by Len Lear
Maureen Breen, 56, may not look like anyone on the FBI’s 10-Most-Wanted list, but she will confess to anyone (you don’t even have to be a priest) that she is a chronic lawbreaker. That’s because Breen, an assistant clinical professor of accounting at Drexel University for the past three years, is also a group leader for the Facebook organization Philadelphia Backyard Chickens and the proud owner of her own delightful backyard chickens.
(Philadelphia Backyard Chickens, founded by Weaver’s Way Co-op, serves as a forum for Philly chicken owners to share knowledge, ask questions related to the care of the birds and occasionally provide advice and support for those cited by the city for their fowl “crimes.”)
Although it is currently unlawful to keep backyard chickens in Philadelphia — unlike many other big cities, where it is perfectly legal — Breen will teach you how to care for backyard chickens in a Mt. Airy Learning Tree course on Tuesdays, Feb. 12 and 19, 7 p.m., at Mt. Airy Nexus, 520 Carpenter Ln.
Breen, a resident of Fox Chase for the past 25 years,has kept chickens in her backyard for the last eight years. The obvious question is: Why?
“It arose from my desire to provide as much of my own food as possible,” explained Breen. “Now, they are part of my research for my doctorate in Public Administration at West Chester University.
“I am studying the value of backyard chickens in reducing food waste entering the municipal solid waste stream. They eat a lot of kitchen scraps, so this food does not impose landfill costs on the city or add to greenhouse gas emissions as it decomposes.
“The early results are so favorable that backyard chickens are a no-brainer policy for any city that wants to be zero waste!”
According to Breen, the chickens are also delightful to watch! They eat bugs in addition to the kitchen scraps. They really do not produce waste because the coop cleanings are garden compost.
Another benefit is “the great eggs! My dog now refuses to eat regular store eggs because she has grown so accustomed to the amazing eggs from the backyard.”
Does Breen, a graduate of the University of Illinois, see any negatives to having backyard chickens aside from the fact that some city bureaucrat may give you a citation at any time?
“Yes. They are living animals, so they require care, and they make a bit of noise when they lay an egg, but who can blame them for that?”
Does Breen ever eat chicken herself? “No! Because of caring for these amazing animals, I became a vegetarian. They have a social order and personalities. I just could not continue eating any animals after getting to know chickens.”
Although there is a city ordinance against having backyard chickens, those who have them are not likely to be visited by a city nay-sayer unless a neighbor complains.
Since Breen did get a citation from the city after a neighbor complained, how has she managed to keep her egg-laying friends?
“After the neighbor who lived a few houses away from me reported me to the city, they were evicted from their home, and the other neighbors asked me if we could have the chickens back.
“My neighbors enjoy the chickens. One gives me kitchen scraps for them, and the other neighbor takes coop cleanings to fertilize his garden; a little ecosystem runs across our yards. I won’t disclose the names of city employees who have come to see my yard to see what the setup looks like.”
Breen’s group has talked with at least nine City Council members or their representatives about changing the law to protect chicken owners.
“Overall, their reaction has been positive. Many Council members are aware of good chicken keepers in their districts.”
What was the hardest thing Breen ever had to do? “Work to change this law. I never did anything like this before. I had to learn about how laws happen in Philadelphia, how to approach Council members, what they need to hear, how to organize people, how to lead when I do not have all the skills that are needed to succeed.
“I wish I was better at working with politicians. I am an academic, so I tend to work in a world of logic. I also have a business background, so when something is a good idea, such as backyard chickens, I think we simply do it. I am learning that the political process is not like that all the time.”
What does Breen like to do in her spare time (if she has any)? “I don’t really know that I have spare time. I am always busy in something. I recharge in my garden. I like being close to the dirt, the life, that happens in a garden.”
You can get more information about Breen’s upcoming MALT course by calling 215-843-6333.