Among Amarillo families, households with dogs and cats invariably treat them like four-legged members of the family.
Then there are the less traditional pets – Amarillo’s horses, snakes, rabbits, goats, pigs, ducks and chickens. These animals may not fetch a ball or crawl into your lap while you watch TV, but they fulfill many of the same roles as dogs and cats. They provide entertainment. They offer companionship. They don’t get cited on tax returns, but these pets are dependents in every sense of the word, just like dogs and cats.
In this issue, we explore Amarillo’s relationship with its animal companions. What kinds of pets can and do live here? What does it mean to be a humane, responsible pet owner? And what does it take to create and sustain a thoughtful environment that meets the needs of domestic animals as well as their humans?
Protecting People and Animals
The City of Amarillo’s Animal Welfare and Management Department is not surprised at all in the recent uptick of interest in urban homesteading or backyard farming. Not that Amarillo is quite as “urban” as New York City, where a Brooklyn brunch may feature omelets made from locally sourced eggs – as in, eggs gathered from that very neighborhood of brownstones and apartment buildings.
Amarillo has always existed on a fine line between metropolitan and rural life anyway. From the middle of town, look far in any one direction and you’ll see open space. Drive down any main street and eventually you’ll pass a horse or a barn. Around here, raising chickens, goats, pigs, or other barnyard animals in a city environment may not even qualify as a trend. Maybe it’s just the way we’ve always been.
Regardless, the city of Amarillo continues to update its municipal public health code related to pets, fowl and other animals. The original version dates back to 1960. The most recent revisions took place in 2016. “We have been proactive in trying to update all our ordinances,” says Richard Havens, the city’s director of Animal Management and Welfare. He was hired in late 2014, having held similar animal control and services positions in Kansas.
An animal lover himself, Havens lives outside the city limits with a menagerie of dogs and cats. He even used to keep pet arachnids, including an Antilles pinktoe tarantula, a Caribbean-native teal spider with pink toes. “It was the fastest thing you’ve ever seen,” he says. He chose the arachnid after hours and hours of research. “I wanted a spider I could handle. When I got my pinktoe, I got the proper terrarium and [monitored] the right humidity and temperature to make sure I properly housed that species,” he says. To have done anything less would be irresponsible, he believes.
Havens brings that same personal sense of animal ethics to the city department he manages. He oversees ordinances designed to protect both people and animals, to ensure pets “have a humane existence and partnership with their human counterparts.”
While the city code is very specific (see below), Havens and his animal control team are not peering over fences into backyards and counting chickens relative to acreage. “We don’t actively look for violations,” he says. “[Municipal code] is enforced on a complaint basis. If a citizen calls and complains that there are too many chickens [at a residence], we will follow up.” For instance, investigators might pull up appraisal records to determine the exact size of a property. “If they don’t have enough acreage to have chickens, we tell them that we looked at the tax records. Then we’ll work with them. How long will it take you to find new homes or consume them humanely?”
At the same time, he recognizes the draw of urban chicken farming and the promise of all-natural eggs – or chickens – raised without antibiotics or hormones. “More citizens are becoming aware of how mass-produced chickens are treated from a humane standpoint,” he says. “It’s something we understand and respect but we need citizens to be aware of local ordinances. The chickens are not allowed to run around at large. They need to be contained to the property. You need to clean up after them.”
Havens says responsible animal ownership often is as simple as being a good neighbor. “If you have a rooster, you need to make sure the rooster doesn’t interfere with your neighbors. If it’s crowing in the morning and your neighbor complains, we could be citing you for a noise violation,” he explains. In fact, Havens recommends opening communication lines before the process even starts. “Just go talk to them. Tell them you’ll have a small, backyard flock and you’ll be in compliance with the local ordinances,” he says. That step – and the neighborly attitude behind it – can get out in front of potential complaints that might involve the city.
The same common-sense approach applies for larger rural animals as well. Should a city employee see a pet goat in a backyard – and if the time and manpower exists – Havens’ department might investigate that the goat is being kept humanely and in accordance with code. Humane treatment even applies to goats being raised for food. (Slow-roasted goat, or cabrito, is popular in some parts of Mexico.) “Because of how diverse Amarillo is, there’s a lot of different meat consumed here,” says Havens. “That someone would have a goat intended for consumption doesn’t surprise us a bit.” He says the city would likely not intervene “as long as it is humanely euthanized for consumption and then the product not consumed is appropriately disposed of.”
