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When It Comes to Pets, Don't Balk at Chickens

I was ushered into the literary world of animals partly through the works of Albert Payson Terhune. His books about the collies on his rolling estate in New Jersey and beyond - like "Lad: A Dog" and "Bruce" - sang of their heroism, loyalty, and intelligence. Terhune's dog heroes were forever defending themselves against brutish lesser animals - murderous hogs on the loose or enraged bulls.

But early on I began to suspect that the line between reality and fantasy was a trifle blurred in Terhune's works. A kind of pre-Disney anthropomorphizing imbued his nonhuman characters with Galahad-like natures, complex motives, and long-term agendas.

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Later I began to understand the source of Terhune's romanticism: the personalities and eccentricities he imputed to animals. I didn't quite buy his visions wholesale, but I did see that he had detected certain qualities from which he felt, not unreasonably, that humans could learn a thing or two. As I grew older I began to live my own sagas with animals and experienced some of those same qualities, along with others that might have taxed the credulity of Terhune or even Disney.

I learned, for instance, that chickens can become doglike in both their combativeness and their affection for humans, and that given half a chance, goats can become small-time terrorists.

SAY the word "pet," and a chicken doesn't readily spring to mind, but this barnyard fixture has more to offer than many cat- and dog-fanciers may realize. However pea-brained and unreasoning, a chicken can be faithful and fun in a basic way.

Years ago, our older son's third-grade class watched baby chicks hatch as part of a classroom project. Eventually, the teacher offered a hatchling to any child whose parents would take one (thanks a lot). One morning my wife got a call from the principal's office: "Your son is outside the office door with a very loud baby chick in a carton. Could you pick him up?"

In due course, our chick grew into fat henhood and took possession of our place, meandering imperiously across the lawn in search of edibles and running up to you if you came out the back door - especially if it was near dinner time and you might have a handful of grain. Even with a full stomach, she dogged our footsteps and genuinely seemed to enjoy our company.

By that time, the oddness of having such a pet had faded in our minds, and we tended to be a bit surprised to see how startled guests were when we'd call "Here, Chicka!" and they'd see not a spaniel but a hen bounding toward us, lurching crazily from side to side. Neighbors took care of Chicka when we were away, growing as fond of the feathered mascot as we had.

Much earlier, during World War II when eggs were scarce, a few people in my parents' area tried raising chickens. Most of the neighbors commuted to New York City, and as chicken farmers they were good, well, neighbors. At first they tried to calculate the cost of enterprise, then stopped short when they began to sense the frightening bottom line: In the absence of anything resembling cost-effective methods, each egg represented about $25 when you took into account the lavish quantities of grain, elaborate chicken houses, and other overhead.

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When my parents finally decided to cut their losses, we kept a token pair of roosters: King and Prime. They were huge and handsome - one a New Hampshire brown, the other a Plymouth Rock. They were a feisty duo, ready to take on just about anything that moved - including humans.

King and Prime had a truce with the resident dogs, but strange dogs wandering onto the place usually learned they were no match for these feathered bouncers, who would rough them up with their beaks, wings, and leg spikes, and then chase them away.

Yet more memorable than their bellicosity was the loving side of King and Prime. In the morning they would race up to members of the family and brush endearingly against them, chortling with joy. At an unearthly hour of the morning they would make a beeline for a spot beneath someone's bedroom window and crow, mightily and continuously, until he or she came outside to be greeted properly.

If a car arrived, King or Prime would run up, eye the people getting out as if deciding on their respectability, and then either walk away satisfied or challenge them, spikes flailing, wings beating. In the case of the hapless arrivals judged unfit by these unorthodox palace guards, it took a little explaining.

Other people arriving by car received an even more disconcerting reception. They were met by our pet goats, the Rambos of the domestic animal kingdom. Somehow we acquired several of these over the years, and they proved quite companionable, although a few were forever rearing up on their hind legs, tipping their heads down, and butting a target of opportunity, usually a human one.

BUT that's nothing: Picture a car pulling innocently into the driveway. As it approaches the house, two goats come charging across the lawn as if to head the car off at the pass. A few feet before colliding with the car, they lift into the air, descend onto the hood, and leap onto the roof with a clatter of hoofbeats.

To the goats, the car caper was a minor evolutionary adaptation. They may have been designed to jump onto mountain ledges, but hey, they probably reasoned, what's wrong with a car hood? It's an irresistible landing site, brightly colored and - even more appealing - in motion. OK, maybe it gets a dent or two and scrapes off a little paint here and there. But after all, we're supposed to do things like this.

After paying a few car-repair bills for startled visitors, our family saw the logic in fencing off the marauding goats. They still seemed very happy, and while free they had proved - like the strong-willed roosters - that pets are not familiar extensions of oneself, but are wonderfully unpredictable. It's a trait that springs from one of the best things about pets - and people: their individuality.

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