TAMPA — It started as a playful Instagram page dedicated to Ybor City’s free-roaming flocks of chickens.
Dylan Breese, the founder of The Ybor Chickens Society Instagram page, gave the birds names that matched their personalities. He shared details of their days.
Six years later, Breese’s enterprise has grown far beyond taking photos.
“I definitely wake up and wonder how it got to this point,” Breese said, laughing.
Since December, he has leased 6,000 square feet of land on the corner of 17th Street and Columbus Drive. There, he built four chicken pens and a shed that is used as a medical facility.
Called the Ybor Misfits Microsanctuary and supported as a nonprofit, it’s where Breese nurses Ybor’s injured and sick feral chickens and takes in and rehomes domesticated ones abandoned in the Latin District.
The effort has the support of the mayor’s office, a city council member, a state senator and the city’s last operational cigar factory.
Technically, the Microsanctuary runs afoul of a city ordinance that prevents trapping and removing the chickens. But the city will allow it as long as residents are not peckish.
“The City of Tampa is pro-happy and healthy chickens,” emailed Adam Smith, Mayor Jane Castor’s spokesperson. “We appreciate all animal lovers.”
Tampa City Council chairperson Orlando Gudes, whose district includes Ybor, said Breese is doing something good for the community. “If someone comes to me and complains, then we will find out what needs to be done so he can help the chickens but without violating code,” Gudes said.
The birds remained through the 1970s, when Ybor was populated by low-income housing with residents who kept chickens for food.
The free-roaming flock grew in the 1980s.
That’s when longtime Ybor resident Tommy Stephens was gifted two hens and a rooster. A neighbor already had five chickens, all were free-roaming. The population grew naturally, Stephens once told the Tampa Bay Times.
Around that same time, former Ybor resident and business owner Cephas Gilbert once said, he had a coop that was destroyed by a storm. His 40 chickens escaped, and he opted to allow them to remain free and multiply.
By 1989, some saw the chickens as a nuisance and wanted to get rid of them.
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The Tampa City Council responded with an ordinance proclaiming Ybor as a bird sanctuary, which prevents trapping and removing the birds.
Breese said what he’s doing isn’t really trapping.
“That’s an inhumane way of thinking about it,” he said. “They’re a part of this community and a symbol of the city. We can’t let them suffer.”
Especially the abandoned ones, he said. They are domesticated and struggle to find food. And feral birds will violently expel strangers from a flock.
Ybor’s chicken population swelled five years ago due to urban farmers abandoning their unwanted chickens there.
Some of the district’s residents and businesses complained about the chickens pooping on porches, destroying mulch and publicly procreating.
That’s when Breese’s society, which he said has had dozens of volunteers over the years, morphed from an Instagram page to a group seeking to bring harmony between the chickens and detractors by cleaning the messes and luring the birds away from public events.
Still, those efforts were not enough for everyone. Some wanted to hire trappers to reduce the population.
In response, the city considered amending the bird sanctuary ordinance in a way that mirrors Breese’s effort. The city suggested trapping and rehoming abandoned chickens and sick and injured ferals.
Hawks served as population control before the city acted and the amendment was abandoned.
Breese, who has earned a chicken welfare and behavior certification through an online University of Edinburgh course, founded his sanctuary in early 2020, first using his Ybor home’s backyard as headquarters.
He has rules. The chickens must be in Ybor, for one.
“Please don’t call me about one out on Bearss Avenue or somewhere like that,” Breese said.
The sanctuary only takes in feral chickens that are so seriously injured or sick that they need time away from the flock and natural elements to recuperate.
He sends the birds to veterinarians when necessary. And he tries to make their stay short.
“If they are away for too long, they lose their place in the pecking order,” Breese said. “The flock will then reject it and push it out. If we have it out longer than a week or two, it becomes an outsider, and a fight might result.”
He finds homes for chickens when they need too much time to rehabilitate.
And he tries to rehome all abandoned chickens.
“They’re easy to identify,” Breese said.
For starters, he knows every feral chicken in Ybor.
Plus, “the abandoned ones are bigger,” he said. “They’re a particular kind of breed used for meat, so they were given growth hormones.”
It’s unclear how many chickens roam Ybor.
Over the years, the total has ranged from 30 to 200. It has depended on the season, hawk activity and how many are abandoned.
Breese estimates he nurses 25 to 50 a year and rehomes 15 to 25.
That was too much to do from his backyard, so Breese began looking for property to dedicate solely to the sanctuary.
Ivan Rivera, a real estate agent and president of the V.M. Ybor Neighborhood Association, connected Breese with the J.C. Newman Cigar Co., which had an empty lot across the street from their factory.
“We admire and are grateful for the work that Dylan and his nonprofit rescue are doing for the historic, free-roaming flock in Ybor City,” said Drew Newman, general counsel for his family’s company.
The family lets the nonprofit use the land for $100 a month, Newman said, and donated $4,000 for the purchase of the medical facility shed.
The company also designed Ybor Misfits Microsanctuary shirts, mugs and posters to be sold at the factory gift shop. All profits support the nonprofit.
Another benefit, Breese said, is the Newmans’ plan to relocate thousands of bats from a neighboring building to bat houses that will be installed nearby. Bats eat mosquitoes, which can pass disease from chicken to chicken.
Still, Breese is aware that he is playing chicken with the city ordinance. He’s been proactively speaking with the City Council, the mayor’s office and state Sen. Janet Cruz, who wrote to the city in support of the Microsanctuary.
“They work to serve a public benefit in preserving the culture and history of Tampa’s historic Ybor City,” the letter reads.
There is more work to be done, Breese said.
He wants to add visitor accommodations, like picnic tables, and allow school trips and tour groups to visit.
“The chickens have always been a part of Ybor,” Breese said. “They are a part of its culture. We need to keep them safe.”