This is how Arlington discusses backyard chicken-raising
- Photo: Richard Elzey/flickr.
All eyes fall on the next speaker, Darryl Hobbs, who is Powerpoint-free and immediately declares that he hates public speaking. The audience warms to him and remains rapt as he tells the story of the rats that invaded his property after his neighbor put up a chicken coop.
“I asked him what he was building,” he says. “He said, ‘a toolshed.’”
Hobbs’ neighbor, Donna Cogswell, wife to the man Hobbs has just quoted, happens to be sitting to me in a Columbia parka. She disputes Hobbs’ version of events. “That was [our] second henhouse,” she whispers. “We already had the chickens, and he knew it.”
Hobbs describes discovering holes around his backyard shed and trying to get rid of the rats. “Having to put rat poison seven feet from the children’s play zone,” he says, “is not something any parent would want to do.”
Sympathetic murmur from the crowd.
Hobbs says he had to pay an exterminator $265—a woman gasps—to come out to the property and give his assessment: “He said, ‘If you’re going to live next to a chicken coop, you’re just going to have to learn how to deal with the rats.’”
The crowd swells with outrage. People shift in their chairs. Cogswell is tight-lipped hearing her birds, Rhode Island Reds, blamed for rats in the neighborhood. “They live in the woodpiles!” she hisses, but only I can hear her.
Hobbs is on a roll. He says the Arlington Egg Project promoted its petition with “something misleading” information about rodents. He quotes from a chicken-raising advocacy website that acknowledges the rodents that chicken coops attract. He talks about resources and county priorities. He says a neighbor found a dead rat on her doorstep, which brings some audience members to a near-swoon.
“Chickens,” he concludes, “are not like other pets.” Enthusiastic applause ensues.
And now it’s on to the Q&A portion of the evening, with a series of articulate Arlingtonians raising concerns about chickens.
Alice Harrington of the Yorktown Civic Association addresses the panel with a legal pad of notes. “How do we regulate the care of the chickens?” she asks. “Does that fall under animal control? Do we have the resources?” She continues. “I don’t know if there’s an optimal flock size. What happens to dead chickens? Or sick chickens?”
Fritz says that the “maxium number is always elusive.”
A reedy woman wants to know if steel wool could be stuffed at the base of the coops to keep out rats, which is how her son dealt with rats at his fraternity house.
A trim gentleman who identifies himself as a Nebraska native adds a dash of Midwestern practicality to the discussion. “Is there any idea of what the regulatory cost would be?” he asks. “Should someone decide they want to do this, what would be the cost to the annual budget of a homeowner who took this on?”
Cogswell shakes her head when someone suggests that a coop could cost $2,000. I ask her if she plans to refute that, or to speak at all. “No,” she says. She pauses. “I’m listening.”
A white-haired woman says she had to pull down her beautiful English ivy to prevent rats from harboring in it, and could the county perhaps designate common areas like community gardens for these coops?
A woman with a pashmina draped around her addresses Hobbs with the last question of the evening. “Did the county ask your neighbor to take down the henhouse?” she asks. He says the chickens are no longer there. Pashmina asks if the rats are still around now that the hens are gone. He says more or less, no.
Cogswell is shaking her head again as people begin to rise and leave the room. “He said it’s solely because of the chickens,” she says. “And it’s not.”
Her Rhode Island Reds are gone now, off to a friend’s land in Culpepper. “The guy who has them now says he’s never seen chickens so people-friendly,” says Cogswell. She misses them, and the way they used to “cluck-cluck-cluck” when she greeted them. “They’re like pets,” she says.
The microphone lets out a terrible squawk as the room empties, and the crowd gives a startled cry.
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