TAMPA — Tommy Stephens likes to think the wild roosters he feeds every afternoon are direct descendants of the ones whose cock-a-doodle-doos woke the bricklayers that built Ybor City in the 19th century.
For better or worse, roosters are part of Ybor tradition. Tourists photograph them. Gardeners scorn them.
And every November, hundreds of revelers flock to Stephens' back yard for a New Orleans-style funeral in memory of James E. Rooster, who met his demise 11 years ago, in the jaws of a neighborhood dog.
Buried in work, Stephens broke tradition this year and called the funeral off.
But Thursday night, after a trapper appeared in his yard, Stephens, 64, started planning a different kind of rooster gathering — a protest.
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This Ybor City cock tale begins in 1987, when Stephens moved into the neighborhood and learned that his yard was already home to some wild chickens and roosters.
"Being a country boy," he said, "I just went and bought me some corn, and started feeding them."
Stephens, one of the founders of both Guavaween and the Historic Ybor Neighborhood Civic Association, became known for his wild parties.
So when his beloved rooster died, a festive funeral only seemed appropriate.
The rooster funeral is one of Ybor's most anticipated annual events. Last year's multi-kegger and street parade drew about 600 "mourners" in bright costumes.
Every once in a while, Stephens will get a visit from the city Code Enforcement Department because of the 30-some roosters and chickens that hang around his yard. Nobody has ever tried to take them away.
But this time, someone called a trapper with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, the same agency that captures rogue alligators.
Stephens' girlfriend, Pam Vopper, came home to find a man in a khaki jumpsuit. He carried a cage.
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Trapper Mike Martinez got the call two weeks ago. He won't say from whom, but someone complained chickens were strutting inside their businesses and scaring off patrons. "I guess some people have a fear of chickens," he said. He drove behind the site, and saw just a hen and some chicks, and decided to let them be.
But Thursday, Martinez returned to find the same hen and her babies dead, with no signs left by a predator.
Foul play? Martinez didn't know. But either way, he didn't want to start seeing roosters slaughtered.
That, he told Vopper, is what brought him to her back yard. He said he was rescuing them.
"Are you b---s----ing me?" Vopper asked. "Is somebody going to eat these chickens?"
Martinez said he planned on taking all the roosters and chickens he captures to rescue centers in Pasco and Polk counties, where they'll be kept within their social groups, tagged, cared for and fed.
Dozens of roosters are spread throughout Ybor, in its trees, behind its trash bins. Martinez will catch them little by little, not to stress them out.
He caught two that night, by hand, and told her he'd return another day, with a net.
Vopper hid Stephens' favorite little hen, Chik-Fil-A.
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Stephens missed the whole episode because he was out of town on business. But he has some suspicions about the complainant: "It's probably a Yankee that's never seen a chicken."
Vince Pardo, president of the Ybor City Development Corporation, said the roosters are part of the community and haven't bothered anybody. But Ybor is growing. "Things that have been here, people move in and don't understand that," Pardo said.
Manny Alvarez has lived in Ybor for years, and he's got mixed feelings. The owner of Streetcar Charlie's and the historic Casa Lala property said roosters get into fights, tear up residents' planters and spread fleas.
"I don't mind a few around. It kind of adds to the district," Alvarez said. "We don't need as many as we have."
Pardo is looking into what other cities, like Key West, have done to legalize their famous rooster populations.
And Stephens is calling for all rooster lovers to gather at his house a week from Sunday, with covered dishes and signs that say "Up with chickens. Down with complaining neighbors."
Martinez said he will allow Stephens to choose a few roosters and a hen to keep around.
For the rest, Stephens said, "I just hope I get visitation rights."
Alexandra Zayas can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3354.