Goodbye guinea pigs: Why chickens are the ideal school pet

By Sophie Carter
Photography by Adrian Vercoe

Featured in Capital #85.
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The old saying goes never work with children or animals but one school has discovered putting the two together can work a treat. Sophie Carter finds out how.

I’m the chief, and Matthew’s deputy.” Afonso explains their roles as Thorndon School’s chicken monitors. The role is one that ten-year-old Afonso Rato is proud to have held for the past two years.

Afonso’s protégé, nine-year-old Matthew Payne, is still fairly new to the job. Caring for the chooks is something students look forward to in years five and six, of which teacher Jason Trenberth is team leader. He says that he does very little for the school’s pets, and that his students take care of all things chicken.

The first bird arrived six years ago. A parent of one of the students was rehoming a hen that had stopped laying, and offered it to the school. The principal at the time, Alistair du Chatenier or “Mr Du”, accepted it and brought in several more chickens. Over the years there have been renewals of the flock, with two of the original hens dying, and three others brought from Christchurch. The current lineup consists of Maggie, Funky, and Steel.

The role of chicken monitor is not undertaken lightly, and involves a rigorous selection process. “Afonso puts any applicants through a test, from which he then chooses the best,” says Jason. During the school week full responsibility for the hens falls to the boys. Every afternoon they clean the coop, replace the hay, and refill the feed, heading to the local New World to purchase it. Collected eggs are given to the teachers, or find their find their way into class bakes.

Thorndon School has about 50% international students. Since the opening of New Zealand’s borders Jason’s classes have been somewhat quieter, with several children away visiting relatives overseas. Afonso has recently returned from Portugal. While he was away his duties were passed to back-up chicken monitors, Taylor Watt and James Naulls, who are on hand to cover absences.

This is neither Matthew nor Afonso’s first rodeo as regards animal care. Matthew has had hens in the past, and says they have plenty of room at home to one day have them again. Along with a pet budgie, Afonso also has hens – one of which is named after his idol, Cristiano Ronaldo.

Keeping chickens in the city can bring challenges. Limits and rules put in place by the council include a ban of roosters in urban areas. “We have to look out for cats,” Matthew says. “There’s a black and white cat that often waits outside the school. If we see one we have to quickly put the chickens back in their cage.”

Although they live close to a busy road in the government district, the chickens are unfazed by the noise, and seem content with their little slice of the world. The boys spill the story that “Mr Du once left the gate to their coop open over night.” The chooks were discovered the following morning, happily pecking away barely 10 metres from their pen. “Maggie has a line she won’t cross,” Afonso says, of the flock’s longest-serving member, who has lived at Thorndon School for five years.

The school is always keen to involve its pupils in environmental and outdoor projects. They have a greenhouse, in which they grow grapes, carrots, and tomatoes. A large compost bin also provides treats for the chooks, as they search it for scraps.


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