“My backyard is a chicken playground”: Meet the Torontonian fighting to save the city’s urban hen program

“My backyard is a chicken playground”: Meet the Torontonian fighting to save the city’s urban hen program

Virginia Rankin talks about the joys of being a backyard hen keeper, why chickens make the best pets and Toronto’s latest move to ban the birds

Backyard hen keeper Virginia Rankin holds one of her chickens

At the end of April, the City of Toronto ruled to indefinitely pause UrbanHensTO, a pilot project launched in 2018 that permitted residents of select wards to keep up to four hens in their backyards. The latest move in Toronto’s squawk saga was a surprising reversal: just last spring, the city had expanded the program and hinted at making it permanent by 2023. Decision makers blamed the chicken crackdown on a lack of funding and cited the risk of avian flu outbreaks brought on by the approximately 300 hens scattered around the city. City council will vote on the project’s fate between May 10-12. We asked Virginia Rankin, one of the project’s 81 participants, what the city stands to lose by upholding its bird ban and why she thinks chickens make the best pets.

When it comes to animal companions, most people opt for dogs or cats. Why chickens?
I had chickens as pets when I was growing up in England. In 1983, when I was six, we moved to Toronto, into a house just outside of Forest Hill. One of the first things my mom did was buy some Canadian chickens—and she was soon in trouble with the city. She was shocked to learn that she couldn’t keep the hens. Ever since then, I’d been waiting to have access to a backyard flock, and I was thrilled when the UrbanHensTO program started. I went to hobby farms as far as Tottenham to buy four egg-laying hens at $25 apiece. They have since passed away, and the ones I have now are part of the second generation.

What’s it like being an urban hen keeper?
My chickens truly are like pets to me. I live near High Park at the bottom of a ravine, and I’ve fashioned my backyard into a chicken playground. They live in a large pen with an insulated coop that keeps them warm in the winter. They also have a tarp and a heat lamp. When I’m home, I bring them into the yard and supervise them so that predators don’t come around. Eating eggs that were made right in my backyard is a bonus. These hens lay one per day. I like knowing where my food comes from.

Just last year, city council extended the UrbanHensTO program and expanded it to new wards. Now, they’re ending it. What gives?
Like my mom years ago, I was shocked. I had no indication until a few weeks ago that the program would be cut. As it stands, when my current chickens die, I will not be allowed to buy new ones. These hens are not bred for longevity, so I will lose them in a few years. I’ve grown to love having hens; I’m very disappointed.

Toronto backyard hen keeper Virgina Rankin feeds her chickens

You recently went to a city committee meeting and asked Toronto councillors to consider extending the UrbanHensTO project. What kind of gripes were you up against?
I think the avian flu is being used as an excuse for ending this program. I’m not denying that avian flu exists—it clearly does—but we are already surrounded by wild birds, like Canada geese. It’s hard to fathom that this program, which has a dedicated but small pool of participants, would add considerably to the risk. There are also measures we can take to prevent outbreaks. My family in England still has hens and are told to put their chickens in their runs—like a quarantine—if they suspect a case of avian flu. That usually takes care of the issue. We could have easily done the same here. To me, the city is just using avian flu as a scapegoat.

A scapegoat for what?
They don’t want to spend the money to maintain the program. Fair enough. According to the city, it would cost almost $500,000 per year to expand the plan to include what they deem to be necessary registrations, inspections, site plans and new staff supervisors. But what’s with all the red tape? All over the world, people have chickens without so much administration. I think that’s a Toronto problem. Some city councillors can’t see beyond the stereotype that keeping backyard chickens is dirty, old-fashioned and weird, and they don’t want to compromise.

When the controversy over backyard chickens reached its peak in 2018, detractors said they were loud, disturbing and smelly. What do your neighbours think?
I’ve had no issues around here. Before buying my chickens, I asked my neighbours if they’d have an issue with it. They asked if it would be noisy, so I told them I’d have no roosters—which are usually responsible for the noise—and they said that, in that case, they’d have no problem with it. I’ve actually noticed the opposite: these chickens have given me a source of community. A holed fence separates my backyard and a public park, and people come all the time to ask questions about keeping chickens. I tell them about it: where the eggs come from, what I feed them—it leads to good conversations. Recently, I put a sign on my backyard fence explaining that the city was looking to pause or end the UrbanHensTO program. I attached an informal petition to my message and received something like 80 signatures over the course of a weekend. The support in this neighbourhood is strong.

Some animal activists also spoke out against the program.
Yes—at the town hall, they claimed that owners were being cruel to the chickens. Some travelled five hours to speak aggressively against the program. They claimed to somehow know how we were treating our pets. It was so strange. If you want to see inhumane, go to a factory farm and see what happens to the chickens there. Then compare that with what happens in my backyard. People in the program actually care about chickens. I feed them a laying mash that I buy outside of the city at a feed mill. As a treat, I also buy them fresh fruit and vegetables, and they get leftovers too. I’ve nursed some of my chickens through diseases. I gave one antibiotics to help it overcome a cold. When another was molting and lost its feathers, I isolated it and kept it warm until the feathers grew back. As I said, these are my pets.

Having fresh eggs is a nice bonus—especially with current grocery store prices.
Some people might like it for food security. I can afford to buy eggs, so that’s not why I do it, but I do love to know exactly where my eggs come from. I’ve seen people on social media say, “Why do you keep chickens? It’s not 1893. Buy your eggs at the store.” To me, that shows how disconnected people are from their food sources. Wouldn’t you rather eat eggs made in your backyard than eggs made in a factory?

And yet, traditional practices like chicken breeding and small-scale private farming aren’t exactly popular. Why might that be?
Some people have the mentality that chickens belong on a farm, that this is a city and that we can’t have both. But we should be encouraging people to produce their own food and creating more community gardens for people who don’t have backyards. It would provide an alternative to expensive groceries. In Los Angeles, there is an urban farm with chickens and people have garden plots. I’d love to see Toronto do more things like that, but the city seems to be more interested in building high-rises and distancing people more and more from green spaces. I don’t know where those attitudes come from; I think some people unfortunately see country living as the opposite of progress.

Technically, the UrbanHensTO program was paused indefinitely, not cancelled. Do you hold hope that it will come back?
I’m hopeful but not optimistic. “Paused indefinitely” sounds like they are going to axe it. Of course, if it comes back, I would be the first to re-enter it.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.