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Backyard chickens may soon no longer be allowed in Toronto as city officials are calling on council to end a pilot program, which permitted residents to keep the birds as pets or to produce eggs, because of concerns over avian influenza.

The recommendation is set to be presented to a council committee on Tuesday, and is an about-face from a year ago, when staff recommended a pilot program that has been running in select areas since March, 2018 be made permanent across the city.

The main rationale for the shift is the growing concern of the spread of bird flu across the country and associated costs with monitoring it, city officials said in a report to the council’s economic and community development committee. The 81 households participating in the program would be able to keep their hens until the end of the birds’ lives. There are currently 256 hens registered in the city.

There have been cases of the virus in farmed birds in Ontario this year. In some situations, the virus has spread to other animals, including household pets such as dogs and cats.

Shayan Sharif, acting dean of the University of Guelph’s Ontario Veterinary College, said he agrees with the recommendation to end the pilot project, even though it may seem extreme to people currently enrolled. Dr. Sharif said the virus has become a major issue because of how contagious it is.

“On the surface, it may seem like a harsh decision, but I’m personally in support,” he said in an interview. “The reality is we need to err on the side of caution at the moment because of the transmissibility of this virus.”

As of mid-March, there have been roughly 749,000 birds impacted by the flu in Ontario since the most recent outbreak started early last year. There haven’t been any confirmed cases in backyard hens in Toronto, but there have been confirmed cases in waterfowl in the GTA.

Several other major cities in Canada allow residents to keep chickens in their backyards. Vancouver and Edmonton operate an urban hen program citywide. In Calgary, a limited program launched in 2022 has been expanded this year with no limit on the number of licences available.

Toronto’s initial plan from a year ago to expand the program would have allowed all residents with a backyard to obtain up to four hens as pets and use the eggs for personal consumption. But councillors instead decided to extend the pilot for another year while the city undertook further consultation.

Expanding the program would require significant resources to support a pro-active response to animal welfare, the city’s report said, including stricter safety measures and more frequent inspections by staff.

A recommended addition of three animal-control officers and one supervisor would cost $493,670 annually. The city said this wouldn’t be fiscally sustainable for the small amount of households who would participate, even with the addition of user fees and licences. If the program were rolled out citywide, it’s estimated just over 500 households would participate.

A limited number of trained veterinarians in Toronto to be able to care for hens is also a setback if the virus were to spread through the hen population, the city’s report notes.

Local food advocates said that although the spread of bird flu is a serious concern, the indefinite end to the program goes too far. Lorraine Johnson, an advocate for urban hens and author of the book City Farmer: Adventures in Urban Food Growing, said she believes this to be a step backward. Instead, she suggests a pause for one or two years to monitor the virus and that the city revisit the program at a scheduled time.

Ms. Johnson said the benefits of the program include food security and sovereignty, with one hen laying about six eggs per week.

“We wanted to make sure the eggs we were eating were coming from hens who had the best life possible, rather than the conditions that hens live in the industrial food system,” she said.

The pilot also saw very few issues with only five complaints lodged with the city for issues such as unsanitary conditions.

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