Pilot project permits backyard hens in Midtown, but critics are calling fowl

Residents living in Ward 21, St. Paul’s will be allowed to keep up to four chickens on their property for the next three years


The founder of Toronto Chickens stands with one of her hens in the backyard of her Forest Hill home

On Oct. 2, Toronto City Council approved a pilot project, 23 votes to 14, that will allow residents in select wards to both own and raise backyard hens. 

St. Paul’s will be one of the four wards (along with Etobicoke-Lakeshore, Parkdale–High Park and Beaches–East York) to participate in the pilot project for a period of up to three years, with a review after 18 months.

Those living in residential properties with sufficient outdoor space will be able to keep and raise up to four hens on their property. Roosters are not allowed, eggs can’t be sold for profit, and on-site slaughter is strictly prohibited.

The pilot project is a big win for urban agriculture supporters who have twice before tried to lobby the city to remove chickens from the city’s prohibited animals list, in 2011 and 2013. Ward 21 councillor Joe Mihevc is one such proponent and plans to keep chickens of his own.

“I have grandkids, and they are excited about it,” Mihevc said. “To take them in the backyard, show them how [eggs] are laid … they’re going to get close to them as pets and see the circle of life. I want to teach them good animal husbandry and use it … to build community.”

Backyard hens, although technically violating bylaws, have been a part of the GTA’s fabric for some time. A Forest Hill resident and the founder of Toronto Chickens, who wishes to remain anonymous, has been keeping hens since 2007 as an educational tool for her children. She said she currently keeps three chickens and one turkey on her property. She said she’s shocked it has taken a growing city like Toronto so long to adapt and thinks the pilot program will be a low-risk way to test changing the bylaw on backyard hens in the future.

“By December 2008, I thought the bylaw would have been changed,” she said. “[Some] 4,000 signatures later on a petition, at least we’re doing a pilot project.”

By her measure, there are many benefits to raising chickens, not the least being nutrition. She’s previously sent her eggs to labs for testing, and compared to factory-farmed eggs, hers have significantly increased nutritional value. 

“They have two-thirds more vitamin A, twice the omega-3 fatty acids, three times more vitamin E, seven times more beta keratin and four times more vitamin D,” she said. 

Englemount Avenue and Lawrence Avenue West area resident Jamie Bussin kept hens this summer, after the issue was brought back to city council in May, trying it out for his own journalism piece. Although he, his wife and kids enjoyed the fresh eggs their four hens produced regularly, the combination of Toronto’s winter weather and the economic viability halted their experiment.

“[Chickens] can’t stay outside when it goes to freezing, so you would need to winterize,” he said. “And it’s not economical [to rent]. If you bought the birds, maybe.” 

Rent The Chicken is a rental company that’s excited about the pilot. Kate Belbeck supplies the GTA with hens from her farm in Moffat, Ont., and provides coops, feed, dishes, treats, reference books and support for the duration of the rental. Although the city hasn’t approached her yet, she is hopeful a partnership can be forged.

“That’s where our program fits in nicely because it’s designed to be temporary if it needs to be,” Belbeck said. “It’s a good way to start because you do have support … and you can test what works for you and what doesn’t. You have an easy way to chicken out if it doesn’t work for you — no pun intended.”

But critics of the project say noise, smell and potential health issues are reasons why council should have voted against it. Councillor Jaye Robinson of Ward 25, Don Valley, spoke out against the pilot ahead of the vote.

“We should not be entertaining this for a second,” Robinson said. “It’s the most complained about animal on Toronto’s prohibited animals list for smell and noise, attracting raccoons and rodents.”

Belbeck strongly disagrees.

“One of the concerns that has been raised are mice and rats; they’re already there. If you’re careful about how you’re storing your feed and how you’re feeding them, [the hens,] you can help to minimize those issues.”

And noise? Toronto Chickens founder said barking dogs are far often more of a cause of noise complaints than her chickens ever could be. Mihevc said a Niagara neighbourhood allowing backyard hens had 500 dog complaints last year compared to 10 for chickens.

Animal Alliance of Canada has opposed the pilot project. Director Liz White said the project “reeks of disposability,” from lack of public consultation to short-term rentals.

“When the egg-laying years decrease after 18 months, people generally don’t want the birds after [that],” White said. “What do they do with them? Do they turn them in? Do they let them out? Do they slaughter them in their own backyards even though it’s not allowed? We know this happens because we get complaints.”

Belbeck said she takes back hens that aren’t adopted after her company’s rental period, to live out their days on her farm.

But White balks at the transient nature of the city’s pilot project. 

“How does it teach kids any responsibility for what is a living, sentient being when you don’t want it anymore?” White said. 

Another concern is avian-related diseases, including salmonella. Toronto Public Health spokesperson Dr. Michael Finkelstein said that, although he is not aware of any local disease outbreaks related to backyard chickens or other livestock, there is currently an ongoing salmonella outbreak linked to contact or exposure to backyard chickens in the United States. 

Still, Finkelstein agreed that hand-washing and keeping the areas clean would mitigate any possibility of illnesses spreading.

Bussin said he didn’t receive any complaints from the neighbours beside him but did receive one from an adjacent lot behind his property.

“We all have to be good neighbours,” said Bussin, who diligently cleaned his coop every day. “You have to be mindful of how your animals are going to interact with the neighbourhood.… It was definitely a worthwhile experience, but I wouldn’t want anyone to do it with their eyes closed.”

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