by Dennis Reeves Cooper…….
Why does a chicken cross the road? No matter what the answer might be, one thing is certain in Key West– the chickens are always crossing the road. And in most instances, those of us who are driving cars or riding mopeds give them the right-of-way. Key West’s chickens are part of the color and history of the island. After all, they’ve been here for at least 200 years– or even longer. Some say that chickens came with the pirates who were once based here. Early settlers kept chickens for their meat and eggs, as did many of the thousands of Cubans who came to Key West during the long-running war for Cuban independence in the mid- and late 1800s. And of course, there were the highly-valued roosters trained for cock fighting. But as the town grew and local markets began to make meat and eggs readily available here– and cock fighting became illegal– the need for individual families to keep chickens became increasingly unnecessary. And, over the years, many of the chickens escaped or were just released to roam the island.
Tourists seem absolutely fascinated by our chickens strutting down Duval Street and pecking around in outdoor restaurants and bars– especially the mama hens with their broods of chicks. And among the photos visitors take home to show Key West to family and friends, at least a few of those photos probably feature the gypsy chickens. Of course, the fascination might be somewhat lessened when they are awakened at 4 in the morning by one or more roosters crowing just outside their hotel windows. And most tourists don’t know that yelling “Shut the hell up!” just makes the roosters crow more.
For the most part, locals accept the chickens as just a normal part of Key West life. A colorful inconvenience, of sorts. Yes, the chickens do poop on the sidewalks and everywhere else. But most locals have long ago learned that– because chickens roost in trees– it is not a good idea to park their cars under trees. And the chickens do tend to wander into any building where a door is left open. There are even stories about services at Mary Star of the Sea Catholic Church being disrupted (or not) when one or more chickens come casually strolling down the aisle. But make no mistake about it, many locals absolutely hate the chickens. They are loud and they scratch up flower beds and other landscaping. So, back in 2004, the City Commissioners decided that there were just too many chickens on the island– an estimated 2,000 at that time– and action had to be taken to cull the flock. At first, city employees were given that assignment on a part-time basis, using traps and nets. But that didn’t work very well– so somebody suggested the idea of hiring an official Chicken Catcher. Armando Parra, a 63-year-old barber, got the job. The program was launched in March 2004 on a trial basis. Parra was to be paid $20 per chicken caught, up to 900 chickens by the following September. Of course, it didn’t take long for the national media to pick up this story and the City of Key West and its Chicken Catcher became the butt of jokes in the press and on several of the late night talk shows.
But beyond the jokes, there was a perceived problem here. Maybe just a public relations problem. Or maybe a problem more serious than that. Part of the plan to reduce the chicken population here was that the captured chickens would be placed in a holding enclosure to be periodically transported to a 400-acre farm in Dade County. While most Key Westers probably realized that there was a need to cull the flock here (city officials were swearing to god that they had absolutely no intention of getting rid of ALL the chickens), locals were assuming that the culling would not involve KILLING the chickens! But there were consistent rumors that killing the chickens was exactly what was happening– and that we were all naive to think that anything else was happening. In fact, a film crew from the University of Florida, doing a video on the Key West chickens, reportedly got directions from city officials to the farm in Dade County. But maybe they got lost– because what they found was not a farm. They found a slaughterhouse. Were the Key West chickens being turned into dog food?
Not surprisingly, a movement developed in Key West to “save the chickens.” Newspaper reporter turned chicken activist Katha Sheehan founded the Chicken Store on upper Duval. The store featured chicken-themed gifts and other items. But she said that the primary reason for the retail operation was to finance her chicken rescue service. Rescued chickens roamed freely throughout the store– which was featured on Martha Stewart’s TV show. Sheehan also collected thousands of signatures on a petition urging city officials to allow chickens to remain on the streets of Key West. “They have become like mascots,” she said. “They are a symbol of Key West.” She wanted city leaders to “stop looking at the chickens as disposable waste and start looking at them as permanent assets.” Just down the street, jeweler Whitfield Jack had designed and was marketing a “Catch Me If You Can” gold pendant in the form of a running rooster. There was even a ChickenFest organized in mid-summer 2004, featuring a “Poultry in Motion” parade and a “Tastes Like Chicken” cook-off party. A highlight of the parade was a 12-foot chicken in a toga on one of the floats dubbed “Chicken Caesar.”
In any event, the Chicken Catcher didn’t even make it through the trial period. Although he had captured more than 500 chickens, he resigned in July 2004 and turned in his city-owned traps. Parra complained of lack of commitment and micromanagement by city officials. He also complained that local chicken-lovers were routinely releasing chickens from his traps, or even worse, destroying the traps. City Commissioners had also had enough. They made no effort to hire a new Chicken Catcher. However, a couple of years later, in 2006, officials seized upon the real or imagined threat of Bird Flu to, once again, discuss the idea of getting rid of chickens in Key West– this time, ALL of the chickens! But if the rationale for getting rid of the chickens was really the threat of Bird Flu, the potential extermination could not logically stop with just the chickens, could it? What about the sea gulls and the pigeons and the ospreys and the pelicans? And what about the migratory birds that visit the island every year? So, what was really just a political discussion in the first place just sort of imploded under its own weight. Bird Flu threat or no Bird Flu threat, there would be no effort on the part of city government to get rid of Key West’s chickens.
But there was still a problem. Love ’em or hate ’em, there were still too many chickens on the island with no program in place to cull the flock and to arrange deportation to safe “retirement” locations on the mainland. Then somebody came up with the idea to contract with the local bird experts– the Key West Wildlife Center (KWWC)– to manage the problem. The first contract was signed in 2009 and has recently been renewed at an annual cost of $49,000 to the city. Here’s what we are getting for our money. They rescue sick, injured and orphaned chickens and provide medical care. While they do not directly respond to complaints from citizens about nuisance chickens by going out and trapping those chickens, they do loan traps to citizens to trap chickens themselves and then bring the traps (and the chickens) back to the KWWC. This is a free service, although a $100 deposit is required for the traps. The KWWC’s contact number is 305-292-1008. For citizens who do not wish to trap chickens themselves, the KWWC recommends a local contractor, Belinda Coyner, who can do that for a fee. Her contact number is 305-748-7205. None of the chickens brought into the Wildlife Center are ever released back into the community. Rather, they are housed there in a large screened enclosure until transportation is arranged to the mainland. While waiting for transport to a new home, they are well-fed with high-quality chicken feed and fresh produce. The produce is not a budget item. It is provided by the Mary Star of the Sea soup kitchen.
Now, what about the “retirement farms” on the mainland. “Over the years, we have searched out and vetted a number of farms, orchards and other locations where our Key West chickens are welcome and where they can live out their lives in peace,” said Tom Sweets, executive director at the KWWC. Those locations include an organic orange orchard near Lake Worth, where the chickens provide bug control, and a 12,000-acre animal rescue farm near Lake Okeechobee. “Also, there is a former Key Wester who now has a farm near Fort Myers,” Sweets said. “When he comes back to Key West to visit family, he usually takes a load of chickens back with him.”
For Key Westers who love– or at least like– the chickens, there are probably a number of reasons they feel that way. But one reason may be that, like Key Westers through the years, the chickens are self-sufficient enough that they can successfully defy authority. It is unlikely that the chickens here were ever aware that there was, from time to time, organized efforts to cull their flock– or even get rid of them altogether. They just went on with their lives. As they are doing today.
Video Credit: youtube coasterfanatic9