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Between the Lines: Egg on Their Faces

The not-so-great chicken debate leaves Holyoke city councilors a laughingstock after all.

Comments (14)
Thursday, June 17, 2010

This spring Tim Purington, city councilor for Holyoke's Ward 4, raised the idea of allowing city residents to keep a small number of chickens in their yards, with an OK from the Board of Health.

The idea would have put Holyoke smack in the middle of a trend; with more and more people embracing the idea of eating locally, backyard chickens have become a popular choice, in large cities as well as more rural areas. Locally, the Pioneer Valley Backyard Chicken Association has seen a dramatic increase in new members eager to teach their kids a bit about where their food comes from—and to enjoy fresh-from-the-hen eggs.

Purington drafted a proposed pilot program with strict guidelines about noise and cleanliness, distance from neighboring properties, and disease testing. Participants would pay a $50 registration fee to the city and would be limited to a maximum of six hens; no roosters allowed. Volunteers trained by the Board of Health would inspect coops for compliance with health and safety regulations. No more than 50 licenses would be issued during the year-long pilot program.

You'd have thought Purington had dropped an atomic bomb on the city.

Holyoke's attention-hungry chief of police, Anthony Scott, was among the first to jump on Purington's idea, dismissing the notion with snide comments and warnings that it would lead to underground cock fights. Next, the health director weighed in, predicting that the chickens would bring dire, if unspecified, health risks. City councilors—apparently unaware how many other communities allow chickens without the sky falling on them—whined that the idea made Holyoke a "laughingstock" and tried to kill Purington's proposal without debate, claiming it would keep them from doing all their really important work.

And those were the responses people were willing to put their names to. On the discussion forums at MassLive.com—an always illuminating, if often uncomfortable, place to track a certain level of public debate—posters used the cloak of anonymity to let fly some darker thoughts. A number referred to comments made by Councilor Diosdado Lopez, who noted that backyard chickens are a Puerto Rican cultural tradition—an observation that inspired a string of ugly comments about Puerto Ricans and the "third-world" feel they and their chickens would bring to the city.

Never mind that Purington's proposal had numerous, reasonable health and quality of life provisions in place. Never mind that, if the experience of other communities holds true, Holyoke's backyard chicken farmers would just as likely come from the middle-class families who, pushed out of the pricey housing markets in places like Northampton, have settled in the Highlands—and who, a smart politician might realize, are valuable votes to court—as from its poorer neighborhoods. In the end, the City Council's Ordinance Committee killed the idea by a 5-0 vote.

The fearmongers and bigots had spoken—and the City Council, apparently, was all ears.

Purington, to his credit, is not ready to throw in the towel. He and at-large Councilor Rebecca Lisi plan to draft a new proposal that would allow chickens to be kept at the city's community gardens—an idea that will likely also meet with resistance.

There are, without a doubt, legitimate reasons why a homeowner might get a little nervous about the notion of their neighbor setting up a chicken operation just over the fence from their kids' swing set. Will the chickens be noisy? Will they get into my yard and leave droppings everywhere? Will the coop stink in the hot summer? What if the owner gets lazy and doesn't take care of the birds?

But as countless communities around the Valley and across the country have demonstrated, those concerns can be addressed with adequate legal restrictions, such as those in Purington's proposed pilot program, and a little public education.

Unfortunately, in Holyoke, the discussion never got that far, thanks to closed-minded city leaders who are too willing to listen to the loudest and ugliest voices, and unable to recognize the many positive things that could come if they embraced the ever-evolving demographics of their city.

Comments (14)
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Well written article. I whole-heartedly agree. And as a Holyoke resident (and not of the Highlands), I'm discouraged by the City's leaders as they act in such a closed minded way. They say that they are interested in making Holyoke better. But their actions only help to perpetuate the negative attitudes about the City.

