The chickens of the 3900 block of Jenifer Street NW are, by all appearances, well-cared for, each looked after by one of the four children of Allison Sheedy and Daniel McInnis.
There is the fluffy, yellow Mrs. Tiggy-winkle; the big, black-and-white Minnie Mouse; the mottled-orange India; and the burgundy-toned Red, named for Washington’s football team.
Their coop rests under a holly tree in the spacious back yard of a 10,000-square-foot Chevy Chase double lot that features two gardens — one for vegetables, one for herbs — where neighborhood kids have been known to stop by, say hello and, perhaps, pick up a fresh-laid egg.
But now, Mrs. Tiggy-winkle and her feathered friends have been targeted by the D.C. Department of Health. The health department has declared the chickens contraband — and Sheedy and McInnis, both attorneys, have filed suit against the department and sought a temporary restraining order to keep their birds.
“We have hobbies we love, and we’re a little intense about them,” McInnis said.
As the couple detailed in more than 180 pages of court fillings, they received a notice on April 27 from the health department about the birds. Saying it had received an anonymous complaint, the city determined the chickens would have to be removed within 48 hours to avoid impoundment (of the chickens) or a fine (for the humans).
The notice came as a surprise. Even before they got their chickens, antitrust lawyers Sheedy and McInnis — she of Constantine Cannon, he of Thompson Hine — had done some lawyering on behalf of their poultry.
They got written consent from neighbors within 100 feet of their property, court documents indicate. They secured their chickens from a “reputable” breeder. The coop was regularly cleaned, and the family was known for sharing the eggs — up to four per day during the spring, summer and early fall. The complaint reads that they “invested in a well-built, wooden chicken coop (admittedly, not from the Williams-Sonoma catalog, although such coops are available for purchase, showing the popularity of backyard chickens).”
“The kids check for eggs each morning,” Sheedy said. “. . . It’s just good for kids to take care of a different kind of animal.”
The District government doesn’t agree, at least when it comes to fowl. Officials with the health department and D.C.’s attorney general’s office declined to comment on the case or restrictions on chickens and coops in the city.
Sheedy and McInnis’s analysis of D.C. law, however, challenges the city’s restrictions. They say city regulations prevent building a coop within 50 feet “of any building used for human habitation.” Though that might rule out a coop for a D.C. rowhouse, an expansive Chevy Chase lot like theirs could host one, they argue.
“We’re blessed with a big property,” McInnis said.
In addition, Sheedy and McInnis focused on a 1993 amendment to the D.C. Animal Control Act that they say the health department relies on in banning chickens. The amendment was meant to outlaw wolves, wolf-hybrids and other “exotic” animals, they say, not backyard fowl. They also say it specifically permits “captive-bred species of common cage birds.”
“Plaintiffs are unaware of any chicken breeds that are part wolf or wolf-dog,” their complaint read. “Plaintiffs are also unaware of any incidents in the District of dangerous chickens biting people.”
The couple say some might think backyard chickens are a health hazard — even in a city where public schools have chickens. However, they say it’s a misconception worth correcting.
“We don’t want to waste the court’s time,” McInnis said. “ . . . We think we’re right with the law and were entitled to pursue that.”
The couple feared the city might confiscate their chickens, so they sought a temporary restraining order. Would their beloved birds, say, be sent to the pound like any errant stray dog or cat?
“Plaintiffs would suffer irreparable harm if Animal Control (or indeed the police, as the Department of Health suggested may be the case), seized their chickens and impounded them at a yet undisclosed location outside of the care of Plaintiffs for an indefinite amount of time,” the request for a restraining order read. “Plaintiffs’ children would be devastated.”
This week, the department said it would not confiscate the animals before a hearing on the restraining order scheduled for next week. McInnis said he hopes the District eventually will join other jurisdictions in the Washington region that have welcomed backyard poultry in recent years.
“D.C. is in a constant state of change,” he said. “Having a little more freedom for people to keep unobtrusive birds like chickens would likely be popular.”