To 5-year-old Phoenix, the red hen was a pet. Her son snuggled it "like a puppy," mother Ashley Turnbull said. He often carted it to the sandbox in a small wagon.
But to police and some neighbors in Atwater, Minn., the chicken was a nuisance. Not allowed under city ordinance.
After getting another complaint, Police Chief Trevor Berger stopped by Turnbull's house and decapitated the small hen with a shovel. As news got out of the Aug. 16 incident, neighborhood tension in the central Minnesota city turned into national outrage.
"I came home to find the chicken's head lying in front of its coop," Turnbull said by phone. "No note left on the door. He just left the head."
In a complaint to the city, Turnbull argued that Berger trespassed and committed animal cruelty in killing the chicken, which they called Carson Petey. But Berger said Tuesday evening that he was just trying to respond to a neighbor's repeated complaints and protect a nearby elementary school from a chicken on the loose.
"I did not have any clue that this was Phoenix's pet," he said, sighing deeply. "I feel terribly about it.
"I'm going to apologize to him in person in just a few minutes."
In retrospect, Berger believes he "should have used the power of the courts," he said, giving the property owners a citation that perhaps would have led to a fine.
On Wednesday night, the City Council will discuss the chief's actions and whether they've nixed any chance of an ordinance allowing back yard chickens — a proposal the council had asked Berger to draft earlier this summer. Thanks to neighbors' complaints and the day's controversy, that idea seems unlikely to move forward, City Clerk Goldie Smith said Tuesday.
Atwater's current ordinance prohibits residents from keeping chickens or other fowl. "Fowl or animals kept contrary to the provisions" in the ordinance "are hereby declared a public nuisance and may be abated according to law," according to the rule, in place since 1960.
This spring, Turnbull and her fiancé gave Phoenix three baby hens and two ducks as a birthday present — not knowing fowl weren't allowed. But she later learned that a city ordinance prohibits the animals. On Aug. 7, an officer stopped by Turnbull's home and told her to get rid of the chickens and ducks, a police report shows.
Looking back, Turnbull wishes she had taken that visit more seriously. But she also believes there should have been "a process — verbal, then written."
She's grateful that she returned home before Phoenix and was able to discard the head of his beloved hen. She had hoped to break the news to him gently, but the child next door, who had seen the incident, was quick to announce the news, she said: "The cops killed your chicken!"
Driving to the house, Berger did not intend to kill the chicken, he said by phone. But after learning that the family wasn't home, worrying about the diseases chickens carry, and chasing the chicken around the yard, he reached for a shovel. He did not mean to leave the head behind, he added.
"I was concerned about the public health issue," Berger said. "There are little kids over there who are playing. I don't want them to get sick."
The police report of the incident notes a neighbor's complaint of "a chicken at large."
The hen was "roaming free in the back yard" when Berger arrived, the report says. He tried to corral the chicken into the fenced area but failed, the police report continues. "Chicken was then destroyed on scene."
The hen was "the same chicken that a neighbor had taken pictures of roaming free," the report notes.
Neighbor Dick Rierson had complained before to the City Council that the pen was filthy, passing around photos. His wife alerted the police to the hen on the loose, the police report shows.
"You want rats in your neighborhood?" Rierson said Tuesday by phone. "That's what happens if you don't keep [the coop] clean."
Rierson believes Berger did the right thing, he said, because police have a duty to enforce the city's ordinances.
"He didn't really have a choice," he said. "It sounds like he tried to do his job and did it as best as he could.
"Have you ever tried to catch a chicken?"