TAMPA — The chickens belong to Ybor City but Tommy Stephens has taken a few under his wing.
The latest was Chicken Nugget, who lapped up Budweiser and napped on Stephens' chest. When the cock began to crow, Stephens put him in the open back yard with his wild brethren.
Last month, Chicken Nugget met a fowl fate. A dog got him. It had happened before, to other defenseless chickens.
Stephens wanted justice.
He never thought it would come the way it did.
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Chickens arrived in Ybor City about a century ago with Cuban and Italian immigrants. Now they are an odd sight straggling around the clubby entertainment district.
When Stephens moved into an old cigar worker's house on Fifth Avenue in 1987, he found them occupying his yard. So he put out cups of cracked corn.
He became a chicken guy. People gave him chicken paraphernalia. A rooster weather vane. A chicken doorbell. His carriage house, where his girlfriend keeps her stuff, was the "Hen House."
Each afternoon, Stephens, a 65-year-old construction superintendent, would sit on his patio and watch the animals fight and mate. He calls it "chicken porn hour." Now and then, Chicken Nugget slipped up his back steps and tried to mate with a pair of sandals.
The chickens are loud and boisterous. Much like Stephens.
He defended them against a trapper last year, after they ruffled feathers at Ybor businesses. Stephens organized a protest, and the mayor declared the animals protected under the city's wild fowl ordinance.
But City Hall can do only so much.
James E. Rooster was killed by a stray mutt in 1997, and Stephens turned his funeral into the Doodle Doo Parade, a New Orleans-style wake that drew hundreds of mock mourners.
His next pet, Gypsy, got mauled to death by a dog. Earlier this summer, a Doberman named Scooter chomped on Chick-Fil-A.
"I try not to get attached to them," Stephens said. "They're just chickens."
Stephens understands the hierarchy. Dogs near the top, chicken in the Purina bags.
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On Sept. 13, Stephens' girlfriend, Pam Vopper, saw Scooter the Doberman out terrorizing chickens again.
Scooter, 4 years old and 110 pounds, had been named after former Dick Cheney aide I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby. Both wound up in legal trouble: Libby, perjury and obstruction; the Doberman, reported to Animal Services as loose and "aggressive."
Owner Vic Granowicz considered him a big teddy bear, though with a poultry addiction and the agility to catch chickens.
On that September evening, Scooter cornered Chicken Nugget under a tree.
Stephens' girlfriend pulled the young rooster from the fray. A chicken nugget was missing from Chicken Nugget.
Stephens tied up the dog and called police.
Later, he showed officers a copy of the city ordinance protecting Ybor's chickens.
They huddled. A sergeant emerged with a ruling.
The law protected chickens only from humans. This was an "animal-on-animal" crime.
Granowicz, 36, an architect, came for Scooter and met with Animal Services workers. He apologized profusely and promised to fix his gate.
Like the last time, he offered to buy Stephens more chickens.
That night, Stephens and his girlfriend rubbed antibiotic ointment onto Chicken Nugget's back. They let him sleep inside.
Granowicz put Scooter in his crate after a drink of water. The dog seemed especially tired.
Chicken Nugget never made it to morning.
Neither did Scooter.
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In all the excitement of the chicken chase, Scooter had overexerted himself and twisted up his intestines. That's what a veterinarian found in the necropsy.
Over the phone, Stephens and Granowicz traded condolences.
Granowicz had another Doberman, Pumpkin, who was Scooter's age. He went on to buy a Dobie puppy to keep Pumpkin company. He also fixed his gate.
Stephens buried Chicken Nugget with a Bud bottle and the sandals the rooster loved a little too much.
Chicken Nugget's grave lies next to James E. Rooster's final roosting place. Stephens capped it with concrete and turned a metal rooster sculpture into a tombstone.
"RIP. Sept. 14, 2009," it says. "KILLED BY DOG!"