Chickens in an urban setting are a "real problem," says former chief health official
A tip of the hat to the editor of today's Vancouver Sun front page, who couldn't have given readers a more stark example of the priorities of this City Council. Chickens or public safety. Is that the choice that Vancouver voted for last November? Well, they're learning that now. Don't forget how they bailed on Metro Vancouver's gang response meeting.
Vision Vancouver have mastered the empty political gesture this week with two decisions. Sorry to break it to you folks, but backyard chickens will make us no healthier as a society, and a carrot patch at 12th and Cambie will not improve our environment. We'll talk more about Gregor's Garden later, for now let's talk about the chickens.
We were amused at first by the pending discussion on backyard chickens, a policy seemingly written by social planners in isolation of any real neighbourhood or public consultation. Our city has a very admirable and small group of civil servants who work on food policy. Much of their work is about education, caring for the land, reducing waste, and helping us understand how food is produced. They have a mandate to improve the amount and quality of arable land in the City.
However, nowhere on their website does it explicitly endorse changing Vancouver's health by-laws when it comes to food animals.
We can thank Councillors Andrea Reimer & Heather Deal for this avian alteration of social planning's agenda. Amazingly, Reimer admitted she never has been a pet owner, yet it's her motion advocating for more animals in our neighbourhoods.
Looking for a little perspective on the unintended consequences of city dwelling fowl, CityCaucus.com spoke to the esteemed former Vancouver's Chief Medical Officer John Blatherwick, now retired.
"The Vancouver health by-law concerning chickens was enacted before my time with Coastal Health, " says Dr. John Blatherwick. "While we reviewed the rules around many policies, there was no appetite from anyone around changing the rules around chickens. I think in an urban setting chickens are a real problem. People don't ever just want to have a few, you see, they want to push the limits. It always happens, nobody ever sticks to the rules."
Blatherwick's former colleague is Nick Losito, currently Vancouver Coastal Health's Chief Environmental Officer. Losito addressed Council during last night's hearing. "To me it's about how much risk Council is willing to accept," stated Losito. In a gentle reminder that good intentions have unintended consequences, Losito added, "The purpose of the motion is about egg production, but we have 'end of life' issues to consider, such as what to do about the carcass... I don't want to upset our friends in Engineering, but they'll probably go in the garbage although technically that's not allowed."
Losito spoke to CityCaucus.com today on Vision's chickens motion and was a little more explicit with his concern. "I mean this in a nice way, but I think that this Council believes in the precautionary principle, but they are not exercising it on this issue. It's been my experience that you must always set your standards for the lowest common denominator. As the SPCA representative stated last night, there are those who will take good care of their animals, but there are many who will not. These are the people the rules must apply to most. I'm concerned that we'll be making an irreversible decision."
"Anecdotally, there are chickens out there already," continues Losito. "What we're hearing that's most worrisome is that people are raising chickens in our high rise buildings. That's akin to cruelty to animals. Horror stories are bound to happen. And if there's an outbreak of disease from these birds, the Public Health Act will trump any rules set by Vancouver City Council. People will lose their chickens for kilometres around the outbreak. We don't want to create a situation like this."
I asked Losito if authorities will be losing an important enforcement tool when dealing with irresponsible chicken owners. His answer was yes. The BC Centre for Disease Control has been asked to weigh in with their own recommendations, which it's hoped the Vision Council will consider.
So our animal advocates and environmental health officials were pretty explicit in their concerns and outright opposition to Vision's chicken plan. Over at the Courier, one of their best writers Sandra Thomas adds her two cents on the chicken subject.
A more measured approach might have been to put more teeth on former NPA Councillor Kim Capri's free range chicken motion that was openly jeered by Vision Vancouver. The Mayor's now Executive Assistant Kevin "Vancouver Kid" Quinlan blogged this in July 2007 (blog taken down):
Must.....post......ridiculous......NPA motion that does nothing and shows how little ideas they have because this is the last council meeting until September and it's their only motion this week....the motion does nothing but "encourage" and "request"....
Makes me wonder if I can go on strike from my city council and renegotiate how they represent me.
Quinlan's former blog is the gift that keeps on giving to CityCaucus.com. A Vision Vancouver staffer while he wrote about city politics, the cynical youth's commentary is a good bellwether for what the party really stands for. In this case it was another cheap shot.
Capri's motion proposed that restaurants in both city-run and private operations adopt a policy of buying free range (healthier) chickens instead of penned birds wherever possible. Essentially, it accomplishes the work of the Reimer/Deal motion at a larger scale, by placing emphasis on living conditions for animals and improving the quality of the food. What the public heard from Vision then was mockery. My how time changes everything.
So now city staff have been told to run along and find a way to bring a little bit of country to Vancouver's single family neighbourhoods. Deal and Reimer, with the support of a farmboy mayor, get their laurels from the food security crowd. And Vancouver's communities stand by to see if they'll be on the front lines of a social experiment.