Are chickens legal in Denver? It's a question that anyone who's heard the mysterious clucking coming from behind a fence on Tennyson Street has asked. Yellowed city maps in the Central Library delineate "coops" in many back yards, hinting at a time when fowl and Ford Model Ts were equally welcomed. But Off Limits' attempt to find an answer ruffled a few city feathers, making it difficult to determine which came first, planning rules or environmental health regulations.
"You can have chickens in the city," says Will Jones, public relations manager for the Denver Botanic Gardens. "You can, you can, you can."
That's why the Gardens hosted a two-hour class on April 26 at its Chatfield location called The City Chicken, giving tips and pointers for raising the birds in Denver. Jones admits he didn't believe chickens were permitted when the organization first considered the class, so he Googled up a website, also called The City Chicken, that encourages "city folks to take the plunge into poultry." The site lists rules for dozens of cities, including Denver, for which it simply says, "Chicken permit must be purchased from the city for $50, and you must show that the enclosure will be clean and pest free."
Class instructor Susan Tobias is also a little sketchy on the rules. While Tobias may know a lot about G. gallus domesticus, from how to mix oyster grit into feed to strengthen egg shells to the importance of escape-proofing coops ("There are some breeds that can fly over a six-foot fence easily," she says), she's never raised a chicken in Denver. Until recently, she owned a Boulder County chicken farm called Rancho de Pollo, where at one point she had more than 200 birds.
But at least one city agency confirms the City Chicken's view.
"Community Planning and Development and Neighborhood Inspection Services will issue you the paperwork, and then you take that to Animal Care and Control," says Dorie Brown, acting communications director for Denver's Department of Environmental Health. "Then we inspect the property and make sure it's okay for the animals' needs. Then we issue you a livestock permit. That's a $50 annual fee."
That's the way Kevin Petropoulos did it. The Sunnyside resident says he once owned twelve permitted chickens, which he kept in a homemade coop in his back yard. He even had a rooster — until a neighbor complained about the early-morning noise.
"I think everybody should have chickens," he says. "They're good for you. The eggs are really good. And they keep your grass cut and fertilized at the same time." The egg-stravaganza ended a few years ago, however. "My dogs ate them," he says of the birds. "They were good while they lasted."
Good? Maybe. Legal? Technically, no, says Julius Zsako, communications director for Community Planning and Development — and he says the cluck stops at his agency. "Actually, in Denver, since 1956, livestock has been prohibited," Zsako says, though he adds that the Board of Adjustment has made exceptions to the rule. "The exceptions are generally related to medical reasons. For example, a goat may be allowed if someone needs goat milk." (What would be a valid medical argument for chickens, anyway? Cholesterol deficiency?)
Still, you can't make an omelet without breaking a few bureaucratic eggs. And Tobias says she still plans to offer a second class at the Gardens on June 7.