EAST PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Beth Galligan’s seven little hens all have their own personalities, from the shy and retiring fluffball Biscuits to the brassy and bold Winnie, her favorite, who likes to jump up on her shoulder and sit there like a swashbuckling parrot.
But they are all alike in one way: They are fugitives of a sort. Fugitives from the law in East Providence, which says you cannot keep fowl unless you live in a type of agricultural zone that is becoming vanishingly rare.
Galligan is trying to change that, she explained, as she walked around her spacious backyard with her 3-year-old daughter, Harper, and the feathered girls she considers part of her family.
“I walk out the door and they just come running,” she said. “I was surprised by how connected I was to them. Every person who has chickens says the same thing.”
In the four months she’s had them, Galligan hasn’t received any complaints from neighbors, and zoning enforcement hasn’t come knocking on her door. But she got involved in trying to change the law with another East Providence chicken enthusiast, Lorna Steele. A few weeks ago, Steele received a letter from local zoning officials about her eight chickens. She’s had them for two months. Now she’s facing the prospect of having to find another home for them, unless they can persuade East Providence to change its zoning.
“They are really, really important to me,” Steele said in a phone interview. “The chickens are a huge deal to me. I get a great deal of pleasure from taking care of them and talking to them.”
If she had to give them up, it would break her heart, Steele said.
“These aren’t just chickens in a coop,” she said. “These are my little friends.”
It is a story that has played out for the past decade or so in towns around Rhode Island, whose official state bird is a chicken. People want to keep chickens, both for pets — Galligan and Steele consider them a form of emotional support — and for their eggs. People involved in battling on behalf of chickens say their appreciation for sustainable and local food sources increased when they were cooped up during the COVID-19 pandemic, a time of toilet-paper shortages and anxiety-inducing grocery store runs.
But these efforts can sometimes run into roadblocks on the local level, where some opponents cite pests or predators that chickens might attract. The debate happened a decade ago in Woonsocket and Providence, where people found their way to compromise. A backyard battle has been playing out in Cumberland, and just last week, the antichicken forces came out ahead.
In East Providence, Steele and Galligan — who both said they thought they could have chickens on their properties — have been working with Councilwoman Anna Sousa to write an ordinance that would allow them to keep them. Sousa is planning to introduce a narrower proposal at first: It would allow people to keep chickens as emotional support animals, with some form of proof that they need them for that purpose, like a doctor’s note.
One local family who keeps chickens for this purpose has run into trouble with the city, prompting legal action that the city’s insurance carrier is dealing with. That situation is before the Rhode Island Commission for Human Rights.
After that narrower proposal on emotional support animals, Sousa is looking at broader proposals to allow people to keep chickens for other purposes, while keeping in mind concerns about the noise chickens might make or the pests they might attract. East Providence has a significant Portuguese population, and although nobody is interested in having a real-life rooster of Barcelos screaming its head off at dawn, having a couple hens for eggs is something many people grew up with in the old country.
“I’m a daughter of a farmer,” Sousa said. “I can appreciate having farm animals, but not to the extreme where it becomes a nuisance.”
Mayor Robert DaSilva, through the administration’s spokeswoman, declined to be interviewed about chickens. But his office said in an e-mailed statement that the administration was working with Councilman Nathan Cahoon and the planning and zoning departments to “evaluate a potential ordinance.”
Cahoon said in an interview there has to be some limit, to deal with concerns like predators or noise. But the city recently passed a law allowing the use of fire pits, another fun way to spend time when you’re stuck at home through a nasty pandemic.
“Whether it’s fire pits or home offices or raising chickens, people want to be self-sufficient. Hey, let’s do it,” Cahoon said.
Cahoon said he’s a city boy and had not considered getting chickens himself.
“But who knows,” Cahoon said. “Maybe I’ll see my neighbor’s chickens and get jealous.”
If East Providence wants to see how this might play out, it need only look west. Providence — significantly more urban than East Providence — passed a law in 2010 allowing people to keep up to six hens (no roosters). The law has a number of requirements, including space restrictions, predator-proof enclosures, and keeping hens corralled between 9 p.m. and 8 a.m., but they have become popular enough that if you were walking around a Federal Hill side street, you might see a chicken sauntering down the sidewalk.
Woonsocket, too, now has a law on the books allowing chickens. Alex Kithes was involved in advocating for it. Kithes, a local progressive activist who served one term on the City Council, said it’s more restrictive than he would like: You need a special use permit. The form is available online, and speaks to the sorts of bureaucratic hoops one has to go through: You must make 11 copies of your application, and you might want to consider getting a lawyer, the packet advises.
That was the only way it would get past opposition and allow chickens at all, Kithes said. He took advantage of the opportunity. His hens provided thousands of eggs over the years, he said.
“It’s an interesting political fight, because it tends to bring together progressives approaching it from the sustainability and economic justice viewpoint, and right-wing libertarians who believe it’s a fundamental property right,” Kithes said. “The idea of allowing people the freedom and autonomy to grow their own food, cheaper and better quality — I think there’s that sort of commonality in the ideologies.”
That commonality hasn’t always led to victories for prochicken forces. In North Providence, for example, the council shot down a chicken ordinance by a 5 to 0 vote in 2015, according to a story on ecoRI.org.
In Cranston, meanwhile, former mayor Allan Fung vetoed an ordinance that would have allowed backyard chickens in 2012. That has led to a strange sort of gray area, Councilwoman Nicole Renzulli said: The law doesn’t allow chickens, nor does it explicitly prohibit them. As a result, some residents keep backyard hens. In a city now dealing with a rat problem, that has led to concerns, Renzulli said. She’s interested in an ordinance that would give the city something to enforce with respect to chickens, and make sure people keep their feed locked up.
“Right now, eradicating the rats is the biggest priority,” Renzulli said. “And chickens would be second.”
And in Cumberland, one family just recently was devastated by a town decision not to let them keep their chickens. The town law there allows people in Cumberland to keep chickens, but requires them to keep coops at least 25 feet from side property lines. But Paromita Ghosh’s lot on Spring Street is only 40 feet wide, not enough for a 25-foot setback on each side.
Neighbors complained, according to the Valley Breeze. Ghosh went before the Zoning Board to get a variance, but citing the opposition of neighbors, who said the chickens did not fit in, the board voted it down last week. Now Ghosh is working on plans to rehome Oreo, Raven, Silverspring, Scarlet, and Buffy, the chickens she got when she felt particularly isolated during the pandemic.
“I spent many nights crying, many upset days,” Ghosh said. “But that’s what it is. I can’t do anything now. It’s not in my hands.”
That’s the sort of eventuality that Galligan, the East Providence chicken enthusiast, is trying to avoid. She says concerns about chickens are unfounded. She has spent a lot of money, more than she’d care to admit or can keep track of, to keep her chickens safe.
A photographer specializing in newborns and families, Galligan invested in a coop and a run that has an automated door powered by a small solar panel, and a device whose eyes light up red like a predator’s at night to keep any foxes or fisher cats away.
The whole setup looks not unlike a modern smart home in miniature, with a “chick-nick” table in the middle where the hens can eat after they work up an appetite while romping in the yard, looking like tiny modern-day dinosaurs.
There’s enough room for all of them, Galligan says, for Biscuits, Winnie, Clarabelle, Lucy Mae, Dixie, Millie, and Penny, in East Providence. She’ll just need to convince her fellow Townies.