The library’s downstairs programs room buzzed with children gathered for their summer reading program as they sat enraptured by a new feathered friend who is one of the only therapy chickens in the tri-state area.
It was not an average day in the Bordentown library when Blossom the piano-playing therapy chicken came to visit for Chicken Story Time on Aug. 14.
Blossom, who is around two years old, sat peacefully on the lap of her owner, Gwenne Baile, “The Chicken Lady,” the whole time in the front of the room with Baile exhibiting a complimenting chicken hat on her head.
Baile, a retired nurse living in Haddon Township and an advocate for backyard chickens, owns five of her own and has helped 10 New Jersey towns pass ordinances allowing residents to keep the farm animals in their own backyard.
On Nov. 5, she will be doing an even tfor the Bordentown Green Team where she will demonstrate the environmental sustainability of backyard chickens.
At story time, Baile read chicken-themed stories out loud to the group of young listeners of all ages and their parents.
In between the colorful pictures shown and the tales told, the children got up for different themed activities.
They danced to the tune of the Chicken Dance, showing off their moves for Blossom who was unfazed by the noise and commotion in front of her.
As if Blossom’s docile nature in a room full of energetic children was not surprising enough, Baile had a grand finale in store and brought out a red mini piano, which Blossom played.
The children sat in amazement as Blossom tapped away at the piano’s keys with her beak to the tune of the “Itsy Bitsy Spider.”
Following Blossom’s performance, the children ranging from bold to shy lined up to pet their new friend.
Baile travels to different libraries, special needs classes, assisted living facilities, alzheimer’s programs, and farmers markets throughout New Jersey with Blossom and her other therapy chicken, Sadie.
“Blossom is such a big hit with all the kids,” Bordentown librarian Ann Marie Latini says. “Miss Gwenne is wonderful with the kids and it’s always fun to have something different other than a regular story time.”
It was not Blossom’s first time visiting the Bordentown library. She laid an egg during her first visit last summer, Latini said.
“They’re not emotional support animals, they are the same as therapy dogs,” Baile says. “As much as they relax me when I’m petting them they’re not emotional support animals and they’re not service animals like a seeing eye dog.”
Ever since Baile became hooked on Martha Stewart and her show, she was inspired to own chickens.
However, she did not have a commercial farm and that is when she said a lightbulb turned on that prompted her to do research.
“I checked into it [owning chickens] and it was illegal. It took me five years gathering people, signatures, getting a grassroots movement going introducing it to the mayor and the commissioners,” Baile said. That eventually caused Haddon Township to pass an ordinance for a pilot program allowing residents to keep chickens.
Baile says she took over 60 hours of classes and eventually became certified as a handler of therapy chickens and up until March, was the only therapy chicken handler in the tri-state area.
She teaches a two-and-a-half-hour class that people can take to get a license to keep backyard chickens in one of the towns she has helped pass ordinances in.
“Now there’s more therapy chickens in the tri-state area because I certified about a dozen people,” she said. She has certified people from Burlington County, Gloucester County and even Rhode Island and Pittsburgh.
Blossom is the third therapy chicken she has trained after Sadie and her first therapy chicken Rosebud, who passed away last year.
“The more I get into it the more I wish all of my chickens were therapy chickens,” she says of her pets, who wear their own diapers to events. “I just want people to realize that they’re not dirty barnyard animals.”
She trained her hens simply by working with them and learning about techniques through “The Chicken and You Training Series” provided by the Gossamer Foundation, through which she participated in live webinar classes.
“I have a rocking chair and I’ll sit them on my lap,” Baile says while being firm if her chickens try to go for her glasses or peck at shiny objects.
“Before I involve them with special needs, I will take them to some outside event or farm and by the time I take them there I know they’re gonna be fine.”
She taught Sadie and Blossom how to play the piano by placing meal worms on the keys. Sometimes, they both do duets.
When Baile visits a library for the first time, she donates a book signed by one of her chickens with a printed footprint.
“We don’t charge anything, it’s a labor of love,” she says.
Baile alternates between using Blossom and Sadie for events so they can have breaks, while Sadie is known to have an egg wherever she goes.
“Blossom does real good with story time because I don’t have to have my hands on her and I can read books,” she says. “Sadie does real good with read to chicken because she really looks like she’s looking at the pages.”
“Read to the chicken” is good for children that are a little more apprehensive about reading in front of their peers because it builds their confidence, Baile says.
In Cherry Hill, there is always a waiting list for the read to the chicken event, where her hen sees six kids for 10 minutes each that get to ask questions and pet her afterwards.
Baile wants to inform people of the many benefits of owning chickens and says she enjoys advocating for them in front of councils, something she has been doing for almost nine years.
“I kid that I would be able to stand in front of the Supreme Court and argue that everyone should be able to own a couple chickens in their backyard and not get nervous,” she says.
“They can be pets that give you breakfast and you know what is in your eggs because you fed the chicken. We really don’t throw away any food waste, if it doesn’t go to the chickens it goes to my composter.”
She says her pets significantly decrease any food waste going into the waste stream by giving them leftover food scraps while also mentioning they are excellent at eating mosquitos and ticks, simultaneously providing free fertilizer for the garden.
Baile has created the group Camden County Chickens and is affiliated with the Academy of Natural Science’s autism program in Philadelphia where she goes around six times a year with her hens.
“I’d like to have a little harem of therapy chickens so I can choose which one fits the bill best,” she says.