City law really gets their goat

  • Article by: BEN KARP , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 9, 2008 - 10:02 PM

Minneapolis residents want to be able to tend goats, pigs and bees in their city, as their St. Paul neighbors can.

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Elena Hickman of St. Paul fed Gabriella, her small Alpine goat, some fresh grass. St. Paul issues permits for hoofed animals.

Photo: Joey McLeister, Star Tribune

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It's just not fair, said Peat Willcutt. How can it be legal to have goats, pigs and bees in St. Paul, but people in Minneapolis have to hide theirs?

As urban agriculture booms in the Twin Cities area, Minneapolis residents are pressing their city to let them expand their backyard farms beyond chickens to bees and hoofed animals.

"Why [these animals] can exist on one side of [Hwy.] 280 and not on the other is beyond me," said Willcutt, assistant manager at the Mill City Farmers Market.

Willcutt is an urban agriculture activist who raises chickens on Nicollet Island. But his Nigerian Dwarf goat, Vera, is in exile at a farm outside the city.

Goats make ideal city-dwellers, Willcutt said. They can help control weeds -- "like a dog that eats salad" -- and their waste is pelletized and easy to use as fertilizer.

St. Paul issues permits for hoofed animals and beehives, with the written consent of 75 percent of neighbors within 150 feet. But not Minneapolis. Hoofed animals there require special permits that can last no longer than 21 days and cost from $50 to $150, depending on the type of event.

And don't even think about bees. Honeybee keeping is singled out for prohibition in the city code.

Barbara Burroughs voted with her feet. She used to live in Minneapolis in the 1990s, until someone reported that she was harboring a miniature pot-bellied pig. She moved to St. Paul, where she no longer needed to sneak her beloved Franklin out at night.

"It was a great peace of mind knowing no one could take him from me," Burroughs said.

Even though St. Paul allows hoofed animals, the city isn't exactly overrun. There are six to eight active permits, a number that has held relatively steady over the years, said Bill Stephenson, St. Paul animal control supervisor.

In his 25 years on the job, Stephenson could only recall one problem, when a pig without a permi escaped.

The city is working on changes to its permit process to respond to a deluge of requests to keep backyard chickens, said Stephenson.

In Minneapolis, people can keep chickens and ducks if they have the consent of 80 percent of neighbors within 100 feet, an inspection by Animal Care and Control, and a $30 permit that must be renewed annually.

Minneapolis Council Member Cam Gordon said he has been approached by a handful of people interested in keeping goats and bees. He's hearing from residents who want to eat locally raised food for health or environmental reasons.

"I think there's probably a good case that can be made for why we want to look at this," Gordon said.

Dan Niziolek, Minneapolis Animal Care and Control manager, said that his office has started looking into bee permits at the council's request, but that any presentation to the council would happen in the fall, when his office is less busy with dangerous-animal complaints, which are a priority.

If Minneapolis decides to allow bees or hoofed animals, Niziolek and Gordon said, the rules would likely be modeled after the ones regarding chicken permits, which require 80 percent of neighbor approval.

Buzzing illegally

Until they become legal, goats, bees and others will remain underground in Minneapolis.

On a recent afternoon, David, who asked not to be fully identified, searched for queens in his beehive. He did it without gloves to demonstrate how safe beekeeping can be.

In about an hour of work in the thick of the hive, he received one minor sting on a finger.

His hive of about 10 stacked wooden boxes, which can hold up to about 100,000 bees, is surrounded by a tarp that ensures that bees fly straight up instead of out in case of a swarm. The bees were barely noticeable as he stood in his back yard outside the tarped area.

David says he told his immediate neighbors about his plans for the hive, now in its second season, before installing it. Now, he shares honey with neighbors and occasionally shows off the practice to neighborhood kids.

The allure of beekeeping is so strong that some city residents reportedly keep hives in their attics, with tubing allowing the bees in and out.

"I know there are lots of beekeepers in the city ... but it's not like we have a secret society or secret handshake," said David.

A renegade named Rupert

Another Minneapolis renegade is Rupert. Jennifer Andert raises the African Pygmy goat in her back yard. She got Rupert after chemotherapy left her allergic to more conventional pets. When people ask her how she can have a goat in the city, she says Rupert is a licensed therapy animal. He is on a national registry of service animals.

Rupert is a minor celebrity, thanks to a MySpace page that Andert authors from the goat's perspective. She was contacted by people from "Jackass," while the movie was on a press tour. "I was like no, he's supposed to be low key," she said.

Her neighbors don't seem to mind him. They feed him Oreos over the fence, Andert said. "Now they're like, 'He's better than a dog. He doesn't bark.'"

On a recent walk through North Mississippi Regional Park, Rupert attracted questions and reactions. He handled the attention with grace.

The only time Andert said she's had problems with Rupert in the city was when she took him to the Minneapolis Pride Festival two years ago. "Someone called and said, 'There was a goat in the beer tent,' and so we had to leave."

Andert said that an animal control officer told her that goats are technically illegal, but that the city wouldn't take action unless there are complaints. But Niziolek said, "As with any city department, if there is a violation of city ordinance we do respond to that."

If there was a permit available for Rupert, she said, she would get it "in a heartbeat."

Ben Karp • 612-673-7455

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