Injured and abandoned chickens in the neighborhood find refuge
TAMPA, Fla. — It started as a playful Instagram page dedicated to the Ybor City neighborhood’s free-range chicken flocks.
Dylan Breese, the founder of the Ybor Chickens Society Instagram page, gave the birds names that matched their personalities. He shared details of their days.
Six years later, Breese’s business has grown far beyond taking pictures.
“I’m definitely waking up and wondering how it got to this point,” Breese said with a laugh.
Since December, he has leased a 6,000 square foot lot at the corner of 17th Street and Columbus Drive. There he built four chicken coops and a shed which is used as a medical facility.
Called Ybor Misfits Microsanctuary and supported as a non-profit organization, it is where Breese cares for injured and sick Ybor wild chickens and welcomes and rehouses abandoned domesticated hens in the Latin District.
The effort has support from the mayor’s office, a city council member, a state senator, and the city’s last operating cigar factory.
Technically, the Microsanctuary is going against a city ordinance that prohibits trapping and removing chickens. But the city will allow it as long as the inhabitants are not hungry.
“The City of Tampa is pro-happy, healthy chickens,” Adam Smith, spokesman for Mayor Jane Castor, said in an email. “We appreciate all animal lovers.”
Tampa City Council President Orlando Gudes, whose district includes Ybor, said Breese is doing something good for the community. “If someone comes to me and complains, we’ll know what to do so they can help the chickens, but not break the code,” Gudes said.
history of chicken
Chickens have been a part of Ybor since it was founded by immigrants from Cuba, Spain and Italy in the late 1800s. Some were part of small farms. Others were in the backyards.
The birds remained in the 1970s, when Ybor was populated with council housing with residents raising chickens for food.
The free-range herd increased in the 1980s.
It was then that longtime Ybor resident Tommy Stephens was given two hens and a rooster. A neighbor already had five hens, all free range. The population grew naturally, Stephens told the Tampa Bay Times.
Around the same time, former Ybor resident and business owner Cephas Gilbert once said he had a co-op that was destroyed by a storm. His 40 chickens escaped and he chose to allow them to roam free and multiply.
In 1989, some saw chickens as a nuisance and wanted to get rid of them.
The Tampa City Council responded with an ordinance proclaiming Ybor a bird sanctuary, which prohibits trapping and removal of birds.
Breese said what he was doing wasn’t really entrapment.
“It’s an inhumane way to think about it,” he said. “They are part of this community and a symbol of the city. We cannot let them suffer.”
Especially the abandoned ones, he says. They are domesticated and have difficulty finding food. And wild birds will violently expel strangers from a flock.
Ybor’s chicken population increased five years ago due to urban farmers abandoning their unwanted chickens there.
Some residents and businesses in the district have complained about chickens pooping on porches, destroying mulch and procreating publicly.
That’s when Breese’s company, which he says has had dozens of volunteers over the years, grew from an Instagram page to a group seeking to bring harmony between chickens and haters by cleaning up damage and keeping birds away from public events.
Yet these efforts were not enough for everyone. Some wanted to hire trappers to reduce the population.
In response, the city considered changing the bird sanctuary ordinance in a way that reflects Breese’s effort. The city has suggested trapping and rehoming abandoned chickens and sick and injured ferals.
The hawks served as population control before the city acted and the amendment was dropped.
Breese, who gained certification in chicken welfare and behavior through an online course from the University of Edinburgh, founded his sanctuary in early 2020, using the backyard first from his home in Ybor as his head office.
He has rules. The chickens must be in Ybor to begin with.
“Please don’t call me about one on Bearss Avenue or somewhere like that,” Breese said.
The sanctuary only welcomes wild chickens that are so badly injured or sick that they need time away from the flock and the natural elements to recover.
He sends the birds to the vets if necessary. And he tries to cut their stay short.
“If they’re out for too long, they lose their place in the pecking order,” Breese said. “The herd will then reject him and push him away. If we take him out for more than a week or two, he will become a stranger and a fight could result.”
He finds homes for chickens when they need too much time to rehabilitate.
And he tries to rehouse all the abandoned chickens.
“They’re easy to identify,” Breese said.
For starters, he knows all the wild chickens in Ybor.
Plus, “the abandoned ones are bigger,” he said. “They’re a special type of breed used for meat, so they’ve been given growth hormones.”
It is unknown how many chickens roam Ybor.
Over the years, the total varied from 30 to 200. It depended on the season, the activity of the falcons and the number of dropouts.
Breese estimates he treats 25 to 50 a year and returns 15 to 25 home.
It was too much to do from her backyard, so Breese began looking for a property to dedicate solely to the sanctuary.
Ivan Rivera, a real estate agent and president of the VM Ybor Neighborhood Association, connected Breese with the JC Newman Cigar Co., which had an empty lot across from their factory.
“We admire and are grateful for the work that Dylan and his non-profit rescue organization are doing for the historic herd at large in Ybor City,” said Drew Newman, general counsel for the family business.
The family lets the nonprofit use the land for $100 a month, Newman said, and donated $4,000 toward the purchase of the medical facility shed.
The company also designed Ybor Misfits Microsanctuary shirts, mugs, and posters for sale at the factory’s gift shop. All profits support the nonprofit.
Another benefit, Breese said, is the Newmans’ plan to move thousands of bats from a nearby building to bat houses that will be set up nearby. Bats eat mosquitoes, which can transmit disease from chicken to chicken.
Still, Breese is aware that he is playing chicken with the town ordinance. He proactively spoke with the city council, the mayor’s office, and state senator Janet Cruz, who wrote to the city in support of Microsanctuary.
“They are working to serve a public good by preserving the culture and history of historic Ybor City in Tampa,” the letter reads.
There’s still work to be done, Breese said.
He wants to add accommodations for visitors, like picnic tables, and allow school trips and tour groups to visit.
“Chickens have always been a part of Ybor,” Breese said. “They are part of his culture. We have to protect them.”