Saturday, May 4, 2013

Dogs vs. Chickens in Chesapeake? A Rational Answer...

Catherine M. White on April 28, 2013, stated on the Pilot Online: "There is a VA state law that states that any dog who chases a chicken must be put to death. Does that mean that their dog that killed one of their chickens should be put to death? We can't pick & choose the areas of the law that we like." Mrs. White has been posting similar posts on other media-related websites. Forgive me for paraphrasing "Chicken Little," but her theme from these and other comments seems to be that if Chesapeake's City Council does not rescind a new ordinance allowing up to six laying hens on single-family residential lots, the sky will somehow fall.

But is any there truth to what Mrs. White is claiming? The issue has certainly been in the news, particularly in regard to efforts by Virginia Beach residents to get backyard hens legalized there. The law has come up both on television and in the newspaper.

I am the founder and one of the leaders of 4 Chesapeake Hens, the community group that has convinced Chesapeake City Council to allow up to six "female chickens" in single-family residential backyards with certain restrictions. Here is my response to Mrs. White's post, posted Thursday, May 2:

"Most urban chicken keepers also love other animals. Many of us keep dogs. There are leash laws and chickens must be kept in a pen on the owners' own property.

"There is some wording in the Virginia State codes that it is a 'duty' of animal control or other officers to kill a dog that they catch *in the act of* killing livestock or poultry. The same law allows the owners of the livestock to kill the dog if they catch it in the act on their property. The intent of the law is to protect the rights of farmers in agricultural areas. The livestock are, after all, farmers' livelihood. Unless the dog is caught in the act, the 'duty' clause does not apply. There are similar laws in other states in other areas of the country.
Despite that, our group has not been able to find a single instance in Virginia or anywhere else in the country where a dog has been killed by an officer of the law or by a property owner because it was attacking an urban micro-flock. Perhaps this is due to the fact that the discharge of firearms is illegal in residential areas, perhaps due to the use of fences and to leash laws, or perhaps due to plain old common sense on the part of officers and of people in general."

Readers may actually scrutinize the wording of the state law for themselves by clicking here. It is clear that, except for dogs caught in the actual act of killing the livestock or poultry, there is plenty of opportunity for careful investigation and for protecting dogs through the courts. A dog is not a confirmed poultry killer until its third act of killing poultry. Even then, the owner can save the dog's life by moving it out of state. 4 Virginia Beach Hens believes the concerns about dogs' lives is an excuse or a stalling tactic by their City Council, and we suspect they might be right. Despite this, the law does cause some concern among animal control officers who have contacted us, and it has been a real roadblock to chickens in Virginia Beach. Our group intends to address this law at the state level to try to amend the language to accommodate the needs of both urban and rural flock-keepers. In the meantime, we ask the public to keep concerns about danger to dogs in perspective.

Update: On November 26, 2013, Chesapeake City Council voted to make the "hen ordinance" permanent. The meeting may be viewed online:  fast forward to 1:19 to see some great pro-chicken speeches and the City Council's reaction.

Update: in February of 2014 the Virginia legislature voted to amend this law to allow Animal Control Officers the option to seize the predatory dog instead of killing it outright. The amendment had broad support.

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