The chicken who came to Council to roost: FAQ

Yes, it’s true: I entered the Council Chambers after last week’s meeting began, and took my seat as an elected member of that august body…clad head-to-toe in a chicken suit, which I wore the entire meeting.

The photo’s caption: “Chicken Little? In observance of the Bloomington City Council’s discussion on an urban chicken ordinance, council member Steve Volan came to Wednesday evening’s meeting dressed as a chicken. Volan waited until the meeting started to make his appearance. City council member David Sabbagh looks on. Chris Howell | Herald-Times

Many people have been asking questions or making comments about the incident. Forthwith are some answers and responses.

  1. Why’d you do it?
  2. Was the chicken suit uncomfortable?
  3. How do you stand on chickens in the city?
  4. You made the front page! What did you think of the HT’s coverage?
  5. But wasn’t wearing a chicken suit inappropriate?
  6. I saw the story in Hartford! Did you know that you’re making national news?
  7. Who challenged you to wear the chicken suit?
  8. So are chickens legal now in the city of Bloomington?
  9. Is there video?

1. Why’d you do it?

The October 25 meeting of the Bloomington Common Council was a committee-of-the-whole whose sole agenda item was to consider proposed ordinance 06-21: “To Permit Small Flocks of Chickens by Waiver.” So the suit could certainly be considered relevant.

In a letter to the editor of the local paper of record, the Bloomington Herald-Times, on Friday, October 27 I wrote:

Thank you for covering the urban chickens ordinance so prominently in Thursday’s paper. I’ve always wanted to be able to claim a “pullet surprise.”

Of course I wore the chicken getup to endorse the keeping of chickens within city limits. The HT story did not make clear, however, the other reasons why I dressed up for the meeting.

The previous week, while dining with company at the Uptown, a friend passed my table on his way out. A second later, he came back grinning and declared abruptly: “I’ll donate $500 to the charity of your choice if you go to next week’s council meeting in a chicken suit!” (For the record, I was at that moment dining on polenta.) Having experience as costumed poultry — to promote a Thanksgiving sale a few years ago, I donned a turkey suit — how could I turn down such a challenge?

Since land-use issues are the most significant that the City Council considers, I’ve asked that the Sycamore Land Trust be the beneficiary of the generosity of my friend (who has requested anonymity…and who can blame him?).

Thanks also to Blast Off Balloons for the chicken suit. Yes, their costumes fit even me.

2. Was the chicken suit uncomfortable?

I am very tall, it’s true. But as I said above, the outfit Blast Off Balloons rented me actually fit. It was a little tight, but fortunately I just had to sit there at the meeting. Had I needed to sing and dance, I might have generated another laugh with the sound of ripping cloth.

The red rubber gloves made it hard to type on my laptop, however. That’s the worst part of outfits like that: the gloves.

3. How do you stand on chickens in the city?

Standing on chickens is cruel, even in the county.

With respect to proposed ordinance 06-21, I wouldn’t have worn the outfit if I didn’t agree with the proposal. My mom, who lived through the Nazi occupation of Greece, said that her family was lucky to survive relatively healthy and well-nourished because their family in the modern-day town of Sparta kept a flock of chickens; the eggs were their main source of protein. That made a big impression on me. Seeing as the city has adopted a resolution and created a commission on sustainability, it’s a no-brainer to me that this is one step, however small and clawed, toward more sustainable living.

Furthermore, this ordinance is one of the most restrictive of any in the country regulating the keeping of urban chickens. It doesn’t allow roosters (like moi — you know how us men-hens like to crow), it limits a flock to 5 hens, it’s quite strict about how the hens are to be kept, and it only allows the keeping of hens if all immediately-adjoining neighbors agree to it.

Fears expressed during the meeting were supported by no evidence at the meeting: fear of health specters like avian flu, fear of noise, fear of the mess chickens might make. I said during the meeting that we’ve been living in fear here in America long enough; we should not turn down this proposal simply because of unfounded fears. (Even though roosters are not allowed, I wouldn’t object to them either. I’d just as soon hear a rooster crow every day at dawn instead of a noisy garbage truck rumbling over the sidewalk and BWEEP-BWEEP-BWEEPing right outside my window.)

