Rediscovering Community in the Coop

Feature Stories Fall 2010 Issue

Rediscovering Community in the Coop

By Shannon Henry Kleiber | Photos By Jim Klousia 0

They came on bikes, in strollers and on foot, carrying cameras and tripods and notebooks. There were babies and people with gray hair, men and women, teenagers and toddlers. What they all had in common were the chickens. It was a humid and hot June day for “Tours des Coops,” a tour of eight chicken coops in the Tenney-Lapham neighborhood of Madison. The almost 200 tour-goers asked questions about feeding, drew pictures of well-constructed coops, and wrote down ideas for when they, too, might raise chickens in their own backyards.

Just a few short years ago, having chickens in a coop behind your house was illegal in Madison. Still, people had chickens in their backyards, converted playhouses and garages. They just kept it quiet, and they called themselves the “Poultry Underground.”

Then in 2004, Madison joined a growing number of cities, including Brooklyn, Fort Collins and Ann Arbor, to embrace the urban chicken—legally. The idea that every citizen, whether he or she is on a farm or in the center of a city, has a right to raise chickens comes at a time when Americans want more than ever to know where their food comes from. They want to buy local food to support their neighbors and help the environment, and they also want to be more economical and self-sufficient in how they feed and nurture their families. Backyard chickens fit right into all of these movements, and have the benefit of being pets that produce food.

“The more we can do to eat locally and sustain ourselves is better for the earth,” says Gay Davidson-Zielske, who is raising her second flock in fifteen years on Gorham Street in a converted playhouse decorated with curtains and chicken-themed plates. “I’m very proud of my chickens,” she says, to whom she has given such names as “Michelle Obama’s Arms” and “Freida Lay.”

But while many say raising chickens is as easy as caring for other pets like cats and dogs (or even easier), it’s often not so simple to make it legal. Many Wisconsin communities outside of Madison do not allow backyard chickens. Madison’s burgeoning chicken community owes much to Alicia Rheal and her husband Brian Whiting, who fought to make chickens legal in the city. In 2003, the couple was visited at their Madison home by an animal control inspector, who had heard they were raising chickens and who told them that, strangely, they were allowed to have chickens in their house, but not outside it. They had 30 days to get rid of their chickens, and they reluctantly gave them away to friends. But, says Rheal, it seemed silly. She saw an article about urban chickens in Seattle and thought, why not in Madison?


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