INDIANAPOLIS — Billie Bowling's job compels him to do things like lay a lasso-type thing around the necks of stray pit bulls, scoop up unwanted kittens and corner a runaway wallaby.
But the other day, Bowling found himself chasing three chickens down a suburban street. He and a fellow Animal Care and Control officer, Jason Kindig, were called to the vicinity of 38th Street and Moller Road on June 27 by a resident who reported "wild, aggressive chickens."
The chickens had escaped from somebody's backyard. They moved pretty well, speeding up and slowing down, juking this way and that. Bowling and Kindig collared them after a while ("If you grab their feet and hold them upside down," Bowling said, "they settle down"), and brought them in to ACC headquarters.
Such chicken-on-the-loose calls are still relatively rare – Animal Care has fielded just 14 this year – but they're on the rise as the backyard chicken hobby continues to gain steam and as the occasional fighting-cock breeder gets busted. And, at least three chicken rescue operations have sprung up lately in the Indianapolis area.
Conservatively, Indianapolis has 200 backyard chicken coops, figures Andrew Brake of Nap Town Chickens, a local advocacy organization for urban chicken farming. The average coop is home to five chickens. Other chicken keepers estimate Indianapolis has more than twice as many chickens. Either way, there are far more than there were just two years ago, and the hobby is still on the uptick.
The extent of cockfighting, a shadowy game that's a felony in Indiana, is harder to estimate, but last year Animal Care and Control took in 35 fighting birds after busting a breeding operation on the Westside. The year before, about 200 birds were seized from a Shelby County farm and turned over to the Humane Society of the United States, which found homes for all but about a dozen of the most aggressive birds – they were so well-trained, they had to be euthanized.
The three chickens Bowling and Kindig captured appear to be two hens and a rooster. They spent their captivity behind ACC, hovering in the shade of a large pen built for dogs, the rooster making the occasional statement (which in reality sounds nothing like "cock-a-doodle-do" but does sound a bit like a refrain in "London Calling").
Adam Garrett, an ACC spokesman, said the chances the owner would claim them were 50-50. It would make no financial sense to pay a $10 "impound" fee per bird on top of the daily fee of $3 per bird because brand-new chickens can be had for $2.50.
And sentimentally, chickens are several rungs below dogs and cats. Even backyard chicken keepers generally don't name their birds.
So what is to be done with unwanted chickens? The easiest thing would be to simply fry them up and eat them. But no. "I don't think it's a crime to take an animal from Animal Care and eat it," said Cindy Goss, animal lover, "but it would be immoral."
Goss operates her farm outside Plainfield. In the past 18 months, she figures, she has rescued nearly two dozen chickens. Most of them have been roosters, whose loudness can annoy neighbors, and they can't lay eggs, which, if you're a backyard chicken, is Job One. Roosters will protect hens from predators, but they're also liable to turn on the hens and rough them up.
Even Brake, who's the closest thing Indianapolis' chicken community has to a "mayor," will take a rooster off someone's hands only with the understanding that he'll "process" it, which is a nice way to say "butcher it and eat it."
"That scares some people off," Brake said, "but I've had people say, 'That's fine.'"
When you buy a baby chicken online, its gender is not guaranteed, or even known, which is how unwanted roosters end up in at people's homes.
Goss, who also rescues goats, sheep and dogs, has found homes for a dozen chickens. Those not adopted are welcome to stay on her farm.
"There's not a lot of people who like to hear a rooster crow," she said, "but I like to hear a rooster crow."
Another rescuer, Sharon Sandusky, gets some of her rescue chickens from Animal Care and Control, but sometimes people just call her up.
"It's a lot of word-of-mouth," she said. "I had a call recently of a chicken running free at (Ind.) 37 and Southport Road."
That bird remains at large, as does a chicken that has haunted rescuer Michelle Manker since before President Obama's presidency.
"There's a rooster over by St. Vincent Hospital on 86th Street," she said. "I've been getting calls on him for four years. I'm sure it's the same chicken. The description is the same."
Bowling, who was in a blue ACC officer uniform (he looked like a cop) last month as he ran after those three chickens, is the first to acknowledge chickens' elusiveness.
"I'd rather get a call on a pit bull," he said. "I guess it's just that I've had more experience with dogs."
Yeah, for now.