Municipal code is flexible for other types of pets. Large primates (like chimpanzees) are absolutely against code: “Having a primate is illegal and if I find out you have a primate, I will be coming after you full-force,” Havens says. “They are a severe danger to this community.” At the same time, he is aware of a few exotic animals kept legally and humanely as pets in the city limits. The rulebook doesn’t feature an exhaustive list of what is allowable. “Always reach out to local authorities to make sure whatever species you are getting is even legal to possess,” he recommends. If not, “you’re putting the authorities in a position where they [potentially] have to bring you into compliance – whether it’s for public safety or humane conditions,” he says.
But the legality of an animal isn’t the only thing a responsible pet-owner needs to consider. “Make sure you have all the supporting pillars in place to own the animal. Do you have a vet who can treat that species? Can you get the right food? Does it take a month to get the food? What happens to the pet if something happens to me?” he asks. As an example, he mentions venomoids – formerly venomous snakes who have had their venom glands and/or fangs removed in a controversial surgical procedure. “Not everyone likes snakes, especially venomous ones,” he says. “What if I’m in the hospital and need you to make sure it has water and is still contained? What happens if the snake gets loose? You’re taking my word that it’s really not venomous anymore.”
He has countless stories of the city having to get involved because people purchase an exotic pet without thinking ahead. “People get in over their heads and don’t know what to do,” he says. In these cases, caring for the pet often falls to authorities like Animal Control. In that case, taxpayers end up picking up the tab for irresponsible pet owners – even those who had good intentions. “We get ferrets and turtles and hedgehogs. Every time a species presents itself here at the shelter but we don’t have housing for it, we have to go obtain [appropriate shelter and food]. That is the humane thing to do. It’s either find proper housing or euthanize it,” he says. Either way, it costs the city budget.
The last thing the city wants to do is put down an animal, says Havens, whose arrival in Amarillo came several months after the highly publicized complaints related to mistreatment of animals at the city shelter. “It breaks our heart every time we euthanize an animal,” he says. That’s why he works hard to educate residents on humane treatment and the perils of over-breeding. “When your neighbor is cranking out puppies because they can get $10 a puppy, ultimately two-thirds of that litter will end up here at the shelter. The other third may be euthanized because of overcrowding. The taxpayer is paying the price for that, but the animal pays the ultimate price.”
In a perfect world, people would be responsible with pet ownership, animal control would have a smaller budget, and its funds would be allocated to other city programs. Unfortunately, this isn’t a perfect world. According to Havens, animals still come into the shelter at a faster rate than they leave through adoption, fostering, rescue and reclaims. That scenario leaves the city with few options.
Late on a Friday afternoon, Havens watches a resident surrender three cats to the shelter. “I don’t know his reasons,” he says. “But if you have mechanisms in place to deal with animals when unfortunate things happen, you’re not going to end up here surrendering them.”
What are the rules?
Chickens and ducks: “Barnyard fowl” may only be kept in locations zoned for industrial, agricultural, or heavy commercial use. In residential areas, residents may keep up to four barnyard fowl per quarter-acre. The location must not be less than one-quarter acre in size. (The phrase “barnyard fowl” includes chickens, ducks, geese, peacocks, guineas, and turkeys.)
Goats: Livestock can only be kept within the city limits if in a private or commercial horse lot. (The term “livestock” includes horses, donkeys, mules, goats, and sheep.)
Pigs: Swine are not allowed to be kept within the city limits, unless under the supervision of schools, fairs, or livestock shows. The exception is for miniature pigs, in which case no more than two may be kept as pets in any one household. These must be spayed and neutered before they are three months old and be vaccinated for rabies. Male pigs must have their tusks surgically removed. (Vietnamese potbelly pigs are considered miniature pigs.)
“If someone is curious about whether animals can exist on a property, we just ask that they call us,” says Richard Havens, director of the Animal Welfare and Management Department.
Backyard Farm Animals
The Simpson Family’s Fowl Several years ago, Casey Simpson watched “Food Inc.”, an acclaimed 2008 documentary about corporate farming in the United States. It detailed a variety of environmentally harmful practices by large-scale agribusiness – including widespread mistreatment of animals.
