Washington, DC attorneys Allison Sheedy and Daniel McInnis share their home in the city’s Chevy Chase neighborhood with their four children. They share their large yard with Mrs. Tiggy-winkle, Minnie Mouse, India, and Red, their four egg-laying hens. And they share their eggs with neighbors.

Or they did, at least, until Washington, DC regulators came calling.

Photo credit: woodleywonderworks via Flickr

“Mrs. Tiggy-winkle and her feathered friends have been targeted by the D.C. Department of Health,” the Washington Post reported last week. “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.”

A hearing this week may determine the fate of Mrs. Tiggy-winkle and her fellow egg layers.

Why did the District declare Mrs. Tiggy-winkle pullum non grata? It turns out that Washington, DC rules prohibit keeping a chicken coop within fifty feet of any residence.

Many cities around the country—including Seattle, Salt Lake City, and New York City—have embraced backyard chickens and urban agriculture in yards of all shapes and sizes. They recognize that a well-maintained chicken coop in a yard, like the one maintained by Sheedy and McInnis and their children, benefits a home and community and poses no more health risks than does keeping a dog or cat.

They're just like cats and dogs, really. Photo credit: normanack via Flickr

But many other cities are stuck in reverse. The nonsensical poultry prohibition in the District is exactly the sort of rule that drives the discussion in my forthcoming Island Press book, Biting the Hands that Feed Us: How Fewer, Smarter Laws Would Make Our Food System More Sustainable. The book reveals countless federal, state, and local rules either that promote unsustainable food practices or that—as in the case of Washington, DC’s chicken rules—prohibit sustainable food practices. In fact, Biting the Hands that Feed Us contains an entire chapter on terrible food rules around the country that bar people from gardening, foraging, sharing food with the homeless and less fortunate, and otherwise providing food for themselves, their families, and those in need.

What’s the solution to this mess? As I describe in the book, we must repeal bad rules like these. That doesn’t mean all rules are bad. In the case of backyard chickens, for example, sensible rules are those that embrace egg-laying hens but that ban roosters—loud male chickens that don’t lay eggs, and which are nothing more than nuisances in an urban environment.

In the end, rules that prevent people from embracing more sustainable food practices aren’t keeping us safe or making us better off. Rather, they’re what’s biting the hands that feed us.