On a quiet San Diego cul-de-sac, behind a house perched at the edge of a canyon and concealed by a thick canopy of trees, Oscar and Owl, fugitive hens, are in hiding.

They’ve been lying low since January, in a makeshift coop, a ramshackle pen nothing like the palatial wood frame setup they once called home in North Park. But it’ll have to do for now. Oscar and Owl can’t go back.

They’ve been banished.

Theirs is a sad story, of two chicks whose lives started with promise, but went terribly wrong. They were raised in a small backyard in North Park by a house full of young, environment-conscious roommates eager to embrace the growing urban agriculture movement. Oscar and Owl lived happy, egg-laying, bug-scavenging existences.

Until the city of San Diego caught up with them, forcing them into hiding, to bounce from one home to another, to endure social ostracizing, violence, and finally, isolation. They became poster chickens for local food advocates who think it’s time that San Diego change its rules to make it easier to keep backyard poultry.

San Diego’s rules are not unusual. Many cities nationwide restrict urban chickens, usually for health reasons. But some cities like Los Angeles have long allowed them, while others, such as Seattle, have more recently loosened their laws, recognizing that chickens can help maintain gardens and produce local food — fresh eggs.

That was the plan for Oscar and Owl. Their story begins at a country store in Escondido, where one day three years ago, Kaya de Barbaro and her roommates pulled open a drawer filled with chicks, just a few days old, all fuzz and for sale. The roommates scooped up two, their little wings flapping, and drove them to North Park to a rented house on a residential street. They built a coop in their garden, a home for the two chicks that became part of the family and pitched in the only way they could. They ate bugs and digested leftover kitchen scraps into nitrate-rich manure the roommates used for fertilizer.

Jennifer Tavernier keeps three chickens in her Little
Italy backyard. Unlike many backyard chickens in San
Diego, they’re not illegal because their coop is
surrounded by parking lots and an architectural firm
— not homes.

After a few months, they even started paying rent: One egg a day. Life was good.

But one day in May 2009, everything changed. A letter came in the mail from the city of San Diego. Those hens were illegal, it said. City health rules allowed chickens, but only if kept at least 50 feet from the nearest house. At de Barbaro’s home, that was impossible. The yard was small and surrounded by neighbors. Oscar and Owl would have to go.

The roommates were devastated.

There was one possibility. The law made an exception if the city’s public health director decided the chickens didn’t pose a threat to human health. But the city hasn’t had a health director for years. So there was no one to approve a special permit, even though de Barbaro had gotten a petition signed by all her neighbors — except two. They lived in a two-story house nearby with a view of de Barbaro’s backyard from their second-story window. Chickens don’t belong in the city, they told her. The situation looked grim.

As luck would have it, de Barbaro, 27, had met a woman nearby who also kept hens, also illegally, because in plenty of San Diego neighborhoods it’s impossible to keep them more than 50 feet away from a house. The woman agreed to take Oscar and Owl in.

But they found themselves at the bottom of the pecking order. Other hens harassed them, plucked their feathers, drew blood. Their bright red wattles turned an ashen pink. It became clear the abuse was traumatizing them. They’d grown jumpy and skittish. When de Barbaro visited, she could hardly pick them up.

“That broke my heart,” de Barbaro said. But she and her roommates didn’t want to give the chickens away. They stayed there for more than a year, until the woman moved.

Each of Tavernier’s chickens generally lays one egg
a day, keeping her freshly stocked with food from her
own yard.

Then they were uprooted again, this time to a house whose location de Barbaro wants kept secret, owned by a woman she met through an online network of chicken lovers. De Barbaro and her roommates visit Oscar and Owl a couple times a week. They’ve mostly recovered. Their wattles have regained their hue. A canyon separates them from nearby houses. But they’re just a few feet from their new caretaker’s house. So they’re technically still illegal.

“We’re trying to keep it quiet,” de Barbaro said, stroking Oscar’s feathers during a recent visit.

In a way, Oscar and Owl were just unlucky. Someone complained. Across San Diego, growing numbers of residents are openly flouting the law by keeping chickens, motivated by principle and a burgeoning interest in the role chickens play in the cycle of local food production. They clear gardens of pests, eat leftovers, produce manure and lay fresh eggs.

At her house in Talmadge, Brook Sarson keeps five in a sprawling pen she constructed of clay and netting. They’re technically illegal, but her neighbors don’t mind. They watch them when she’s out of town. Her children’s school has two hens. In City Heights, Rich Macgurn keeps six, not quite 50 feet from his house. In Little Italy, Jennifer Tavernier has three. Hers are legal because her coop is 50 feet from her house, surrounded by parking lots and an architectural firm.

Bob Vacchi, deputy director of neighborhood code compliance for the city, said the law regulating chickens is so old he doesn’t know exactly what health concerns prompted it. The city only enforces the rule if it gets complaints, he said. That’s what happened with Oscar and Owl.

But a growing chorus of people wants the city to adopt less stringent rules for backyard chickens. A coalition of advocates pushing for community gardens has also identified legalizing chickens as a priority.

While many San Diegans have skirted the law openly, others continue to shroud their fowl in the secrecy required by their decision to disobey. One local food advocate, a La Mesa resident, was happy to speak with us until she got a letter from the city demanding she get rid of her backyard chickens.

She’s negotiating. But it’s possible her hens, like Oscar and Owl, could soon be forced into quiet exile.

This story also appeared in the June 2011 edition of San Diego Magazine.

Please contact Adrian Florido directly at adrian.florido@voiceofsandiego.org or at 619.325.0528 and follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/adrianflorido.

Adrian Florido is a former staff writer for Voice of San Diego.

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