“Particularly what disturbed me was seeing how poultry was treated,” Casey says. One of the film’s most talked-about scenes took place on an industrial chicken farm, where heavy-breasted chickens kept falling down, overcrowding caused birds to bump into each other, and chicken farmers complained about the shockingly inhumane conditions that were being forced upon them. The film made Casey think about where her family’s food came from. When she couldn’t get the chickens out of her mind, she asked her husband, Brent, what he thought about raising a few egg-laying hens in their backyard.
He agreed to it. The Simpsons live on a large corner lot in the Olsen area. Using plans they found online, the couple built a small chicken coop. Then, two years ago, they bought four pullet hens from Honey’s Farm Fresh, a farm between Amarillo and Canyon. The hens were around three months old at the time, and started laying eggs a few months later.
Today, Casey says, “we get between two and four eggs a day.” In addition to the unending egg supply, the family of five discovered the chickens had become their new pets. The couple’s children – who are ages 7, 4 and 3 – find the birds endlessly fascinating. “It was surprising how fun it got so quickly,” says Casey. “We’ll just sit around the fire pit or on the porch and watch the chickens peck and scratch around. It’s surprising how attached to them you get. It’s more of a pleasurable activity versus just having them solely for eggs like we intended in the beginning.”
In fact, their daughter, Afton, the oldest, has become obsessed with the chickens. “We call her the ‘chicken whisperer,’” Casey says. “They come running to her. They love her.” Using grapes – one of the birds’ favorite treats – Afton has begun trying to teach them tricks. So far, the chicken training lessons have been unsuccessful, but Afton persists.
“She’s a fanatic,” Casey says.
The chickens even have names. Elsa and Delta are a breed known as Buff Orpington. Fajita is an Ameraucana. And the Rhode Island Red? Her name is Allen, Casey says with a laugh. “That’s what you get when your kids pick out the names.”
Allen, Fajita, and the others share a yard with a more traditional pet – the family’s female German Shepherd. “There’s never been an issue. They do their thing and she does hers,” says Casey. The Simpsons keep the door of the chickens’ coop open and let them free-range in the yard until it gets dark, when the birds enter the coop on their own. “It’s easier than I thought. They’re very low-maintenance.”
The Simpson family isn’t alone in Amarillo. More and more local families in residential areas – along with plenty of others outside the city limits – have taken an interest in the kinds of non-traditional pets that, until recently, had been more common on farms than in backyards.
The Stone Family Chickens Richard Stone grew up around his grandparents’ chickens in Brownfield. Three years ago, when he and his wife, Lori, moved into the residential Boatwright Trew addition between Amarillo and Canyon, they decided to raise chickens. “I didn’t know you could have chickens inside the city limits back then,” he says. (According to city code, four are allowed per quarter-acre – see sidebar.) “I just thought it would be a good thing for my kids to experience.”
The couple has two children – 15-year-old Joshua and 8-year-old Ana – plus 10 chickens who live in an 8-by 12-foot coop in a fenced backyard. Last spring, Richard and Ana picked out the hens from Ranchers Supply on River Road. “I went a little overboard on our coop, but you don’t have to spend that much money on them,” he says. “They take care of themselves pretty well. They stay in the coop most of the day while I’m at work. In the evenings, we let them out and let them free-range.”
Like the Simpsons, the Stone family’s chickens coexist with the family dog, a lab named Dango. “When we initially got them, we had them in a brooder in our dining room,” Richard says. (A brooder is a heated, protected enclosure for baby chicks until they can care for themselves.) “The dog would come look at them and kind of ‘mama’ them.” Now that the chicks are grown, they share a space with Dango. “He’s been good with them. They don’t run from him or get in his face or anything. They don’t seem afraid.”
During the winter months, Richard kept a heat lamp in the chickens’ coop to keep them warm, and feeds them a combination of a protein-based chicken feed and vegetable scraps from the kitchen. They started producing eggs at around eight months, and today provide the family around eight eggs a day. “We have plenty for ourselves,” Richard says.
