Fairfax and Prince William counties and other heavily developed communities have started to allow backyard hens. The trend has prompted a rise in skirmishes between man’s backyard fowl and man’s best friend, leading to new scrutiny of an old law that places little value on the dog. On Tuesday, a bill that would revoke the doggie death penalty cleared the legislature, although it doesn’t go as far as dog lovers would like.
Even in farm territory, poultry no longer rules the roost. Dogs, once considered property at best and violent vagabonds at worst, are now companions. Owners don’t take kindly to seeing them shot, on or off a farm.
Alan Taylor, a Charlottesville real estate developer, had brought dogs Boo and Hank down to his farm eight miles outside the city. The pups ran the property while he talked to a farming consultant about planting grapevines.
Then Boo came running back with two bloody wounds in her white fur. Taylor called an emergency veterinarian while his girlfriend chased after Hank, who was in the driveway “just bleeding all over the place,” Taylor said.
Both dogs were patched up. “Thankfully, just by a miracle, they didn’t die,” Taylor said. But a month later, they’re still wobbly, and the vet bills totaled more than $3,000.
When he called police, he was shocked to learn that what happened was legal. A man working on the neighboring farm told police that Boo and Hank had gotten into his coop and killed a rooster and that he’d caught them in the coop before and let them go. This time, he shot them, and he was within his rights.
“They’re city dogs. They live in the city,” Taylor said. Boo wore a pink collar with her name, phone number and e-mail address on a tag.
“The simple solution for a rational person is to pick up a phone, but what this law allows people to do is to pick up a gun,” he said.
Not only may a farmer dispense with chicken-chasers, but any officer who catches one in the act is required to kill it. A dog that survives long enough to take out three chickens is labeled a “confirmed poultry killer” and sentenced to death or banished to a state that doesn’t border the commonwealth. Should the dog return, the sentence is death.
This law makes perfect sense to farmers whose livelihoods depend on keeping chickens alive, but Virginia is not the rural state it once was. Census data show that farmland is steadily shrinking. Only 1.1 percent of the state’s population works in agriculture; the average farmer is older than 58. Meanwhile, chickens are going metropolitan.
Del. Jennifer J. McClellan (D-Richmond) was urged to introduce the bill by officials in Richmond, where urban chickens were just legalized. She aimed to let urban communities decide whether to continue letting chicken-coop justice prevail. After pushback from the farm lobby, her bill was softened so that officers could choose to seize, rather than destroy, a marauding dog.
But put another way, they could still choose to destroy it. And statewide, property owners would still have the right to shoot. Even now, she said, the farm lobby isn’t “wild about it. But they’re not actively opposing it.”
“As much as it is a humane issue regarding the dog, in the urban setting, it’s also a public-safety issue,” said Richmond City Council President Charles R. Samuels. “I’ve got 96 people living within 200 yards of me. [Shooting a dog] could easily kill somebody or damage property.”
Similar concerns have cropped up in Virginia Beach, where officials are worried that legalizing chickens could lead to an inadvertent animal bloodbath.
Many states have laws allowing property owners to kill dogs who chase their chickens or livestock. (Some of these laws apply only to sheep.) In California’s policy, there’s a compromise: It allows killing in cities only if the dog “is actually caught in the act,” while outside of a city, proof of recent feather-ruffling is enough.
“Most of these laws derive from about the 1930s and represent a time when dogs were perceived as having no value — certainly no emotional pet value,” said David Favre, an expert in animal law at Michigan State University’s law school.
Such laws, Favre said, were progressive for their time. Before that, you could kill a dog whenever you wanted, whether it was bugging your chicken or not.
Few states demand the dog’s death, as Virginia does. But as far as Favre knows, Virginia is the first state to try to adapt its agricultural laws for the new era.
In Northern Virginia communities that have yet to say yes to the backyard chicken, advocates say that dogs and poultry can live together in peace.
Ed Fendley of the Arlington Egg Project, which has been fighting for years for the right to raise hens in the D.C. suburbs, said the dog issue has come up a couple of times. But, he said, “in communities that embrace backyard hens, we’ve seen that dogs and hens can all get along.”
Mellenie Runion said that many of her Alexandria neighbors are raising chickens with no problems, even though it’s technically illegal. Her Del Ray home came with a historical chicken coop that she’d like to use, if only the city would give her its okay.
“If a dog killed a chicken in my back yard, I would not be in favor of killing the dog,” she said, and she agrees that local governments should be able to decide the issue. “But I think there’s way too much emphasis on why we can’t have chickens versus why we all should have chickens.”
Separate legislation in Virginia might have cooled farmers’ blood lust a bit. State Sen. Ryan T. McDougle (R-Hanover) wanted to remove the $10 compensation cap for chickens killed or injured by dogs.
Alas, in committee it was decided that the average chicken, while defensible with deadly force, still costs only a Hamilton.