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Rising from the bait, rooster now a pet

After the bird languishes in a panther trap for a month, pitying subdivision neighbors bring about its removal.

By MELANIE AVE

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 27, 2000


TAMPA -- The white-feathered rooster was living in a cage in New Tampa, bait for a phantom panther.

But it was the trapper who got caught.

Someone felt the rooster wasn't living the good life of his neighbors in the Hunter's Green subdivision. There was an anonymous complaint, officials came to take away the bird and the trapper ended up accused of neglect.

"We have no problem with trappers leaving their bait," said Sgt. Lois Wimsett, investigations supervisor with Hillsborough County Animal Services. "But they can't leave them to emaciate and suffer while they're waiting to be eaten by a panther. That's inhumane."

On Friday, the rooster, unnamed but described as "friendly" in an animal control report, sat in an air-conditioned pen alongside barking stray dogs at the county pound. He was waiting to go to his new home, a farm with a roomy chicken coop with plenty of sawdust and hand-mixed feed.

And trapper Vernon Yates of Seminole was fuming.

Yates said he did not mistreat the rooster and wants to know why it was seized after he left it in the care of two Hunter's Green residents.

"I don't think they ought to make the statement that I was neglecting it," Yates said.

The saga of the rooster began in April.

A Hunter's Green resident saw what she thought was a panther frolicking in her back yard. Weeks later, a neighbor saw a similar large cat as she pulled into her driveway. Another neighbor saw it drinking from a golf course pond.

It has been seen several other times, as recently as last weekend near the Vinings apartment complex.

While no one had seen tracks or photographed the elusive beast, a skeptical Yates agreed to take the case.

"I told them I'd bring the trap and wouldn't charge them if they agreed to feed" the rooster, he said. "They agreed to do it."

Yates said he told one of the Hunter's Green women that the rooster could "eat just about anything": corn, bread or meat.

For about a month, the rooster waited at one end of the trap, about 4 feet long. He was separated from the main trapping chamber by wire mesh. He had a feed and water bowl.

The rooster attracted two opossums and a raccoon, but no panther.

Wimsett, the animal services supervisor, said her department received an anonymous report May 15 about a confined chicken "without sufficient food, water or exercise." Animal services left a note on the trap.

A day passed, and Wimsett said she heard nothing from the rooster's owner. So an officer took the rooster, in good condition but a little hot and underweight, to the animal shelter on Falkenburg Road.

After 10 days without word from the rooster's owner, Wimsett let Hillsborough County Animal Services employee Linda Smith adopt the rooster. Wimsett said she may cite Yates for abandonment or neglect.

When Yates finally learned his rooster was gone, he drove to Hunter's Green and collected his trap.

"The game commission, everybody, knew that chicken was there," he said. "If they had a problem, they knew how to get ahold of me."

Yates is not going to try to get his rooster back.

"To hell with them," he said. "As long as the chicken's being cared for, I don't care."

Friday afternoon, Smith prepared to take home the rooster, whom she calls "sweetie" and "pretty boy." He will be cock of the walk on her 2.5-acre Wimauma farm with 16 chickens, six goats, two cats, three dogs, one guinea pig and one quarter horse.

"I just couldn't stand to see him euthanized," said Smith. "I thought, "Hey, I've got room for one more animal.' "

-- Melanie Ave can be reached at (813) 226-3473 or melanie@sptimes.com.

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