The “Duck Lady” Lindi Willis lives in the San Jacinto area. Instead of chickens, her nontraditional pets include, in her words, three “urbanized ducks.” Before moving into the city limits, she lived on a ranch. “I brought my chickens and ducks with me, and eventually got rid of everything except these ducks,” she says.
The male ducks live in a 12-by-12 area behind a short picket fence in her backyard. They have an oversized doghouse to block the wind and swim in a plastic kiddie pool. “Mine are spoiled,” Lindi says. Unlike chickens, she says ducks can be very high-maintenance. “You really do have to take care of them and treat them right to be a good duck owner.”
Lindi’s ducks are American Pekin, a domestic breed with white feathers and an orange-yellow beak, identical to the famous Aflac® duck. Lindi raised two of them from incubated eggs and rescued the third a year ago from a trailer park in Vega. She named that duck Jack. “He was in a very sad situation,” she says. Jack had been living in a dark, plywood lean-to in an alley. A friend owned the trailer park and had grown increasingly concerned about the duck’s living conditions. “He was covered in feces and mud,” Lindi says. “She thought it was inhumane.” The owners allowed Lindi to adopt Jack. She cleaned him up and her flock of two became a flock of three.
“They’re very dependent on me,” she says. “You have to feed them, house them, give them water.” She says her ducks get in their pool almost every day and, at other times, follow her around the backyard. “They think I’m their mom,” she says. “When friends come over and I go outside, it’s kind of embarrassing.”
The ducks’ diet includes a corn-and-grain chicken feed, which Lindi buys from Ranchers Supply. They also enjoy treats from time to time. “They go crazy over cherry tomatoes. I can walk out with tomatoes in my hand and they go nuts.”
Lindi’s other pets include two miniature blue heelers who have been trained to work cattle. The dogs have grown up with the ducks and don’t bother them, but have been known to herd them when necessary. “Recently the ducks got out of their area and into our backyard. They follow a leader and will get right on your heels,” she says. After the ducks got out of their enclosure, Lindi looked out the window and noticed they were following the dogs, who in turn were heeling the ducks. The five creatures had created an endless duck-and-dog circle.
By showing her ducks to elementary-school students and introducing them to a wide circle of friends, Lindi has developed a reputation. “I guess people know me as the ‘crazy duck lady,’” she says. People approach her on a regular basis, especially when they’ve seen injured ducks in or around local ponds. “I get contacted to rescue ducks all the time,” she says. Though she’s happy with her three, she finds it hard to ignore those rescue calls. “I just love them because they are kind of at the bottom of the food chain. They could easily be prey.”
The Lee Family Pig Tommy and Tiffany Lee live on an acre of land in the Gene Howe neighborhood near Horseshoe Lake, within the city limits. They raise a dozen chickens alongside three small dogs, a cat, some rabbits, and a pot-bellied pig named Princess Anna.
The Lees have kept chickens for the past six years. The birds live in an insulated coop and can produce up to 10 eggs a day. But the 75-pound Princess Anna – a miniature pig allowed by the city code – is the queen of the house.
“She thinks she’s a dog,” Tiffany says of the family pig. “It’s really not much different from having a dog. All she’s been around are our dogs, so she runs out to the back fence and ‘barks’ like a dog would.” Tiffany describes the sound as a combination of a bark and an oink.
Princess Anna weighed only eight pounds when she joined the family as a piglet. Tommy and Tiffany’s 17-year-old daughter, Kenzie, who has Down Syndrome, loves animals and had become infatuated with the idea of having a pig. Miniature pigs are known for their intelligence and sociability, and Tiffany had read that they could make ideal therapy or emotional support animals.
It turned out to be true – as long as Princess Anna is with her family. The pig becomes very shy with guests or strangers. “She’s close to all of us, but when we have new people over, she hides,” Tiffany says. “I thought she’d be easier to take up to the schools and see students, but she just doesn’t like being social. We keep her to ourselves.”
That’s fine, because Princess Anna loves Kenzie, who refers to the family pets as her “brothers and sisters.” The pig lives in the house with the dogs, is potty-trained, and sleeps on a dog bed in the laundry room. “She slept in a crate when she was smaller but she got too big for it,” Tiffany says. “She goes to the bathroom outside just like our dogs.”
