Paul Hughes looked upset as he showed me around his backyard on an unseasonably warm winter afternoon.
“Who has the audacity to steal chickens?” Hughes said, frustrated.
Unfortunately, three of Hughes’ six chickens were recently stolen right out of his backyard in Killarney, and if the City of Calgary gets its way, he is going to have to find a new home for the remaining trio.
On Feb. 10, Hughes was charged with contravening the Responsible Pet Ownership bylaw that forbids keeping livestock within city limits and carries a $200 fine.
The city warned Hughes twice before serving him with an official charge but as president of the Canadian Liberated Urban Chicken Klub, or CLUCK, he is prepared to take a stand. Hughes is adamant about protecting what he perceives as his personal right to secure his own food.
Local food activist Paul Hughes is fighting to keep his chickens within city limits.
Photo: Doug Horner/Calgary Journal
“As an urban farmer feeding my child I’m considered an outlaw and a criminal by my city, and that’s fundamentally wrong,” said Hughes, a single dad who works as an artist and food policy activist.
John Steinman, creator of the radio show Deconstructing Dinner, said debates are surfacing between citizens who want to take food production into their own hands and their local governments.
Steinman, who investigates the practices of the industrial food system, is documenting the emergence of the local food movement, and hosts an award-winning radio show broadcast by community stations across Canada and the United States.
Steinman said urban chickens are a great example of a relatively easy way people can become more involved in their own food security.
“You get an egg a day from a chicken so long as they’re healthy…and there you have a food you don’t need to end up purchasing at the grocery store,“ Steinman said.
Steinman also explained that chickens can help create a more interconnected and holistic approach to gardening. Chicken waste is an excellent fertilizer, and the birds are also a natural form of pest control because they eat bugs and insects that can be detrimental to plants, he said.
In March 2009, Vancouver city council voted unanimously to change city bylaws in order to allow the keeping of urban hens. Other cities that are friendly to these flightless birds include New York, Seattle, Portland, Victoria, Burnaby and Richmond.
Calgary Ald. Bob Hawkesworth said he is content to let Vancouver take the lead in figuring out how to successfully integrate chickens into city life.
Along with Ald. Joe Ceci, Hawkesworth brought a motion before council at the end of last year calling for an investigation as to what role Calgary should take in creating a local food system.
Hawkesworth said he is excited about projects like growing vegetables in vacant lots and community gardens, but feels the issue around livestock is just too controversial.
“When we talk about urban livestock, it raises whole issues around disease and smell and managing waste from animals,” Hawkesworth said.
He said he is also worried about the consequences of introducing other animals into the urban environment.
“One of the number one sources of calls to city hall is neighbours complaining of their neighbour’s dogs or cats,” he said. “Adding chickens to that mix is going to create all kinds of issues around what is a responsible chicken owner.”
In a shed in the corner of his backyard, Paul Hughes has created an urban sanctuary for these typically rural birds. A fresh egg catches the light, gleaming through tufts of hay nestled in the bottom of an old microwave oven.
Hughes argued that the Responsible Pet Ownership bylaw is out of step with the needs of Calgarians. He plans to fight the charge on grounds that it violates the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights that qualifies food as a basic human right. Hughes said he will enter a plea of not guilty at his court date on March 25th.
“I can have a 200-pound Mastiff dog… that could kill a kid in a second? Yet I can’t have a chicken that gives me an egg and feeds my child?” Hughes said.
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