Posted by Shawn K on 6.15.10 at 18:28

I also agree with your article, the ordinance proposal had the right ingredients for success. Responsibility played a priority in allowing residents to obtain a license, from having the property and excise taxes paid current, to composting the waste. One city councilor stated that the proposal made Holyoke the "laughingstock" of the area. To me the portrayal of the citizens of Holyoke as incapable and irresponsible to care and maintain a few hens in their backyards has really made Holyoke the "laughingstock" of the state.

Posted by Stephen M on 6.15.10 at 18:57

Well written article. Its pretty sad when fear and prejudice win out over reason and tolerance. I applaud Tim Purington and Rebecca Lisi's effort to bring some "new" ideas back into the public eye. May they continue to stand against those who live in fear of all that is "new" or different. I say "New" as raising chickens at one's home has been around as long as there have been chickens. Its sad that many of these traditions (urban gardens, hanging laundry, etc..) have fallen by the wayside today. It seems like more people are concerned about appearances then they are about actually helping people.

BTW - as far as the forums go, I doubt most of the negative poster's live in Holyoke and would have ever been affected by someone raising chickens.

Posted by Daniel Blain on 6.15.10 at 19:03

95% of Holyoke's population east of Northampton St (not including the bordering Highlands) can't even take care of themselves or their properties. How can they be expected to raise livestock properly?

It's nice to make this a warm and fuzzy, teach your children well moment....but for the majority of Holyoke, allowing chickens will be anything but. That isn't bigoted, and it isn't fearmongering. It's fact.

Posted by Ag Synclair on 6.16.10 at 8:08

Thank you for this well-written article. I have one quibble. It does perpetuate the idea that Holyoke politics is, by necessity, a struggle between "newer" residents living in the Highlands and "older" residents who have no good ideas. I am a "newer" resident, being a Holyoke homeowner for six years. I don't live in the Highlands and I belong to one of the most traditional organizations in Holyoke, the St. Patrick's Day Parade Committee. I wholeheartedly agree that Holyoke needs to consider new ideas and perspectives from outside our borders. But I am also uninterested in dismissing those who have lived here for generations. After all, they have made the city what it is, for good and bad, and I really love this city.

Posted by Pat Duffy on 6.16.10 at 10:40

What is sadly missing from the debate is the well-being of chickens themselves, the ones who would be exploited by using them for food.

What most people do not know (or care about) is that these chickens are bred in hatcheries that treat them like inanimate objects, doing such things as mailing them as babies through the USPS. Hatcheries also send baby roosters as "packing material" which, of course, leads to other grave problems such as what happens to the grown-up roosters (always a bad thing, since municipalities that allow hens almost never allow roosters). So, roosters are generally killed or thrown into the streets. It's not at all unthinkable that some would be used for cockfights.

And then of course what happens with the adult hens who are no longer laying eggs? They are usually murdered which is, of course, the typical way humans reward animals who have unwillingly provided them with food.

All that to say: the ultimate bigotry is that which humans perpetuate upon all creatures who are not born human.

Posted by Charlotte Monroe on 6.16.10 at 12:42
Thanks for the great response. Yes, it really all comes down to fear and racism. The commentary by our police chief, health director and a select few of these councilors would be laughable if these were not people able to influence public policy. It really is too bad that this is what we get for leadership, but it is nothing new. While backyard chickens are not the end-all be-all plan to revitalizing Holyoke the debate serves as a perfect example of the inertia towards progress via our elected leadership that has given Holyoke a bad image all these years... and, of course, this is supported by the public opinion of voters that have an us-versus-them xenophobic view of the Puerto Rican population and of the neighboring Northampton that they fear Holyoke turning into.
Posted by pronoblem on 6.16.10 at 14:18

Charlotte; from which planet have you arrived from?? Sounds like the only way out is to eliminate the humar race; for they are required to eat once living things (animal or plants) to survive.

