Bird Brain, Reptile Gardens.

Reptile Gardens Defends Its Brainy Chickens

Reptile Gardens in Rapid City, South Dakota, closed its Bewitched Village Trained Animal Show in 2005 -- due, it claimed, to disinterest from the public. (Although certainly not from us.) But it kept "Bird Brain," its tourist-humbling tic-tac-toe-playing chicken, and its basketball-playing chicken as well -- and it intends to keep on keeping them, despite the wishes of Karen Davis, president of an animal rights group named United Poultry Concerns (UPC).

The chickens sit in glass-fronted boxes and perform whenever passersby deposit quarters, which alerts the chickens to peck a tic-tac-toe board or push a ball through a hoop until they get some feed. Each bird, according to Joe Maierhauser, CEO of Reptile Gardens, works only a two-hour shift because by then they're so full of food that they won't perform. Evidently a lot of quarters get pumped into those boxes, which is another reason that Maierhauser wants to keep them. He claims that the chickens are well-cared-for and content. "They actually seem anxious to get back in there," he told a reporter from the Rapid City Journal.

Karen Davis of UPC doubts this. "Everybody who does something bad to animals claims they're being treated 'humanely'," she says. "That's just the rhetoric of exploitation." Karen admits that she's never been to Reptile Gardens, but she claims to know what chickens want, and that sitting in a box, even a box filled with food, is not one of them. "Why should chickens have to work for a piece of grain in a slot machine?" she asks. "It's not fair. They [the management of Reptile Gardens] wouldn't want their dog or cat treated that way."

Karen believes that no animals should be on exhibit, period, and that if humans want to watch animals they should do so via closed-circuit video, which would allow the animals to live in natural settings. "They can upgrade," she claims of Reptile Gardens. "If they're really concerned about animals, as they claim to be, let them show that. Great big screens of reptiles and other animals in their natural habitats, photographed by professionals -- that would be great."

Ditching Bird Brain is one thing, but could Reptile Gardens afford what Karen has in mind? She sees no alternative. "Joe Maierhauser and his crew," she says, "need to come up with things that show sensitivity to animals, represent them accurately and respectfully, and that entertain the public at the same time that people are learning something significant and valuable... instead of falling back on a mechanical contraption that just shows a level of imbecility."

8955 S. Hwy 16, Rapid City, SD
Five miles south of town, on the southbound side of US Hwy 16.
March-Nov. daily 9-4 (Call to verify)
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