Nine years ago, Novella Carpenter took over a small vacant lot next to her duplex in a tough neighborhood in Oakland, Calif., and started … a farm. She planted fruits and vegetables and brought in livestock. At one time or another over the years she’s had chickens, geese, turkeys, and rabbits, some of which she slaughters for meat. Or she did until last year, when the city received complaints about her operation and she agreed to stop while officials decide whether she’s eligible for a special permit. (A bit of a provocateur, she might not have helped her cause by selling rabbit pot pie at a fundraiser.)
Carpenter, who wrote a book about city farming, is now a celebrity among hundreds of urban locavores who shun factory farms and insist on raising and killing what they eat—often to the dismay of the people next door. She understands why people might not be thrilled with her avocation. “Even to me, backyard slaughter sounds awful,” she says. “I imagine blood everywhere and screaming animals. In reality, it’s nothing like that. We don’t want to open up a slaughterhouse in the backyard, we just want to kill a chicken.”
Generally, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and states oversee commercial slaughter, but cities set their own ordinances on animals killed for personal consumption. Oakland’s planning director, Eric Angstadt, says the code is unclear. Residents are allowed to have horses, cows, donkeys, goats, and other animals based on the size of lot where they’re kept, but the rules don’t spell out whether the animals can be killed for food. “Urban farming has grown into a movement, and so we decided we’d better upgrade our code,” says Angstadt. “We have to look at the potential impact on other residents and religions that have animal slaughter as part of their practice.”
More than 20 other cities, including Cleveland, San Antonio, and Seattle, have passed ordinances regulating the keeping and killing of urban livestock, including chickens, geese, ducks, goats, pigs, rabbits, and bees. In 2010 the USDA surveyed 425 people who keep chickens in four cities—Denver, Miami, Los Angeles, and New York. About 10 percent said they had killed their birds for food in the past year. The practice has given rise to instructional YouTube videos and butchering lessons on websites such as The Rabbit Revolution, which gives tips on raising bunnies and killing them as quickly and painlessly as possible. (Recommended method: snapping the neck with a broomstick or delivering a sharp blow between the ears with a hammer or stone.)
“It’s inhumane to the animals,” says Ian Elwood of Neighbors Opposed to Backyard Slaughter, a California group urging cities to ban the practice. “These slaughters can be botched, and they don’t meet industry standards for welfare.” A petition to block animal slaughter in Oakland lists more than 1,300 supporters on its website. In other cities, activists have staged protests at council meetings where elected officials debated the question. At a hearing in El Cerrito, Calif., an opponent played audio of a goat bleating as it died. In February the city opted against a ban, after marathon deliberations in which council members pondered how restrictions would affect homeowners who cook lobster or feed live mice to pet snakes.
Elsewhere, officials have tried to have it both ways. In Denver, urban farmers—including one man who came to a city council meeting in a chicken suit—won the right last year to raise the birds, but not to kill them. That may just drive home butchering underground. “If people are not doing it openly, who’s going to know?” says James Bertini, a Denver lawyer who keeps chickens and geese. “People will still do it.”