Chuck Gilham holds Alex, a white leghorn rooster, on Thursday at Polson Health and Rehabilitation Center. The rooster was brought to the center as a therapy chicken by Jana Clairmont, who raised the bird from a chick.
Why did the chicken cross the road?
To get to be pals with Chuck Gilham, that's why.
This particular chicken, Alex by name, is a 4-month-old white leghorn rooster who likes to cuddle up to humans.
He's not alone.
Carlita, a 4-month-old Cornish game hen, prefers people, too. She enjoys perching on your shoulder and watching cartoons on the TV.
Their owner, Jana Clairmont of Polson, decided the two birds were too good to keep to herself.
So Thursday afternoon, Clairmont and a friend, Shannon Hewankorn, hauled the pair to Polson Health and Rehabilitation Center to visit some of the residents.
You've heard of therapy dogs?
Meet a therapy chicken.
And a therapy Cornish game hen.
“I got them for my grandchildren,” Clairmont says, “but they're so good with people, I thought, ‘Why not turn this into a positive?' ”
She calls her therapy birds “Fowl Play.”
The visit to Polson Health and Rehabilitation was the first outing for Alex and Carlita, and seemed to go pretty well - although Alex quickly bonded with Gilham, and didn't seem very interested in landing in anyone else's lap for too long.
As Gilham stroked the rooster's feathers with one hand, Alex stretched his neck out and rested it across Gilham's other forearm, much like a puppy might. The bird got so relaxed he even snuggled his head between Gilham's arm and chest, and snoozed for a bit.
“I like him,” decided Gilham, who grew up on a farm outside Cut Bank and said he'd had a pet chicken as a boy.
“His name was Frank,” Gilham said. “We raised milk cows and chickens and had combines and plows. It was a wonderful farm life.”
That's part of the reason Clairmont decided to steer her small brood toward careers in therapy.
“Most of your seniors were raised around chickens and cows,” she says. “Holding one (a chicken, we assume, and not a cow) can bring back memories for older people.”
“They develop so many human qualities if they're around people,” she goes on. Raised otherwise, chickens are “dirty, mean and cannibalistic. If there's a sick chicken in the henhouse, they'll pick 'em to pieces. But they'll respond to tenderness and kindness if that's how they're raised. When I call them, they come.”
Clairmont has a couple of more gigs arranged at retirement homes and assisted living centers near Flathead Lake in the near future, and wants to take Alex and Carlita into classrooms when school starts up again next fall.
While Clairmont may be right about Alex and Carlita's friendly dispositions, she was definitely wrong about one thing.
Until recently, Alex was called “Alexandra.”
Carlita? She was “Carlo.”
Clairmont's guesses at the sexes after she got the pair - then both fuzzy little yellow chicks - at “Chicken Days” at the Cenex in Ronan were both a tad off the mark.
And Carlita, then known as Carlo, almost didn't make it to her job as a therapy Cornish game hen.
“She started walking backward all the time and shaking her head,” Clairmont says. “I thought she was a goner.”
Clairmont thinks a young boy she was baby-sitting may have shaken the box containing Carlita. She and Hewankorn forced worms and maggots down the young bird's throat after she refused to eat, and fed her liquids with an eye dropper.
Then, one day, “She snapped right out of it,” Hewankorn says.
A neighbor in Polson with a garden - “And a fence 8 feet high,” according to Clairmont - complained about Clairmont's feathered friends, and Clairmont had to move them to an auntie's house in the country.
“Chickens cannot fly, OK?” Clairmont says. “The big one tries, and he can't get 6 inches off the floor.”
Now that they're not at her house, Clairmont drives to their new home every morning to remove a cinderblock from the opening into their little house that keeps the foxes out at night. She returns every evening and spends two hours with Alex and Carlita before returning them to the house and replacing the cinderblock.
Before she moved them, kids from the neighborhood came around every day to hold and pet the chicken and Cornish game hen.
“They're so used to people - I can't believe how good they do,” Clairmont says.
While Alex settled in with Gilham, Carlita took a liking to Caleb Altit, who said he is 89 years old and raised chickens a long time ago in Idaho.
“It must be 50 years since I had anything to do with a chicken,” Altit said as he petted Carlita's feathers.
“The ones my grandmother had chased me all over the place,” said another resident, Marsha Hunter, who became fond of Carlita. “I know one thing, I'll never eat another Cornish game hen after today. Chicken, maybe, but not a Cornish game hen.”
Fortunately, neither was on Thursday's menu.
Missoulian: Feathered friends: Chickens trained by Polson woman to provide therapy<img src="/apps/newsart/minivideo.jpg" height="20" width="20" border="0" align="absmiddle">