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Don’t be chicken

from The Sun, April 23-29. 2010

To the Editor:

The recent proposal for an ordinance allowing citizens to raise chickens on their own property by councilors Tim Purington and Rebeca Lisi appears to have spurred a lively debate here in Holyoke. This is as it should be in a democracy. Ironically it is the humans rather than Chicken Little that seems to think the sky is falling!

This debate should be based on rational and evidence-based dialogue, not vague stories of days past when cupboards were lined with chicken wire.Emotional and knee-jerk reactions or epitaphs like “tree huggers” will not help further the dialogue. The urban farming movement and the interest in locally-produced food is growing stronger and has become a popular movement. It is not an ethnic or hippie ideology. It is based on sound ideas by intelligent individuals who strive to enrich their local community and protect their food sources. It is here whether the city of Holyoke accepts or rejects its philosophy.

Allowing citizens to raise chickens has many positive benefits. The nutritional quality of a fresh egg, free of antibiotic or hormone residues is not the least of these. The humane treatment of chickens allowed room to manifest normal behaviors such as walking and scratching in the earth is beyond compare to that of factory farm raised laying hens, the latter of which are raised on wire floors with just enough room to turn around, in a building where the light of day never shines. The educational benefit and sense of empowerment to families and their children in raising and controlling a food source is another obvious benefit. Additional benefits include discarded food to be eaten by the chickens instead of adding to over burdened landfills, and the composting of nutrient-rich chicken-manure for the family garden. Chickens are also very effective at removing insect pests, including ticks, from their immediate environment. Lastly, the pleasure and entertainment afforded by the observation of a clutch of hens can rival most midday soap-operas.

The negative aspects of chickens in Holyoke are few, and appear to be based on unsupported claims. First and foremost are sanitation and health concerns. Chickens produce manure, but as already mentioned this is a benefit to those with yards, and there is no odor if composted properly. The amount of excrement produced by three or four chickens pales in comparison to that of one 50 pound dog. Dog manure contains many more potential zoonotic pathogens (i.e. transmissible to humans) than that of chickens. As long as we are on the subject, you won’t ever see an emergency room victim of a chicken attack – I wish the same could be said for cats and dogs!

Salmonella (e.g. typhoid) and Avian Influenza (e.g. H1N1) are often thrown around as a perfectly logical reason to protect the public and ban chickens – except the argument doesn’t “fly” to those who understand infectious diseases. First, Salmonella is a species of enteric (gut) bacteria that inhabits chicken intestinal tracts and can be in excrement – but they also reside in your gut, your childrens’, your neighbor’s, your dog’s, cat’s, in fact most living vertebrates with an intestinal tract. The problem with salmonellosis as a disease is that it usually occurs in highly crowded, stressful environments (think factory farms) where virulent strains emerge. Additionally, the problem affects people when they handle raw, uncooked chicken products in an unsanitary manner – not in a small chicken coop on your neighbor’s property. The same science pertains to influenza of birds. A new strain of flu that affects humans will come from highly concentrated groups of birds in poorly ventilated, stressful environments (again, factory farms), not from a small flock of backyard fowl. Yes, wild fowl (especially ducks) could carry the virus, but it requires intimate close contact (beak to beak) or a really good fly-over duck poop to hit your chicken yard.

We have REAL problems to deal with people….The small diverse hobby farmer is a small scale solution to the problem of salmonella and influenza – not the cause! If you want to see how the treatment of animals has global health implications, pick up a copy of “Bird Flu” by Michael Greger M.D. Lastly I think anyone who has grown up with chickens understands how clean and quiet these animals are if given the proper environment. You don’t have to worry about noise or smell if your ordinance is clear and based on good husbandry practices. Mr. Purington has done his homework and is willing to work with experts to do just that. I applaud councilors Rebecca Lisi and Tim Purington in their attempt to allow citizens the right to live their lives in a healthier and enriching way. I heard someone say we have much greater problems to tackle in Holyoke –I couldn’t agree more. Let’s pass this ordinance and move on to more pressing issues facing this city.

Dr. John Perdrizet, DVM PhD

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