Cook: The price of chicken

Cook: The price of chicken

July 10th, 2013 by David Cook in Opinion Columns

David Cook

Photo by Ashlee Culverhouse/Times Free Press.

To understand why urban chickens matter, think back two years ago, when readers of Outside magazine voted Chattanooga the best city in which to live in the U.S.

There were 18 other cities on the list. Like Cher or Usher, these places are so fabulously well-known, they're known by one word only: Boulder, Portland, Charleston.

Of those total 19 cities named the best in which to live, 17 allow chickens in the city limits.

Every city but Ithaca, N.Y. ... and Chattanooga, Tenn.

"It's never been restricted," said the kind woman who yesterday answered the phone at City Hall in Hardwick, Vt., which came in 15th place. "We don't disallow any livestock within city limits."

Chickens, of course, are not why any of those cities made the list. But they are part of the background, an extension of all the things that would make a city endearing and liveable.

Urban chickens represent more than just poultry; they're part of the evolving Chattanooga image that goes by many different names: the Gig, local food movement, Main Street revival, hipsterism, Make Chattanooga Weird, the outdoor scene and young farmer population.

That's why Tuesday night's City Council vote to continue the prohibition of city chickens is a disjointed derailment of the direction our great city's heading in, like building the Gig infrastructure but not allowing laptops.

"You're kidding," one man said afterward about the vote.

It's no coincidence that the long-standing pro-chicken effort has peaked this year, of all years: with the city's progressive mayor, championed by Chris Anderson, the City Council's most progressive member, at a time when Chattanooga's image as a young, cool place to live is at an all-time high.

"Best Town Ever," the Outside magazine proclaimed.

You build it? They come. And some bring coops.

Because chickens are lovely. Their day-old eggs, infinitely better than the store-bought ovals that pass for eggs. The cluck-clucking, a kind compliment to the quaint cricket-chirp on summer nights. Their backyard presence, an active form of resistance against the crimes of factory farming and junk food culture.

And their grape-sized-excrement, a composting gold for gardeners everywhere.

"Dealing with the poop," Councilman Russell Gilbert began.

It was standing room only when council members voted last night, but not so earlier in the afternoon's educational meeting, when Gilbert, fellow councilman Larry Grohn and one representative from the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Health Department began discussing chicken poop.

(I imagine the stenographer startled, struggling to transcribe for the first time in city's history, the word "poop" into official records.)

For a fascinatingly long time, council members, citizens and experts spoke about all things chicken:

What kind of bugs do they eat?

Does their poop run downhill when it rains?

Where do chickens retire when they no longer lay eggs?

"This is way better than TV," the man next to me whispered.

One woman drove from Nashville to speak. (Her name was, perfectly, Robin.) I was struck realizing that in the annals of City Council minutes, more time will have been spent discussing how to handle chickens within city limits than, say, handguns.

It all seemed bizarre and Monty Python-esque, such a nonissue turned into such an issue.

"Chicken-gate," one friend said.

Council members, to their credit, took this quite seriously, yet the drama over this issue also felt out of place. Will there be a packed house the next time the council discusses street violence and education?

In this city, chickens remain stigmatized, and all those citizens out there who already keep illegal, underground chickens must continue to do so.

Maybe next time, someone should try to legalize ostriches ... animals that don't see all the things happening around them.

Contact David Cook at dcook@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter at DavidCookTFP.