Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Dog vs. Hens Again?

I started a group, 4 Chesapeake Hens, that successfully lobbied City Council to allow up to six hens on all single-family residential lots with certain restrictions. But Council passed the ordinance with a sunset clause. This means that Council must vote by December 20, 2013, to continue the law, or our rights to keep the hens will lapse. On Tuesday, November 19, Council held a work session regarding the hen ordinance. They met with the Zoning Administrator, the Head of the Department of Development and Permits, and the Chief of Police. The meeting is summarized in a previous post. Here are my comments emailed to City Council regarding Councilman Rick West's raising of the issue of the state depredation law, which states that animal control officers must kill dogs caught in the act of killing chickens.

Dear City Council Members:

I  write to express the dismay I felt when the subject of the state depredation law was raised at Tuesday's City Council work session. Nothing about this law should seem new or surprising. The law was raised in the Staff Report provided to City Council prior to its vote on November 20. The concern was also rebutted by our group, 4 Chesapeake Hens, in a report entitled, "Further Information Regarding Chesapeake's Staff Report,"  provided prior to the vote. This report may be viewed at

Please be reminded that loose dogs are illegal in residential areas for a reason. The owners are responsible for keeping them leashed or on the owners' property, just as it is the chicken owners' responsibility to keep their birds on their property and in a secure enclosure.

Please note that this state law has not prevented cities around Virginia, such as Richmond, Norfolk, Hampton, Portsmouth, and Fredericksburg, from legalizing backyard hens. Nor has there been, to our knowledge, a single instance of a dog being summarily killed for chicken predation in a residential area anywhere in Virginia or anywhere in the United States where there are similar laws. 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 leash laws, or perhaps due to common sense on the part of animal control officers and people in general.

It disturbs me that Councilman West mentioned this point after a conversation with a councilman from a neighboring community. A grass-roots group, "4 Virginia Beach Hens," has found the state depredation law a major stumbling block in getting the ordinances changed in its community. The Virginia Beach group feels that raising the depredation law is a form of emotionalism and an excuse. It has asked its own Council why this law is such a concern in Virginia Beach when it has not stopped changes in ordinances elsewhere.

Furthermore, the Virginia Beach and Norfolk groups have  brought to our attention that a Virginia Beach City Council Member, James L. Wood, has allegedly been contacting City Council members in Norfolk and possibly other communities, raising the hue and cry about this depredation law. We are not sure of his reasons for doing this, but I can assure you that, if this is true, residents of these communities resent Councilman Wood's efforts to interfere with our rights and to meddle in our local affairs. Councilman Wood neither lives nor votes nor pays taxes in Chesapeake; we residents do! Let's hope that, if his alleged efforts have reached Chesapeake, our Council Members see his machinations in this light.

Finally, the depredation law has become a concern because it is out of date. It was developed to protect farmers in agricultural areas. But it has not kept up with the modern sustainability movement, where gardening and backyard hens have become highly welcome and desirable in residential areas. It is my understanding that cities have a process where they can ask the State Legislature to modernize outdated ordinances. We also realize that citizens have the power to contact our delegates directly and ask for changes in the state law. It is our understanding that "4 Virginia Beach Hens" plans to take this concern to the state level in January or February, and our group has pledged to help. If the depredation law as it currently stands is an issue, which we doubt, we invite Chesapeake to address this concern to the state rather than undo the progress we have made. There must be a way to adjust the law's wording in a way that protects farmers' livelihoods while allowing backyard flock-keepers their property rights.


Mary Lou Burke

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: Both the Virginia House and Senate voted to modify the state law to give animal control officers the option to seize a dog caught in the act of preying on poultry. The previous mandated been to kill it outright. Votes occurred in February of 2014.

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