Chickens and the city

Health officials concerned fowls will spread disease

Helen Gent, 16, corrals a chicken in her backyard Thursday in central Lawrence. Some public health officials are urging city commissioners to ban chickens in the city because of concerns that the fowl's filthy nature could spread disease.

Call it a dirty little secret: If you want to raise a few chickens in your backyard, chances are Lawrence city leaders aren’t going to stop you.

For public health officials, it may be a tad too dirty for their tastes.

Both the state epidemiologist and the Lawrence Humane Society director have expressed concerns that allowing chickens and their waste in the city limits could promote the spread of disease.

“It actually is pretty easy for little kids to get diseases from chickens, if children do what children do,” said Gail Hansen, the state epidemiologist with the Kansas Department of Health and Environment.

That might mean putting their hands in their eyes or mouth after petting or handling a chicken, which are known for having poor hygiene habits.

“The thing with chickens is that they don’t care where they eliminate,” Hansen said. “Cats tend to go in one place. Dogs tend to go in one place. They generally don’t eliminate where they sleep. Chickens aren’t that fussy.”

City Hall leaders may become a bit fussier on the subject.

Based on the health concerns, city staff members have drafted an ordinance that clearly would make it illegal to have chickens in the city limits – unless you’re living on at least 5 acres and meet some other guidelines. It also would give animal control officers the ability to issue tickets to chicken owners. The city’s existing zoning code does make it illegal to have chickens in most areas of town. But the city’s animal control ordinance – the law that gives animal control officers the ability to write tickets – doesn’t prohibit chickens.

Commissioners have not set a date to consider the ordinance, but Mayor Mike Dever said he thinks it is an issue the city should consider.

When the day does come, it likely will create a debate. Chicken owners in the city don’t think the idea is much to crow about.

“I would definitely rally the support of people who have chickens and who support this sort of freedom,” said Bob Gent, a Lawrence artist who keeps two chickens in the back yard of his Barker Avenue home.

There’s no good way to know how many chickens are kept inside the city limits, but Gent said he has several friends who keep them at their Lawrence homes. Dever said he also occasionally hears from people who mention being awakened by a neighboring rooster. That’s another reason the city ought to address the issue, Dever said.

“It is an interesting situation when you have animals that are bred to wake up at the crack of dawn,” Dever said. “I’m not sure everyone feels the same way.”

But Gent, whose two chickens produce about two eggs per day, said the benefits of having chickens outweigh any health risks, which he thinks are slight.

“For me, this is kind of a symbolic gesture,” said Gent, who has had the chickens for about a year. “It is a recognition of the cycle of life around us. I think society would be better off if we were more connected with where our food came from.”

Hansen, the state epidemiologist, said chickens are prone to carry the Salmonella and Campylobacter viruses. Both can make people ill to the point of hospitalization for diarrhea, fever and nausea.

“I definitely understand and agree with people being connected to their food source,” Hansen said. “But I think there are ways to do that without having them in your backyard.”