Neither of Kenzie’s parents grew up around animals other than housecats. “This is new for us,” Tiffany says. But like most parents, she’s willing to consider Kenzie’s exotic requests – up to a point. “Now she wants a Grant’s zebra. We’ll have to see about that,” she says, laughing. “She’s asked for an elephant, too.”
Creating a Dog-Friendly Backyard
The backyard is a dog’s paradise. Even if a pet spends most of its time indoors, the backyard will become its second home. Keeping that environment safe for your pet – and safe from your pet – should be at the top of a homeowner’s priority list. Local experts share their tips for ensuring a pet-friendly landscape.
Shade or shelter. The presence of shade trees can cool a backyard more than 10 degrees during the hottest part of summer. Jack McWhorter, lead arborist at Amarillo Arborlogical, has experienced this firsthand. “You can go into a backyard with no shade, like one of those new houses in southwest Amarillo. And then you go into Wolflin on the same day. There’s a big difference,” he says. “Go sit in the 95-degree sun for six hours every day and see how you feel.” If dogs must be left outside in a yard without shade trees, McWhorter suggests erecting a doghouse or other protective shelter. Even a shallow wading pool can help dogs cool their paws.
However, Coulter Gardens’ Warren Reid says the solution is not as simple as planting a shade tree in a backyard that’s already occupied by a pet. It’s best if the tree comes first. “If I plant a tree in a yard and the dog comes in later, they don’t bother it,” he explains. “But if you plant a tree and the dog’s already there, his first goal is to rip the bark off that tree, for some reason.” He suggests using protective deer guards around the trunks of new trees.
Mulch. While wood mulch can improve the appearance of landscaping, not every form of mulch is good for dogs. “Most bagged mulches are hard woods and not really a problem,” says Reid. But free mulch from the city’s wood-chipping sites could include soft woods. “Slivers usually come from soft wood and can get into a dog’s paw and cause infection,” he says. Any soft, natural mulch should be covered with a harder layer of cedar mulch or pecan shells, which won’t shard or splinter.
Ben Thoennes, a certified arborist and owner of a local tree, shrub, and turf service called Grow, cautions pet-owners about using colored or dyed mulch. “As far as danger to a dog’s health, colored mulch is approved by consumer protection agencies” and should be safe, he says. “But if you put out black mulch all day, your hands get colored with that dye.” The same can happen with a pet that digs in the mulch or lies down in it. An otherwise light-colored dog could end up with a temporarily dyed muzzle or paws. “Don’t leave mulch bags around,” Thoennes also warns. “Just like with kids, those can be dangerous.”
Larger rocks may be better ground-cover solutions for dogs that tend to dig into or chew upon wood mulch. While small rocks or deconstructed gravel are good options, they can cause problems if accidentally moved into a lawnmower’s path. “I rarely recommend pea gravel or anything under egg-size,” says Reid. “A dog picks a rock out of the flower bed, and the mower shoots it through a window.”
Insecticides. “I am pro-insecticide because of pets with flea and tick issues,” says McWhorter. While many of his customers may prefer organic treatments like insecticidal soaps, those alternatives may be less effective than chemicals. “You can go organic because you don’t want to hurt your pets, but then you may not be killing those pests that are after your pets,” he says. “We’ve had people who are organic until they have an infestation, and then they’re like, ‘Get ’em.’”
McWhorter explains that the insecticides most homeowners use are safe if sprayed responsibly. “The pads of dogs’ and cats’ paws are very absorbent, so it’s really important to follow insecticide label instructions,” he says. “If it says don’t let anything on the yard for six or eight or 24 hours, they’re not playing around.” Insecticides are systemic, which means they move from the soil into a plant’s roots, then through the plant itself. “That means it’s going to be systemic in your skin, too, and it is going to get in [a pet’s] pads easily. It’s probably not going to kill your dog or cat, but it can make them feel bad if they run around on it.” For that reason, Amarillo Arborlogical always doubles its pet protection estimates. “If we’re spraying something and it says eight hours, we tell people 16 hours,” McWhorter says.
Thoennes advises pet-owners to make sure a landscape professional is licensed before they apply fertilizer or pest control. Texas Department of Agriculture (TDA) licensing includes classes and tests that require the applicator to understand particular hazards related to human and household pet protection, as well as water and landscape protection.
