Thursday, May 23, 2013

Why: opposing Lowell backyard chickens is good.

I don't eat chickens or eggs. I didn't come into this fight on a particular side. The position against backyard chickens in Lowell Massachusetts is roughly

  • Noise
  • Waste.
  • Property values
  • Stray chickens

Please comment, if I've missed something.

The pro-chicken people are less specific. They want immigrants to stay in touch with their rural roots, to give everyone a closer connection to what food is and to take a small step away from crappy industrial food injecting toxins into our bodies and our planet.

The biggest pro-chicken argument is that they don't create problems, or that chickens create fewer problems than animals that are now legal in Lowell. I haven't heard them specifically address the stray chicken issue. Their other counter-points are:

  • Roosters, the noise makers are specifically prohibited under the proposed ordinance
  • A 40 pound dog makes 4 times the waste of 10 chickens. The limit is 6 chickens per back yard.
  • The 10 places with the most expensive real estate in the country allow backyard chickens.
  • Brooklyn, Los Angeles, Somerville, Lexington and many, many other places have no problems with chickens.

In theory arguments come down to definitions and facts. Very quickly and very shallowly fact-checking I can see that Chickens in Beverly Hills haven't hurt property values there.

At yesterday's Neighborhood Subcommittee meeting John Leahy offered three unanimously approved resolutions directing the objective professionals in the Departments of Animal Control, Health and Tax Assessment to prepare reports predicting the likely impacts of chickens on these offices. In theory, the facts will become clear and the council will make a rational decision based on the facts. (I'm supporting this theory)

Unfortunately, chickens might not be the issue. At the meeting, the anti-chicken people used phrases like "those people" "lifestyle choice" and "decency". One speaker complained

    "We have enough with medical marijuana, now this ?" 

For the anti-chicken people, conforming to a particular notion of "decent" appears essential. What consenting adults do behind closed doors could be a matter of public concern.. Being "different" is a potential problem. Backyard chicken success in Somerville is a minus because Somerville is freaky place and we don't want Lowell to get freaky.

Actually, different is essential for growth. It is not a coincidence that Massachusetts has much more tech and tolerance than Mississippi. The sorts of places that tolerate harmless quirks like backyard chickens or allow people to smoke dope instead of drinking beer are the places that are open to different and better tech and different and better living.

However, by definition, a strength through diversity muscle system requires respect and exercise for all the muscles in the system. The anti-chicken folks are as important as the pro-chicken folks because they give a damn and they are taking a stand. If everyone reads Michael Pollan and Mark Bittman watches Food Inc, while sitting in the brewd coffee shop, sipping soy latte and eating quiche, we won't have as strong an ordinance as we will from being different.

For example, the haranguing of Bud Caufield, the apparent leader of the anti-chicken folks is often more helpful than it appears. He and I are both members of the Lowell YMCA, one of the places where old Lowell meets new Lowell. If I run easy on the treadmill to warm up, don't sweat and touch only the start and stop buttons with the tip of my finger, I don't bother to wipe down the treadmill console. Mr Caufield is not happy about my habits. He once stood, yelling at me red faced and arms waving for 5 minutes. He resumed his harangue after we hit the showers. His voice followed me out into the parking lot as I walked away. Apparently, "I didn't sweat on the machine, thanks for your input" isn't a discussion ender for everyone.

I still don't wipe down the treadmill every time. However, thanks to Mr Caufield, I am extra scrupulous about wiping down machines with even the possibility of a faint hint of my sweat taint. I'm not afraid of another rant. I am (now) aware of my obligation to keep to my committed position. (sweat means wipe, & no sweat means no wipe)

If the facts as established by the Lowell's professional engineers and planners do support backyard chickens, opposition to them is still a good thing. If chickens aren't smelly and noisy, patiently and specifically addressing people's concerns will help keep chickens from being a nuisance.

If the real issue is fear of the "other", listening patiently will help but not resolve the issue.

In Massachusetts, most people opposed gay marriage when the courts made it legal. After a few years, of living with it, most people realised that nobody had been harmed and many people had been helped. Most people changed their minds.

It will probably be the same for Chickens.

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