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Northeast Philly chicken owner beats fines with councilman's support

Growing movement pushing to end Philly's ban on domestic chickens.
Maureen Breen of Philadelphia Backyard Chickens and Stephanie Morrell-Wishahi joke with City Councilman Bobby Henon as he holds one of Morrell-Wishahi's three backyard chickens. (Hayden Mitman)

Stephanie Morrell-Wishahi brought chickens to her Northeast Philly home to bring a little bit of the rural life to the city.

"My great-grandfather was a farmer who quit school at age 8 and worked on the farm," she recalled of her family's roots in Hanover, Pennsylvania. "I’ve always gardened all my life. ... I wanted to teach my kids how to grow food, how to do it right, how to do it organically."

But the keeping of chickens is illegal in the city limits, and late last year, city officials slapped Morrell-Wishahi with fines. 

After several court dates, she wound up before the Zoning Board earlier this month and won, making her the second person in the city to have licensed chickens. She credited support from City Councilman Bobby Henon with helping to make that happen.

“I think she’s a prime example on why people want to have backyard chickens and what they can produce, and why, not just having a smart pet, but a productive and a food-sustainable pet is important,” Henon said last week as he cradled a chicken in his arms at Morrell-Wishahi's home.

Henon said he "fully supports" legalizing keeping chickens in the city, but he believes more discussions are needed before any action could be taken on this front.

Yet the legalization of backyard chicken coops is something that both Morrell-Wishahi and chicken advocate Maureen Breen, 54, who runs the Philadelphia Backyard Chickens Facebook group, say is a concern to many Philadelphians.

The two women delivered Henon an example of a City Council bill they hope to have passed that would change the city code to permit the keping of chickens in the city just like dogs or cats. But Henon said he wasn’t prepated to discuss the possibility of creating a bill for the legalization of keeping chickens in city limits yet.

Breen said Morrell-Wishahi is one of only two Philadelphians that have the needed variances to allow backyard chicken coops – though there have been exceptions, like the West Philly woman who also got fines for a private chicken coop tossed by a judge, without having a variance. Breen said she believes as many as 1,000 Philadelphians keep chickens but hide them in order to not get fined.

“We just don’t want chickens outlawed anymore,” said Breen.

Breen said that out of the ten biggests cities in America, only Philadelphia and Detrioit don't allow the keeping of chickens in city limits. Other cities all permit it. 

"Horses are more legal in Philadelphia than chickens," she said. 

Morell-Wishahi could have been fined $150 per day by the city’s Department of Licenses and Inspections for keeping three chickens. But she wound up paying about $350 ($100 for an animal husbandry license and $250 for an appeal) in order to keep her poultry.

Not bad for three Buff Orpington hens that produce about an egg a day. They're also so friendly that she sometimes catches neighborhood kids in her yard petting and taking selfies peacefully with the birds, she said. Most neighbors love them, and she thinks they should not be illegal.

"When are we gonna change this crazy chicken law?" she asked.  "There seems to be a lot of people who are really supportive now. ...We need to change it."