Gardens. “Most dogs, when you start digging up the dirt, are going to be pretty interested in helping you out,” says Justin Young, who oversees the High Plains Food Bank’s community garden. “Once the grass is off, they want to dig around in it, too. So some kind of barrier is definitely advised. The biggest problem is when pets figure out they’ll find carrots if they dig down far enough.” Young says low fencing usually keeps all but the most persistent dogs out of a garden.
The main thing for gardeners to consider is plant toxicity – specifically the nightshade family of plants, which includes tomatoes and peppers. Because these are vegetables that grow well in Panhandle gardens, Young wants pet-owners to be aware of the potential risks. “If [pets] are eating the fruit off the plants they’ll be fine, as long as the fruit is ripe,” he says. “It’s the vegetation or the unripe fruit that’s the problem. It won’t kill your animal unless they eat a bunch of it, but it’s really likely it will upset their stomach.”
Young recommends creating a hot pepper garlic spray, a spicy organic solution that prevents pests and deters dogs at the same time. “Essentially you’re putting garlic and cayenne pepper in a bucket of water,” along with dish soap or mineral oil to help the spray stick, he says. Online gardening sites offer plenty of recipes.
Other sources of fruit can cause problems as well. “We’ve seen some pets get sick on a crabapple or fruit tree that drops a lot of fruit, especially when the fruit sits on the ground and rots,” Thoennes says. Beyond keeping the ground clear of fallen fruit, he suggests using a fruit reduction or eliminator spray to keep a tree from producing.
Harmful Plants. Outside the garden, are there other plants pet-owners should avoid? The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals lists hundreds of plants toxic to dogs, cats, and other pets. Reid says he answers customer questions about the list on a regular basis, and admits it can be confusing. For instance, daffodils are on the list as poisonous to dogs. “Daffodil leaves and blooms are not toxic, but daffodil bulbs are toxic if a dog digs them up and eats the bulbs,” says Reid.
Similarly, a number of yews are on the list as well. “The Hicks yew is a great shrub, a tall slender evergreen,” says Reid. “You rarely, if ever, see a berry on it. But every once in awhile it’ll put berries on. The berry isn’t poisonous, but the seed inside it is toxic.”
McWhorter says toxic shrubs or plants are rare in the Panhandle – especially if they originate at a retail garden or nursery. “Obviously, the nurseries are not going to want the liability of selling somebody something that could possibly kill their dogs,” he says. “The likelihood of you getting ahold of a plant that’s toxic if ingested by your pet is pretty low.” A more likely culprit might be exotic plants found in seed catalogs. In those cases, he suggests pet-owners research a plant before buying.
Healthy dog or healthy lawn?
Fescue is one of the best cool-season grasses for local lawns. Unfortunately, fescue doesn’t get along with dog urine. “Female dog urine is really hard on fescue,” says Amarillo Arborlogical’s Jake McWhorter, who has raised Labrador retrievers and now owns a Labradoodle.
He explains that dog urine is high in nitrogen. So is common fertilizer, but the application of too much fertilizer can cause lawn burn. Because female dogs tend to void their bladders in a single place – rather than marking multiple locations like a male – dog urine introduces too much nitrogen to the grass, which turns it yellow or brown as a result. Female dogs that are in heat have even higher amounts of nitrogen in their urine.
“They can burn a spot the size of a volleyball with one squat,” says Warren Reid of Coulter Gardens. He suggests aerating a lawn in the spring to promote drainage. Beyond that, he sells a product called Revive Dog Spot Treatment. “You spray it on the lawn once a month to take it from a volleyball-sized urine burn to a golf ball-sized burn,” says Reid.
Other non-chemical solutions may prove more difficult. “The best move is to train your dogs to use a certain area of the yard, which can be hard,” McWhorter says. Ben Thoennes of Grow agrees. “It’s just tough to have a couple of big dogs and maintain a really healthy lawn –unless you have a dog run,” he says.
by Jason Boyett
Jason is a journalist, copywriter, ghostwriter, and the author of more than a dozen books. His most recent is “12 World Religions: The Beliefs, Rituals, and Traditions of Humanity's Most Influential Faiths”, published by Zephyros Press. Learn more at jasonboyett.com.