Are chickens fit only for a farm, or are they egg-laying pets that belong in suburban back yards?
That question has landed on city council agendas across Minnesota, driven by chicken enthusiasts who name their birds and create Facebook pages to fight city chicken bans.
In White Bear Lake and Bloomington, residents have asked for looser rules that would allow for backyard hens. There have been so many similar requests that the League of Minnesota Cities has been researching chicken ordinances around the state.
The discussion can get heated, especially between people who grew up on farms and those who see backyard chickens as charming pets and bearers of organic eggs.
"It's a hot topic," said Rachel Carlson, research staff attorney for the League of Minnesota Cities. "The classic debate seems to be between one side that says [chickens are] noisy and they don't want to smell chicken poop. The other side says dogs are much more noisy, and they have bigger poop."
Most Minnesota cities still prohibit chickens within their borders, including Eden Prairie and Golden Valley, each of which briefly discussed changes but stuck to their chicken bans.
White Bear Lake is debating an ordinance that would allow residents to keep up to six hens.
And in Bloomington, the City Council next month will consider letting residents keep up to four hens in coops that are shielded from neighbors and at least 30 feet from the property line. Existing rules make it impossible for most homeowners in the city to have chickens.
Jeanie Mellem pushed Bloomington to reconsider its rules after she was cited in February for having four hens -- named Gretchen, Grace, Carolyn and Emma -- in a back-yard coop.
Delighted with the city's proposal to relax its rules, she was shaken at a Planning Commission hearing this week when a commissioner who grew up on a farm adamantly opposed the change.
"People seem to either hate them or love [chickens]," Mellem said. "I'm doing my best to educate people. A lot of people don't know a lot about chickens."
Mellem finds "the ladies" a soothing addition to her yard. She pets the hens, gives eggs to neighbors and allows neighbor kids to visit. Their soft clucking is relaxing, she says, and she enjoys watching them.
"Maybe it's a simpler life," Mellem said last spring. "Until you do it, you just don't understand."
After she was ordered to get rid of the chickens, Mellem created a "Help the Chickens Stay in Bloomington!" page on Facebook. The page has become a rallying point for 600 chicken fans, including people in Golden Valley and Eden Prairie who unsuccessfully pushed those cities to change their ordinances.
Nothing but scratch and eat
Jill Rasmussen of Eden Prairie got chickens partly because she thought they would be good for her sons. She said she checked city ordinances but understood that unless someone complained, there was no problem. Someone complained.
When the issue went to the City Council in July, Rasmussen said, "They all just shook their head ... and said 'We don't want to pursue this.' "
Rasmussen said she knows other Eden Prairie residents have chickens, but said they were afraid to come forward for fear of losing their birds. The neighbor who complained about her hens is moving and she said that with no one else objecting, she hopes to keep her four hens.
In Golden Valley, Pam Lapham started with five chickens and soon had 10.
"It's hard to stop at five because there are so many cool breeds out there," she said.
When a neighbor complained in April, she was cited for having farm animals. She asked the city to reconsider but said only one council member was sympathetic.
"All the rest disliked chickens," she said.
Lapham doesn't understand that.
"They're so gentle," she said. "There's something so calming about them. Our lives are so busy now. They have nothing to do but scratch in the dirt and eat bugs. They come and sit in my lap."
She has placed her chickens with a friend in another city.
Dark side of the boom
While Mellem and other urban chicken fans build covered runs and heated coops for their pets -- Mellem is building a coop at her cabin so the birds can travel with her family -- groups like the Animal Humane Society in Golden Valley and Chicken Run Rescue in Minneapolis are seeing the ugly side of the chicken boom.
The Animal Humane Society has taken in 89 chickens so far this year, many more than in past years. They come from school hatching projects or "from back-yard situations where it was too much work or people lost interest," said the society's Carrie Libera.
All the birds go to Chicken Run Rescue, which has a permit to keep up to 20 birds at a time.
Chicken Run Rescue's Mary Britton Clouse has seen chickens abandoned in carriers on the street and flying loose in a downtown Minneapolis parking ramp. This year, Clouse said, she has five foster homes to handle the overflow from her home, where the chickens line up at night to march down the stairs to basement coops.
More chickens will show up this fall, she said, when "kids are going back to school and mom doesn't want to be bothered anymore. And then there will be another burst when there's a subzero day."
Chickens are "a hell of a lot of work" to care for, Clouse said, and live 12 to 14 years. She condemns cities that prohibit roosters -- almost all do, because of their crowing -- calling them partners with hatchery businesses that slaughter millions of roosters every year because they don't lay eggs.
She admits to being conflicted by chickens' spreading popularity. Too many people don't know what they're doing and aren't committed to the animals, she said. But she helps teach classes on keeping chickens and sometimes offers tours of the rescue operation.
"We want people to know them and love them, and understand them for who they are, not what they can take from them," Clouse said. "All we can do is help as many birds as we can, and teach people what they are getting into."
Mary Jane Smetanka • 612-673-7380