If Lauren Steltzer manages to win her fight to keep six chickens on her 100-by-100-foot Belmont Hills property, she'll eventually have another dilemma: how the hens will meet their ends.
The year-old birds—six of 13 Steltzer has had in a coop, along with the occasional controversy, in three years—are a breed that typically lives five to 10 years but stops laying productively after three.
In a couple years, "if I were really being a backyard farmer, I would eat them," said the Aetna web designer and mother of 13-year-old Maddie. "But I don't think I would enjoy the meal."
Each bird lays about five eggs a week, which the Steltzers eat or give to friends.
"That's been good for my daughter, seeing where food comes from," Steltzer said. "I haven't transitioned to the meat side of it yet."
Steltzer erected a fence last year after a neighbor complained about a chicken running through other yards and animal control was summoned. She paid a $120 and applied for a variance; sections of township law seem to prohibit more than two fowl on a property.
However, at the April 11 Lower Merion Board of Commisssioners meeting, when Steltzer came ready to plead her case, Belmont Hills Commissioner Paul McElhaney postponed the debate indefinitely, saying the township code was ambiguous and needed to be studied further.
So for the time being, Steltzer's chickens have the run of the yard. She's one of more than 100 members of Chicken Owners Outside Philadelphia, having learned more about the increasingly common practice (described here by CNN.com) after buying eggs at a roadside stand near Cape May. Even at her previous home, a one-acre farm in Chester County, she didn't keep chickens.
Through COOP, she got chickens a few at a time, splitting larger shipments with other owners.
"When you order chickens online, you have to get at least 25 of them. They come by two-day delivery, and they need that much collective body heat to stay alive," Steltzer said.
Steltzer has lost a few chickens to raccoons, as well as one, famously, to a fireman's bow and arrow, in a saga she declined to rehash in a recent interview but for which the COOP web site maintains a news digest.
Some more attrition was expected when Steltzer got the six current chickens, but they've learned to hide better from predators and they're meticulously taken care of, getting warm baths from Maddie when they have problems laying.
Plus, they apparently know not to bother fighting over territory, Steltzer said: "There really is a pecking order."