from his office will tell members how the code really works. Code enforcement officers cite chicken owners only when a neighbor complains. Then the owner must get rid of them.
Ramos, who initiated the chicken talk at an earlier meeting, will be there, too. She suggests the council follow unincorporated Pinellas County, which passed an ordinance in December permitting up to four hens in residential areas.
In recent years, backyard chickens have ruffled feathers and run afoul of rules nationwide. In Seattle, a regulation approved in 2010 allows for eight domestic fowls per city lot. In New York City, hens are unlimited — considered pets. Most cities outlaw roosters, which crow. Hens don't crow and don't need roosters to lay eggs.
Despite the Tampa rules, chickens aren't new here.
They're in back yards in Seminole Heights and Forest Hills and on Davis Islands. Four years ago, then-Mayor Pam Iorio proclaimed Ybor City roosters free to roam the streets under a 1989 city ordinance designating Tampa a sanctuary for all birds, including "wildfowl."
People tend to love them or hate them.
In the past two years, code enforcement received 483 chicken complaints. It deemed 191 to be valid.
City Council member Frank Reddick's grandparents kept chickens in their back yard in East Tampa. The old hens that stopped laying eggs went into a soup pot.
About a year ago, a chicken showed up in his yard.
"It was the biggest nuisance of my life," he said. "It mucked up the flower beds and kicked up everything. Then at night it would go to sleep in my tree."
After a few months, he called animal control to trap it.
In 1961, Charles Shell opened a feed store selling chicks and eggs in the city. Today his son, Greg Shell, sells 200 to 300 chicks a week.
"People have always had chickens in the city," said Shell, who also sells 3 tons of feed per week. "I would say we're the go-to place."
His customers say they do it for eggs without hormones or antibiotics. He tells them to expect a hen to lay 180 a year, starting when they are about 8 months old. After two or three years, production slows. By then, many owners have grown attached.
When people ask if they are legal in the city, Shell refers them to code officials. His customers have been cited for keeping chickens. Sometimes, they've brought the birds back.
Mina Morgan, a lawyer who handles animal cases, recently fought for a client keeping hens in the city and lost. She will speak at the meeting, suggesting chickens, like barking dogs, be governed by nuisance laws.
She says she will take any chicken case in the city until the rule is changed, for the cost of courthouse parking, gas and fresh eggs.
Ramos says the lessons her kids learned about food coming from their back yard is valuable. She says the chickens give people a sense of food security.
"Chickens have a bad reputation," she said. "But they're clean and quiet and smart."
Last week, she brought home four chicks to her South Tampa apartment.
Elisabeth Parker can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3431.