By Elyse Joseph
Precious the hen strolls around her owner Sharon Portman’s backyard, unafraid of everything — not the humans, with whom she is amiable, and certainly not the three dogs, with whom she shares the yard and who know from experience that she will peck them if they get too frisky. Precious is unaware of the hours of research, the city council meetings and the altercations with Animal Services that Portman endured five years ago to change a Santa Ana city regulation that would have prevented Precious from living in her coop, now sitting between the house and the side wall of the yard. Throughout Orange County, Portman’s efforts earned her the nickname, “the chicken lady.”
Seven years ago, Portman, a retired instructor of English as a second language at Fullerton College, decided to raise some chickens. She had raised chickens in her backyard before, when her three children were younger, thinking, “It’s important for people — particularly city folk — to know where our food comes from.”
In 2010, hoping to resurrect her hobby, Portman went to a feed store and bought two chicks. Her daughter, who knew she had decided to raise chickens, but did not know she had already bought them, had three more shipped to her for her birthday. Portman knew city regulations only allowed four chickens in a yard, but the five were already there, so what was there to do but care for them? However, that August, she received a notice from Animal Services. Assuming it was because she had too many chickens, she thought, “We’re going to have to vote somebody off the island,” but when she called the department, the employee asked, “Is your chicken coop one hundred feet from all the surrounding residences?”
Animal Services sent out a representative to measure the distance and determined it wasn’t up to code. Portman discovered that a man living behind her in a two-story house with a bedroom window overlooking her backyard was the person who reported her. The city regulation she had broken, adopted in 1991, dictated that “All birds shall be confined indoors or in a coop, aviary or pen and all such … places where such birds are kept shall be located at least one hundred (100) feet from any residence, the owner’ s excepted.”
However, having seen how much distance the regulation mandated, she realized that it seemed as if “nobody in Santa Ana could have chickens.” Sending her chickens to stay with a coworker in Fullerton, who also owned chickens, Portman learned about the thirty-foot distance requirement there. She spoke about it with her husband.
“Michael, I’m going to talk to the city council about this.”
“That’s probably not going to do any good,” he replied.
“Well, maybe it will make me feel better.”
She began researching and discovered that no other city had a regulation as strict as Santa Ana’s. On Oct. 30, Portman went to the city council and presented her case. The council told her they would look into the ordinance and provide her with more information, but seemingly took no other action.
Eight days later, her husband, Michael, died in his sleep of cardiac arrest, despite having been very active and seemingly healthy. He had just sold a business, but the process had not been completed. Portman was unfamiliar with the process of transferring ownership of a business and was unable to focus through her grief.
“My whole world turned upside down,” she said.
The chickens and regulations of Santa Ana left her mind until January, when she received a phone call from the city council about the concern she had raised months earlier. Her immediate reaction was “What?”
A reporter found the case and wrote the first of several stories on the situation. It turned out that many of Santa Ana’s residents had backyard chickens and were concerned that they were keeping the fowl illegally. They were at the mercy of their neighbors. One woman lived on a property that covered one third of an acre and still could not comply with the code. Another had an argument with her neighbor unrelated to chickens, and the neighbor retaliated by reporting her. There were also people who wanted to own chickens but found that they were unable to due to the same restrictions.
One such woman was Christina Damian, who had heard of Portman from the newspaper and, by coincidence, moved two houses down from Portman’s. One day she met Portman on the street and excitedly exclaimed, “Are you the chicken lady?” Together, they researched and put together solid arguments to counter the claims Animal Control had made about chickens causing bacterial contamination, being noisy and smelling.
In May 2012, they attended the last of the city council meetings regarding the regulation, with signs protesting the unjust ordinance. One woman from another city came with her children and a three-panel board with pictures to give a presentation explaining why she and her children loved their chickens. The Santa Ana police chief attended and spoke about how few complaints the police department received regarding chickens. Portman recalls, “In the midst of great sorrow, that was one little glimmer of bright light.” One former city council member pointed out that the ordinance was likely racially motivated because the 1991 ordinance came around the time of an increase in the Latino population of Santa Ana.
As a result of the protests, on June 4, 2012, Santa Ana adopted a new ordinance: “All buildings, pens, runs, or other places where such fowl … are kept shall be located at least thirty (30) feet from any residence, the owner’s excepted.” Portman gave all but two of the chickens she’d had before to the woman who’d lost hers because of her disgruntled neighbor, one of which died last year.
Five years later, one of Portman’s dogs gives Precious a wide berth as she continues her stroll around the yard. To her, life remains simple as ever. She clucks softly.
“Yeah?” replies Portman. Precious walks and clucks again.
“And what else?” Portman inquires.