Fight to reclaim goats takes aim at Detroit law

Steve Pardo and Christine Ferretti

Sky Brown and her husband, David Brown, moved into Detroit from the suburbs in May to rehab a long-abandoned home with hopes of helping rebuild the city.

The neighborhood near Six Mile and Telegraph consists of a scattering of abandoned and foreclosed homes and a lot of fallen trees. It's an area well on its way to being reclaimed by nature.

Inspired by the rural feel, the couple got a half-dozen chickens and three goats, hoping to keep the goats as pets in an enclosed area in the backyard. They planned to eat any eggs produced by the chickens.

"I've always wanted animals. I always wanted to be a farmer when I was younger, and I just love goats," said Sky Brown, 34.

But in October, the couple say animal control came in, confiscated the animals without warning and slapped Sky with nine criminal charges of harboring wild animals. The chickens have been given away. The goats are in a sanctuary.

Supporters say the crackdown represents the wrong direction for a city hoping to attract professionals to its blighted neighborhoods. Sky Brown has a law degree; David Brown, 33, works for the Detroit Bus Co. They have started a website to draw support and funding for their legal fight.

Sky Brown is fighting the nine misdemeanor counts — each punishable by up to three months in jail — and has a court hearing in February.

"I want my goats back. I want my chickens back," she said. "And I want an apology."

The Browns have Royal Oak attorneys Jordan Zuppke and Rachel Loebl working free for them. They've called the Detroit ordinance outdated and unfair, given the vast tracts of land in the city that haven't benefited from the growth, popularity and improvements of downtown and Midtown.

"We're not going to back down," Zuppke said. "We're going to make noise and we're going fight them because that law is a bad law. It's just at odds with what's going on in Detroit. It would be in the city's best interest to use its resources in ways other than prosecuting people for having an animal in their yard."

The city has taken a hard line against goats. In June, it ordered a goat farm in an empty block closed a day after 18 goats arrived. The plan was to have the animals eat tall weeds in the blighted Brightmoor neighborhood on the city's west side.

Issue studied

John Roach, spokesman for Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, said the current city code prohibits keeping livestock within city limits. But changes in the times and moods are causing city officials to look at possible changes, he said.

"Because of the growing interest in urban agriculture and animal husbandry in the city, a work group has been formed to more closely study the issue," Roach said.

"This group consists of representatives of various city departments, as well as City Council, other experts and key community stakeholders."

The group is expected to present a report to the mayor and City Council within the next few weeks, along with recommendations.

"In the meantime, the animal control division of (the Detroit Police Department) will continue to respond to any complaints it receives," Roach said.

Adding to the debate are changes in the state Right to Farm Act.

The act was adopted in 1981 and gave farmers a defense if they were sued by neighbors over complaints about things such as animal noises and odors.

In April, the state adjusted the act to give more local control to municipalities when it comes to backyard farms and keeping animals. Jennifer Holton, spokeswoman for the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, said that expansion of agriculture into urban areas has to work for the community.

Detroit City Councilman Gabe Leland says he believes that the city must move toward a new policy.

A work group and various city departments have been examining the issue. In December, the council's legal staff put out a proposed timeline to study and develop an urban livestock policy for Detroit.

Concerns about health

Leland says he believes the city should provide options and respect those who choose to harbor animals. But he's concerned about nuisance and health risks.

"There's a real opportunity to help people that want to own livestock legally in the city of Detroit. We need to get to that place," Leland said.

"We don't want to lose the type of Detroit residents that want this experience. But at the same time, we're trying to preserve the health and welfare of the population."

The City Council's Legislative Policy Division in December recommended that a livestock work group charged with vetting proposed policies convene in January.

A proposed Urban Livestock Guild also would be created. Its membership would consist of those who keep livestock as well as city, state and other agencies.

The group would ensure peer accountability, training and management; identify inspection benchmarks; and engage and educate the community.

Membership in the guild would be mandatory to obtain a permit from the city to keep livestock.

The proposed ordinances and policies could go to the city's Planning Commission and/or the City Council by May, and be voted on as soon as June.

Beyond health concerns, other issues to be examined include the types of animals that will be allowable and prohibited, zoning district allowances and limitations, site restrictions, animal care standards and regulations and administrative oversight.

Leland added he's advocating for a temporary ordinance that could provide more clarity for residents such as the Browns.

He said he doesn't believe that the couple was necessarily doing anything wrong.

"They were going against an ordinance that needs to be looked at," he said.

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