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Pets don't play chicken; they play human

Published Sep. 16, 2005

Pooh has feather-duster feet, the Clydesdale horse of the chicken set. He is fat and fluffy, his white feathers tipped with gray. He is classified as a gray silkie. His cohorts are burnished copper, orange, pure white or gradations of black. Most have the billowing pantaloons he boasts, and some have crowns. Some are roosters, some hens.

No ordinary chickens, these.

They're the pets of Kenneth Partridge, and they're classified as "exotic birds" rather than chickens. For this reason he is allowed to have them in the city limits. Their eggs, if fertilized, sell for about $30 a dozen, "but the hens won't set," he says, "so the eggs have to be put in an incubator."

These birds, which Partridge imports from Utah, are raised for a special purpose: to keep disabled or housebound people company. He raises them for the pleasure of seeing people enjoy them and gives them away.

"They think they are a person," Partridge says. "They sit on the arm of a wheelchair and are very affectionate."

Do the roosters crow? "Yes, they crow, beginning at about 5 a.m. But not very loud. I've talked to the neighbors," he says.

He gets the birds when they are just 1 day old, paying about $4 each for them. "They've never had a mother hen," he says. "The first person they see is a human, so they are imprinted to people."

Even so, most of the chickens, being around others of their species, realize there's not much family resemblance between them and Partridge. "About five to seven out of 25 will be imprinted, will eat out of your hand and cuddle," he says. "The others just become good pets for kids."

Kari Herr testifies to the birds as pets. She now has her third one.

"You have to treat them like a person and you should only have one because if you have two, they start acting like a chicken," she says. Snowball, a bird she got from Partridge, would follow her son Justin around, would watch television and was house-trained.

"Then he started to crow at 4 a.m. and the neighbors complained," Herr said. She gave him to the SPCA.

But she just got another of Partridge's flock, hoping this one is a hen and won't crow. Chick Chick had been outside with the other birds and was excitable. "But it's starting to calm down now. It walks around with the dog."

Partridge buys a new flock of the exotics every two or three years. Of the present group, four are imprinted. One is Tweetie Bird, a bird half the size of a normal chicken who rules his office with her fluffy feet and impressive pompadour. She is promised to a lady.

The other chickens are on a shady lot behind Partridge's office at 1924 Dr. M. L. King (Ninth) St. N. Of them, only the aforementioned Pooh, and Roger I and Roger II, red birds who look very much alike, are imprinted. They meander under the trees, cheeping contentedly.

Exotic, imprinted or whatever, they run like any plain old chicken at the sight of food and gather around Partridge in a hurry.

Partridge, 76, sells GTE mobile phones and pagers and teaches tennis at St. Petersburg Junior College. But his longest-standing interest is chickens.

"When I was a boy, my father was a minister near St. John's, Quebec, and we had very little money. We used to raise chickens, and by the time they were 1 week old, I taught them to pull a little cart and ride on the handlebars of my bike. They will also sit on the back of the passenger seat when you're driving, as long as the car is moving." He recommends a newspaper on the floor of the back seat for this habit.

Partridge's current birds are 9 weeks old and he is ready to divest of them. He will be happy to give them to people who will provide a good home for them.

To get a chicken

Want a chicken? Call Kenneth Partridge from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. at (813) 522-5555 and he will arrange an introduction and interview.