Can a Chicken be a Pet?

The short answer is yes, at least in New Mexico.  The New Mexico Court of Appeals recently held that chickens kept for pleasure could qualify as pets under a community association’s specific set of governing documents.[1]  The case at issue involved a dispute between owners who claimed their chickens were household pets and an association that disagreed.  The specific provision in dispute indicated as follows: 

No animals, birds or poultry shall be kept or maintained on any lot, except recognized household pets which may be kept thereon in reasonable numbers as pets for the pleasure and use of the occupants but not for any commercial use or purpose.

To determine whether the owners’ chickens were pets, the New Mexico Court of Appeals set forth a couple of definitions for “pet”, including the following: “a domesticated animal kept for pleasure rather than utility.”   In defense of the proposition that a chicken could be a pet, the Court noted that the definition does not state that a pet cannot also have utility.  In short, the Court was comfortable with owners having useful pets and was not ready to say a chicken could not be considered one. 

Next, the Court evaluated whether the chickens were “recognized” household pets.  For that analysis, and since the Court concluded that the term “recognized” was ambiguous, the Court noted the evidence that each side produced at the trial court level, including evidence from the association’s poultry expert who stated that "[p]oultry has not historically been considered 'household pets,' and traditional household pets, such as dogs and cats, are not regulated as agricultural animals by the USDA." Ultimately, the Court noted that the trial court should not have considered this and other extrinsic evidence and instead explained that the description of the community (as set forth in the association’s governing documents) as "pastoral" and "rural" appeared to lend itself to allowing animals, birds, and poultry as recognized pets.  As such, the Court concluded that the specific provision in dispute could not be enforced to preclude the owners from keeping their chickens as recognized household pets. 

To close out the issue and to address the association’s assertion that allowing chickens as household pets could open up circumstances of ruination, the Court offered a tongue-in-cheek response: “We are not persuaded that in permitting pet chickens ‘the sky will fall.’” The Court further noted that if the association wanted a different result, the association and its owners could effectuate an amendment to the association’s governing documents. 

Although the Court’s analysis relates to the laws in New Mexico, the case offers some helpful principles to keep in mind, which brings me to an important tip:  Before you find yourself in a circumstance where you are hiring a poultry expert, carefully consider the benefits of mediating the dispute instead. 

[1] Eldorado Community Improvement Association, Inc. v. Billings, Case No. 33,850 (N.M. Ct. App. Mar. 28, 2016).