Posted by Realist on 6.16.10 at 14:33

I just have to say this: The idea of having chicken coops in backyards is *not* uniquely Puerto Rican. I grew up in Somers, CT, back in the Seventies and some of my friends in both Somers and East Longmeadow had chicken coops. They used the chickens for eggs and also on occasion slaughtered them. It was a normal scene for me growing up. I also dated a girl back in the 1990s whose sister kept chickens (only for eggs, though - she named the birds like pets).

Keeping chickens is not just a Puerto Rican cultural tradition. It's an American one.

Posted by Bill Dusty on 6.16.10 at 17:03

Overall, my impression is that, Holyoke was once a beautiful place, successful, had lots of attractions and places to go! ( MT. Park).

Sadly, since the opening of the welfare office, and the 94% Puerto Rican population shows that they can not take care of their own homes/property(rental or otherwise),children,cars, never mind chickens. They dump all their crap on the streets now, who thinks their going to be concerned about chickenS?. I'm not being closed-minded, I am Hispanic, and the way the community lives in Holyoke is disgusting. No self respect at all!

Posted by LOUIS on 6.17.10 at 6:43

Communities do bring things upon themselves when they are afraid to stand up for what is right!

When are we going to protect and stand up for the Silent Majority? Must we always bow to the wishes (often wrongly) to the noise makers?

Posted by Disgusted on 6.17.10 at 9:35

I agree with Chief Scott. The Police have MORE important issues to deal with. And I also agree with LOUIS about the a certain of the population being totally unresponsible for their own disgusting actions. The litter and garbage is so sad. I fear to imagine what adding chickens, et. would do to our neiborhoods. Why don't these same people who are complaining set up inner-city farmland lots like they do with the vegtables? Or rent out some empty lots, there are plenty to go around. ?Can you just see a flock of runaway chickens running around the nieghborhoods? This issue has absolutely nothing to do with racism. I am so sick of that lame excuse.

Posted by KAT on 6.21.10 at 18:08
Do you have to have a yard. Can I keep chickens and turkeys on the back porch or in the hallway?
Posted by Dan 1146 on 6.22.10 at 9:54

I am a Holyoke resident. I've lived in Holyoke all of my life. I've seen chickens in Holyoke even before the mention of this article, and I have to say I disagree with this article on several levels.

A chicken is a farm animal. Last I checked Holyoke was a city. If these proposed chicken coops were more in the suburbs and not in the Highland area I would be more inclined to agree with the idea. As it stands chickens should not be brought up in a city at all. What if the chickens got loose on a busy city street? Accidents will occur. Children who live in the city, who have seen chickens before, may still try to approach them. And in doing so evoke the chicken to try and defend itself. Chickens do make alot of noise, so police will be called regularly taking them away from the main job of serving and protecting the cities citizens. And what happens if the chickens are attacked by other animals? Like dogs? I can see the fiasco occurring where a dog might get loose and find its way into a chicken coop. Lawsuits everywhere. The chicken owner suing the dog owner, the dog owner sueing both city and the Pioneer Valley Backyard Chicken Association for allowing a chicken coop to be in a city. What if neighbors take it upon themselves to get rid of the chickens in a violent way. Just because the idea has worked in other communities does not mean that Holyoke is the same. Every community is different. Other's before me have made mention of some very good points. Ag, Synclair, Charlotte Monroe, LOUIS, and KAT

And on to another one of my main problems with this article, the phrase used to describe the police chief of Holyoke. The one man who is helping Holyoke when it comes to the gang activity and other such problems that Holyoke faces. To call him attention grabbing means he's doing his job. He appears in the news because he is getting things done.

What about the other things in Holyoke that need attention? What about the poverty levels? What about its lack of respect? And no this isn't a racial matter. There is so much that Holyoke needs to do before it is truly ready to debate over such a petty topic. I'm sure the last thing the city council of Holyoke really wants is to be concerned with a Chicken infestation.

Just to be clear, I am for the idea of having "home grown" be a pinnacle idea for every city, but I am against this.

Posted by Marcus on 6.23.10 at 0:16
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