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When duty calls, he gets a dirty job done

George Pratt is an animal lover.

The 51-year-old native Floridian and his wife, Judith, have three cats and nine dogs. They breed and raise Sharpeis on their 2{-acre farm in Shady Hills, about a half-mile from County Line Road, which divides Hernando and Pasco.

But on Saturday, George Pratt, a thin, wiry man with sandy blond sideburns and mustache, and a gentle disposition, traveled to Spring Hill VFW Post 10209 and did what he has done once a year for 12 years: He "laid to rest" about 110 chickens that were the short-lived guests of honor at the 22nd annual Spring Hill Chicken Pluckin' Contest.

George is the man who has been called upon for more than a decade to exterminate the chickens used in the contest. It's a dirty job, but somebody has to do it.

As the donated chickens wait in cages, shaded from the elements by a tarpaulin, it is George's job to remove them, grasp their heads, one in each hand, and with the skill of a surgeon, wring their necks.

"When you wring their necks, it's all one motion. Grab 'em behind the head and between your two fingers, then flip 'em over. It's all in the wrist. They die instantly," says George.

While spectators are watching the plucking contest in front of the bandshell, it is George who is moving with lightning speed behind the scenes, deftly providing the participants with the tools they need to become world champions.

After killing the chickens, George ties their feet with a nylon string attached to a long, wooden stick. He then dips the birds into half-drum barrels of water heated to 275 degrees by propane tanks.

"The scalding loosens up the pores in the skin and makes the feathers easier to pluck," George explains.

"Sometimes the pluckers complain that the chickens are so hot they get blisters on their hands. But it's crucial that they be hot when they hit the plucking table," George says.

"From the time they call for the chickens, I can have them on the table in a minute-and-a-half," he says.

Before letting them be passed to the plucking table, however, George inspects them to make sure there are no marks or cuts on the skin. Judges deduct points from the pluckers for such defects.

George got his reputation as a chicken handler 13 years ago when he and his brother went to watch the Chicken Plucking Contest. "I said to my brother, "You see the way them guys is doing them chickens? They need some help. They're just running around like chickens with their heads chopped off,' " George says.

So he and his brother jumped in and helped out. The next year, the VFW post commander asked him to "come and supervise" the chicken staging area. "You know what that meant. . . . The supervisor did all the work," George says.

George got his training on the farm where he grew up in Live Oak in Suwannee County. His family moved to Largo in 1951. In 1959, he joined the Navy and spent the better part of the next four years on an aircraft carrier in the waters off the coasts of Vietnam and Laos.

After his discharge, he returned to Largo and spent some time racing stock cars at the Sunshine Speedway and learned the trade of a glazier. He moved to Shady Hills in 1972 and eventually opened his business, G & P Service and Repairs.

Although he has been involved on the front end of the Chicken Pluckin' Contest for all these years, he has never competed. "I've plucked chickens before, but never in a contest. It's like everything else in life; you've got to practice to be good."

And even though he practices only once a year, he is good at what he does.

"One year a bunch of college guys came back to watch. They seemed real interested, and I taught one of they how to do it. You'd be surprised how much attention they pay to you when you show 'em the technique."

George says he won't eat chicken today, tomorrow and probably not for the rest of the week, because every time he sits down at the supper table, whatever his wife has cooked smells like chicken.

"It's hard to get the smell out of your nose."

While exterminating chickens may leave a bad smell in George's nose, it might leave a bad taste in the mouth of some animal rights activists. But George says he has never had any real trouble with the animal rights folks.

"One time a lady came back here and climbed the fence to see what I was doing. She yelled, "That's sick. How can you do that?' So I showed her, and she climbed back down.

"I don't know why anybody would say this method of killing chickens is inhumane. But if they ever ask me, I've got an answer ready for them," George says, sitting in the cantina of Post 10290.

"I'll just tell them to go ask the federal government if they thought it was humane to send 400,000 men overseas to Vietnam, only to have 60,000 never come back. If the government tells them that was inhumane, then I'll say that killing these chickens is inhumane."