City Takes West Philly Woman to Court Over Backyard Chickens, She Wins

Malaika Hart would not take no for an answer.

Malaika Hart hugs a hen. (Photo courtesy Malaika Hart)

Malaika Hart hugs a hen. (Photo courtesy Malaika Hart)

Unlike in the vast majority of large American cities, keeping chickens as pets in Philadelphia is illegal, thanks to City Councilman Brian “Killjoy” O’Neill. But one West Philadelphia woman just proved that you can fight City Hall — at least when it comes to backyard chickens.

Malaika Hart, a 41-year-old mother-of-four, keeps chickens as pets at One Art, a community center she runs on 52nd Street between Media and Master. Hart also grows figs, plums, and all sorts of vegetables and herbs there, and she thought that a brood of hens would be a perfect addition.

“We don’t have roosters,” explains Hart. “So they’re quiet. And most of the neighbors love them, and we give them eggs all the time. But some of the neighbors at some point called to complain.”

Hart says that the first warning about her chickens showed up a couple of years ago, and then came citation after citation for her illegal chickens. She also received citations for trash and weeds, but what the city called trash, she says the visitors and students at One Art transform into art, and as far as Hart is concerned, those weeds were actually edible plants and healing herbs.

The citations piled up, and Hart says she was eventually on the hook for $2,105 plus court costs. In all, she expected the tab to come to more than $3,000 when all was said and done. But instead of entering into a payment plan with the city or just ignoring the repeated late notices, she got a hearing in Municipal Court, where she showed up last week.

Hart wasn’t sure what to expect. When she arrived, she walked into the hearing, where she was offered a deal: Pay $350 and this will be over and done with.

“But I said no,” says Hart. “I told them that I wouldn’t accept that. I wouldn’t pay anything.”

So the court sent Hart down the hall to another courtroom. She waited her turn and showed the administrative judge pictures of her urban farm and her hens.

“I told her that these are our pets,” she says. “I told her that we love them.”

And a few minutes later, all of the citations against Hart were dismissed. But Hart insists that the fight isn’t over.

“Whatever we need to do, we need to do,” Hart says. “The city needs to legalize backyard chickens. We share the eggs, they help with pests, and we even use their droppings in the compost in our garden. They’re amazing pets. It’s just ridiculous.”

Follow @VictorFiorillo on Twitter.