Minn. police chief ruffles feathers with beheading of pet chicken
By Carolyn Lange / West Central Tribune
ATWATER, Minn. – A woman here has filed a formal complaint against the Atwater police chief for trespassing on her property and killing her young son’s pet chicken – leaving the hen’s decapitated head just feet from the backyard chicken coop.
Ashley Turnbull said she knows she violated the city’s ordinance that prohibits fowl and acknowledges she was told Aug. 7 by police to remove the three chickens and two ducks.
But she said police Chief Trevor Berger went too far when he came onto her property about a week later, when nobody was home, and clubbed, killed and decapitated a small, red hen with a shovel.
“The chicken was like a puppy dog to my son,” said Turnbull. “You wouldn’t do that to a puppy.”
Berger said he was simply enforcing the city ordinance that has been on the books since 1960 and was responding to a “frustrated” neighbor’s repeated complaints. On the day the chicken was killed, Aug. 16, there was a report that one of Turnbull’s chickens was running loose in the residential area near the elementary school in this city of about 1,100 people 80 miles west of Minneapolis.
“I’m sorry it had to happen that way,” said Berger, adding that he didn’t intend to leave the severed chicken head in the yard to send a message to the homeowners. Berger said he thought the head was still attached when he carried the carcass away.
Berger said killing the chicken was justified.
“It’s against city ordinance for a chicken to be in the city and running around in people’s yards,” he said.
Turnbull said Berger didn’t handle the situation professionally.
“I still feel he owes my son an apology and he owes us a chicken,” said Turnbull, who filed a written complaint with the Atwater Police Commissioner on Aug. 20.
She has not yet heard a response, but the issue is expected to be addressed Wednesday during the Atwater City Council meeting when, ironically, Berger said he intends to present a proposed ordinance to allow chickens in the city, that the council asked him to prepare earlier this year.
The situation started this spring when Turnball’s 5-year-old son, Phoenix, was given baby chickens and ducks as a birthday gift.
“He takes care of them,” said Turnbull. “He plays with them.”
Turnbull said she wasn’t aware at the time the city didn’t allow poultry.
In May, another Atwater family who also had chickens, asked the City Council to change the ordinance.
City Clerk Goldie Smith said she was in the process of researching chicken ordinances when Turnbull’s neighbor, Dick Rierson, brought pictures of Turnbull’s muddy poultry pen to the August City Council meeting.
Smith said the council decided at that point to inform Turnbull, and other residents who had chickens, to remove them.
In an interview, Rierson said he was concerned about having chickens in town living “in filth like that” and that he feared it would attract rats.
Rierson said the chickens “were probably nice pets, but you have to keep it clean.”
He seemed surprised to learn that the police chief had killed one of the chickens.
“I’m not for mistreating any animal,” he said. “I’m not for killing a chicken for the sake of killing a chicken.”
But Rierson said the ordinance prohibiting livestock was put in place for a reason and if killing the chicken was the only way for the police chief to address the problem, “then I’d say he’s doing his job.”
Berger said when he got the call on Aug. 16, he saw the chicken in a yard next to Turnbull’s house. He said he tried for 10 to 15 minutes to catch the chicken or chase it back into the pen.
“I feel like I made a good effort to get it back in,” he said.
But when the other two chickens and two ducks in the fenced pen started to get out, Berger said he closed the door that he’d opened, grabbed a shovel leaning against Turnbull’s garage and “dispatched” the chicken.
Since there were children playing in the adjacent yard, Berger said he didn’t want to use his gun to kill the chicken and the shovel was the “safest way to dispatch it.”
When asked why it was necessary to kill the young chicken instead of letting it be, Berger said the family was “not supposed to have them in the first place” and that he wanted to give the aggrieved neighbor “some results.”
It was the same process he would use if there was a report of a skunk, he said.
“I guess I don’t regret it, because it’s like taking care of any rodent in town,” he said.
Turnbull said she doesn’t understand that logic.
“I couldn’t perceive a chicken being a threat to anybody,” said Turnbull.
Turnbull’s neighbor, Jason Shoutz, said he saw Berger walked up to the chicken by the coop and swing the shovel “up and down.” His young daughter was in the yard at the time and saw the officer kill the chicken.
Berger said he left no note on the door and although he intended to initiate contact with the family after killing the chicken, he did not.
Shoutz informed Turnbull and her fiancé, Chris Gordon, about what happened.
Gordon said he called the police chief later that day.
“I said, so you came to our home and killed our chicken with our shovel?” said Gordon, retelling the conversation. “He said, ‘Yup. Any questions?’ That’s the thing that makes me mad.”
The situation has been the talk of the town for a while, but Berger said “most of the people think it’s rather silly.”
When asked what was silly, he responded, “That there’s such uproar about a chicken.”
Berger said that after advising city council members what had happened, he was instructed not to take immediate action regarding Turnbull’s remaining poultry.
Turnbull is upset with the police chief but she also blames herself for not taking the city’s initial warning seriously.
She said she discounted the verbal warning, in part because she never received anything in writing about removing the animals and because of the upcoming vote on the ordinance.
She said it didn’t make sense to move the animals to a farm for a couple weeks with the possibility they could eventually be legal in town.
Berger said he believes the other families who had poultry in town removed their animals after being instructed to do so.
Atwater Mayor Mark Olson declined to comment.
He said both sides of the issue, which he called the “chicken fiasco,” would be discussed at the council meeting Wednesday.
Turnbull said she intends to be at that meeting and is still hoping the council agrees to adopt an ordinance so her son can keep his remaining chickens and ducks.