4. You made the front page! What did you think of the HT’s coverage?

The story made the front page of the Thursday, Oct. 26 edition of the HT, my chartreuse-fur-clad head and shoulders clearly above the fold (“Fowl get fair hearing” [$ubsc req’d]). It was perfunctory, though it at least indulged itself like the Council did in making its share of chicken jokes — no one at the meeting thought to call me “Chicken Little,” for example.

The HT editorial board, on the other hand, was a bit too eager later to criticize the outfit. Its Friday mini-editorial on the subject ($500 is not chicken feed [$ubsc req’d]) showed a lack of self-awareness unbecoming of a paper of record:

The sight of city council member Steve Volan in a full-sized chicken suit Wednesday was something to behold. But what should we think? Even though the costumed appearance accompanied a discussion of allowing chickens to be kept by city residents, our first thought was that really devalues the serious process of serious government. Humor has a place, but this didn’t seem to be it.¬†

But we’ve revised our position based on the very impressive fact that Volan dressed that way because one of his friends said he’d donate $500 to the council member’s favorite charity if he did. Volan took the challenge; the Sycamore Land Trust has an extra 500 bucks; and government perked on. If $500 is the reward, we’d favor a chicken suit for every council member.

It so happens that I said very clearly during the meeting that I had dressed up as a chicken because of a charitable challenge. At least one other Council member acknowledged this in his public comments. While this was near the end of the meeting, the HT reporter was there the whole time. She neglected to mention this mitigating factor in the story.

Had I not sent the above letter to the editor the next day, reiterating my biggest reason for the stunt, the HT editorial would likely have only been negative — thanks to their own inadequacies at gathering news.

I have previously criticized the relationship between the HT’s newsroom and its editorial board (“Is the Council nit-picking, or is the HT cherry-picking?” 2006.01.21 [$ubsc req’d]). Yet I remain, their humble subject, willing as ever to help them sell papers.

Next time, though, I’m also calling the IDS.

5. But wasn’t wearing a chicken suit inappropriate?

Like I’ve said above, I support the ordinance, it was for charity, and there was no other item on the agenda (I would probably have changed to civvies had there been one). It was also the last Wednesday before Halloween, so it’s not like it’s not the time of year. And the Council has been making chicken jokes relentlessly, both in public and behind the scenes, whenever the spectre of an urban-chickens ordinance has come up.

If anything, the message of the chicken suit is: we have nothing to fear but fear itself. If a politician can wear a chicken suit in public without fear for his reputation, people can live with a responsibly-kept flock of chickens next door.

6. I saw the story in Hartford! Did you know that you’re making national news?

The Indianapolis Star picked up the story (“Bloomington official goes chicken over coop measure”), including a second shot taken by the fine photographer Chris Howell. Several papers around the country picked the story up off the wire, including the Arizona Republic (“Councilman dresses up as chicken for debate”  later location), the Raleigh News and Observer (“Chicken in the chamber”), and the Canton Repository.

FOX News also had a chicken run (“This Just in From the Fun With Fowl Department”), and the guy who initially challenged me saw it on CNN while on a business trip in Alabama. This story had legs like drumsticks.

7. Who challenged you to wear the chicken suit?

At first he wanted to remain anonymous, but less than a day later, my friend who challenged me said it was okay to release his name. Many thanks to Geoff McKim of Bloomington, and a shout out to his wife Amy Cornell (who I hope isn’t mad at him for the impetuous, impromptu donation; maybe it’ll come out of his school-board campaign fund).

8. So are chickens legal now in the city of Bloomington?

The proposed ordinance will be reconsidered at its second (and final) reading in the Council’s regularly-scheduled meeting tomorrow, Nov. 1. The vote to recommend passage was 5-1 in favor with 3 passes, so I assume it will be law soon enough.

9. Is there video?

Yep, thanks to the good people at Bloomington Community Access Television Services (CATS).You can watch for yourself the October 25, 2006 meeting (requires RealPlayer, ugh), which starts about two minutes into the recording. I arrive about three minutes after that.

My final comments run from about 1:26 to just after 1:34, during which, despite being in costume, I manage to make a coherent argument between chicken jokes. But you should check out every councilmember’s comments, which are mostly very thoughtful. (Start with the first comments, ventured by CM Chris Gaal, at 1:23; he cracks the rotten egg of chicken jokes around 1:25.)

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