City resident cited for raising backyard chickens
Category: The Big Picture

City resident cited for raising backyard chickens

Ithaca City Resident Amanda Zerilli received a notice of arraignment on pending charges for “Keeping of animals prohibited” and was scheduled to appear in court April 29, 2015. The City of Ithaca does not allow the keeping of chickens, except under specific circumstances.

“Like many of the other ‘illegal’ chicken keepers in Ithaca, we were under the false impression that, if we did everything right, the city would not be enforcing the ridiculous code,” Zerilli wrote in a Facebook post. Zerilli keeps four hens on her double lot on South Hill, which in part borders an industrial property. She says her neighbors have written a letter of support saying that there is no problem with the chickens.

“We believed that we could live the life we believed in, take excellent care of these wonderful creatures, bother no one and be left in peace. This is no longer the case,” says Amanda. She has asked the Mayor for a “stay of enforcement” and says that her interactions with City officials so far have been “very positive.”

Several years ago, local resident Tom Shelley worked on a resolution to have the City code changed. It never passed Common Council. Many unresolved questions surrounded the abandoned chicken resolution, he said. Who would be responsible for the new ordinance? Would the police dept would handle noise and odor complaints? Would the SPCA contract cover chickens and ducks, or would a new, more expensive contract be required to handle stray backyard livestock? Would the Building Department need to see site plans to check setback requirements? Would the Ithaca Fire Department need to check fire code issues, such as egress to accessory structures?

Interest in backyard livestock does not appear to be going away. Last year, Ithaca College student Rob Flaherty created a film, Fowl Play (available on Vimeo), exploring the issue. The topic arose again this spring on the Sustainable Tompkins listserv, where people chimed in showing interest in keeping chickens and goats, others expressed confusion about zoning laws in the City and Town of Ithaca, and still others wondered how more heavily populated cities manage to allow chickens, while the City of Ithaca does not.

Tom suggests that perhaps residents should form an organization to represent the interests of urban farmers and provide a self-monitoring function as well, to troubleshoot problems before they become critical.

Additionally, Cornell Cooperative Extension – Tompkins County already offers some programs on urban agriculture. And, GreenStar Community Projects and the Feeding Our Future Network are in the early stages of creating a county Food Policy Council. Stay tuned for more info.

Image credit: USDA ARS Image Gallery


  1. Tom’s suggestion has, in fact, already been acted on! There is a group that has been meeting regularly called the “Food Policy Council Planning Group” that is working to establish a formal Food Policy Council, as well as a Friends of the Food Policy Council. We have already identified the issue of backyard livestock as one that is prominent in many Tompkins County urban and suburban areas. We will be conducting extensive outreach through the summer months, and we are very interested in hearing from you on this issue and on other food system issues, from food security to community gardens to bus service to grocery stores. The Food Policy Council, backed by is Friends, will act as a conduit to bring selected issues to municipal officials around the County in a way that emphasizes both resident empowerment and constructive, collaborative dialogue with decision-makers. Make positive change with us!

  2. Throughout the summer months, we will be at events and visiting groups in the community to encourage sign-up and engagement with a new broad-based coalition, the Friends of the Food Policy Council. The actual Food Policy Council itself is to be chosen in the early Fall through the efforts of this wider group. The Planning Group is working hard to put themselves out of a job as planners– we will seamlessly meld into the Friends of the Food Policy Council once our recruitment of membership over the course of the summer is over.
    There is no question that CHICKENS is on the list of issues in the City of Ithaca, and some other places, too (although some municipalities have already established procedures for keeping chickens in Villages). We will be asking people to identify other issues in the food system as we recruit membership through the summer in the Friends of the Food Policy Council. Be thinking about what you think a Food Policy Council should take up as important policy issues! In the early fall, there will also be a large public meeting to solicit input.

  3. i want to chime in here. what about those of us in the community who are dedicated to local, healthy food AND the rights/liberation of animals? i would have a really hard time if my neighbors had animals that they were exploiting and/or killing. it doesn’t mean that i don’t care about local food – quite the opposite. in fact, i’ve worked farming here in the area and i am very active in one of the community gardens. i keep hearing about this “broad-based” group forming around Food Policy – the forming council and friends of – but i wonder if there is anyone representing the large numbers of vegetarians and vegans in the region? as one of them, would my input be welcome? i think there are lots of issues to be taken up around local food/food justice/etc. i also feel that there is a marginalization of very real and valid beliefs and, even, certain realities when it comes to local animal agriculture. could those be a part of this larger conversation? and, if not, how ‘broad-based’ is it?

  4. Hi oona, I would like to respond to your concern about the unethical treatment and / or slaughter of backyard poultry. I appreciate your concern and admire your choice to not eat meat or animal products. However, it is obvious that many people do and we know that the teatment of factory farmed animals is horrific. For my husband and I the most important aspect of raising four hens for eggs is precisly to ensure the most human conditions. Anyone who has spent any time with a chicken understands that these are amazing animals who have personality and are intelligent. They are constantly moving, pecking, stretching, grooming, scratching etc. The idea that the vast majority of layers are confined to cages is inconceivable to me, yet it is the reality. People who raise small numbers of chickens, for the most part, do it in order to ensure that they are eating truly humanly raised eggs because lableling is very deceptive; “free-range” is very often just in a warehouse with a little door to an outside pen, and “cage free” can be meaningless in terms of real conditions.

    In addition, most city ordinances which allow for small numbers of chickens also prohibit slaughter. As for exploitation, I would imagine that you would report any animal, be it a cat, a dog or a chicken, that was being exploited or abused.

    None of this is said to criticize your beliefs or to exclude them from that broad discussion: they are essential to a true dialogue on these issues. I post this simply to assure you that, for those of us who do eat eggs, backyard chickens on an appropriate city property are an excellent answer to the dilemma of wanting to only eat truly humanly raised eggs without the means to always pay the high price of local pasture raised ones. At this point our chickens are our pets. They greet us the same way that our dog and cats do and receive the same care. The only difference is that each day they also leave us 4 lovely eggs in their nest boxes!

    Respectfully submitted, Amanda

  5. …. as far as how Food Policy Councils work, everybody interested can sign on as a Friend and learn about what issues are being examined. And there indeed are vegetarians on the planning group. The members of the actual Food Policy Council will be elected, for the most part. So, you or somebody with the same interests could and should run for the Council seat. And, the Council as a whole will be holding listening sessions, where input will be sought.
    That said, you can (and should!) also always feel free to go directly to your elected officials in the City. Find out what ward you are in, and contact your representatives (there should be 2) to tell them that you would be offended by your neighbors being allowed to raise chickens in the backyard. While the rules for urban backyard chickens generally do not allow for slaughter by the human, dogs, raccoons, opossum and other predators don’t usually abide by City Council’s rules, and do often attack backyard chickens if there is a way for them to do so.

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