Thursday, July 12, 2012

Virginia Beach Woman Faces Fines, Jail, Over Hens

On Tuesday, July 10, 2012, I had the chance to meet Andy Schneider, the "Chicken Whisperer." Andy hosts a nationally syndicated radio show about chickens. He is also a national spokesperson for the national backyard-chicken movement. He has been featured on CBS, CNN, and in The Economist. He's also the author, along with Brigid McCrea, of a book, The Chicken Whisperer's Guide to Keeping Chickens. The co-host of his radio show is Patricia Foreman, author of City Chicks, one of my favorite books on keeping hens.

As the founder of a local group called 4 Chesapeake Hens, I felt I had to meet Andy as soon as I learned that he was going make an appearance in nearby Virginia Beach, Virginia. Our group is trying to get the zoning laws changed in Chesapeake, Virginia, so that more city residents can keep laying hens on our property. Andy has a reputation for being extremely helpful to groups like ours.

His reputation is well deserved. Andy was down to earth, polite, thoughtful, a wealth of information,  and fun to have around. He was in town to support Tracy Gugal-Okroy, the self-proclaimed "Virginia Beach Chicken Outlaw." Tracy, a hair stylist, keeps between twenty and thirty hens on her 3/4 acre property in Virginia Beach. She claims her "girls" are clean, well housed, and very well kept. But her property is not zoned agricultural, and chickens are considered livestock in Virginia Beach, just as they are in most of Chesapeake. Tracy refuses to get rid of her backyard pets. She now faces a court appearance and possibly fines. She vows that she will not re-home her flock even if it means jail time. This is a real possibility for her if future court appearances go against her.

Tracy and Andy at City Hall
Andy had come all the way from Georgia to speak to the mayor and Virginia Beach City Council as an expert on backyard chickens, but it was not to be. There was a mix-up on the dates that the public is allowed to address the council, and the mayor would not make an exception to the rule.

It's a shame, because the council members of the City of Virginia Beach, just like those of Chesapeake, sorely need education about the potential benefits of backyard hens in our communities and how the benefits clearly outweigh any potential downside.

I did pick up some useful tips from Andy, enjoyed delightful conversation with fellow chicken enthusiasts at Croc's 19th St. Bistro, and came away with fresh appreciation for those who are willing to engage in civil disobedience when the law clearly tramples on our rights. While I have no personal desire to keep twenty-plus hens, until our communities come up with just and reasonable laws regarding the keeping of hens as pets that preserve our property rights, I see civil disobedience as possibly justified. And if Tracy has kept the hens as humanely as she claims, it is abhorrent that she could be facing jail time for her love of her birds.

Will justice prevail? Time will tell.

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