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The Key West "Chicken War"

The war began nearly fifteen years ago and still rages on. Like all wars, there were two sides.

"Oh isn't that absolutely amazing. It's simply beyond belief!" said the visitor from New York City on her first day in Key West. She had just spotted a chicken walking down main street. In fact, it was a whole family of chickens: a speckled mother hen, a strutting poppa rooster, and three little ones strolling peacefully down the sidewalk on Duval Street alongside the historical brick facade of Key West's oldest and most sedate bank building.

A man running a hot dog stand by the curb shrugged his shoulders and groaned. "First time you ever saw a chicken?" he asked her, friendly-like but exasperated. "It's not exactly like they were extinct."

"But you don't see them walking down the street. You certainly don't see anything like this on Fifth Avenue," she exclaimed with wild delight, aiming her camera at the passing flock.

Just as she clicked the shutter, the man jumped out from behind his hot-dog stand and scooped up the entire chicken family in a gigantic net, preserving forever for the visitor's photo album an image of a squawking, flapping, hysterical mass of chickens in a cloud of feathers, their feet and beaks poking frantically through the net's mesh.

"You beast!" she cried out. "Those poor little chickens!"

"That rooster doo-doos on my umbrella" muttered the man with the net, pointing to the besmirched umbrella over his hot-dog stand and then to a limb in the tree beside the curb where the rooster guarded his kingdom.

"What are you going to do with them," asked the lady, about to burst into tears. The man smirked and nodded toward a big black dog lounging beneath the hot-dog stand. With a long, slow swipe of its tongue, the dog licked its chops and wrinkled its nose in the direction of the net.

"Gimme that net," said the lady, losing control of her decorum and jerking the net out of the man's hands. With some effort, she flipped it upside down and shook it furiously.

Out scrambled the chicken family, their feathers ruffled in every direction and altogether missing in spots here and there. Poppa chicken flew immediately up into the tree, puffed out its feathers, and uttered a volley of ear-splitting squawks. The mother and babies raced into the open door of a nearby bar where nobody apparently paid any attention to them at all.

The agitated rooster glowered down from the tree, flapping its wings. A long red feather that was dislodged during the commotion dangled momentarily from the once-magnificent plumage of the rooster's tail, then fell and slowly zig-zagged down, landing softly on the sidewalk below. The lady, nearly in tears, sadly picked it up.

In the tree overhead, just above the hot-dog man, the rooster squatted and strained and closed his eyes in a squint. "Oh, damn," said the man, glancing up. But it was too late. A huge rooster bomb splatted dead center in the middle of his head and ran down his long scraggly pony tail.

The lady grinned with delight and aimed the camera at the man's head and snapped the shutter.

"I'm gonna sue you," the man shouted, shaking his fist and making an uncomplimentary gesture as the visitor ran down the street, camera in one hand and, in the other, the long red rooster feather. Later that evening she looked absolutely smashing with her war-trophy stuck in the band of her hat as she sipped a Margarita at the Waterfront Bar and told her tale to a crowd of friends.

PS: In all deference to the hot-dog man, it is worthy to note that a few weeks later he made a brilliant business decision and moved his stand four feet down the street, thus avoiding the problem of the roosting tree. And having discovered that the presence of the chicken family increased his business substantially, he could frequently be seen tearing up day-old hot-dog buns and tossing them to the brood. He also cut off his pony tail, just to forget.

As for the big black dog, it was in seventh heaven since it found that, by remaining motionless for a while, the little chicks would hop on its back and busily scratch for a possible flea, an obvious delight to the dog as evidenced by the dreamy look in its eyes and the slow steady wagging of its bushy black tail.

So another battle was won, or lost, depending on how you view it, in the infamous Key West Chicken Wars.

It all began back when chickens were a part of everyday life in Key West -- a source of food, eggs, and ill-fated recruits for the now-illegal practice of cock fighting. But slowly, as bigger grocery stores came to the island and made chicken and eggs easily available -- and cock fighting was outlawed -- the local nests went undisturbed, and the chicken population increased. And, in its hunt for food, chicken armies began to spread across the island.

Along with the multiplication of chicken residents, more and more human residents were moving to Key West, and a running feud began to develop between, shall we say, the Chicken Huggers and the Chicken Muggers -- those who loved the chickens and felt that they add to the atmosphere of the island and belong there-- and those who said they are annoying pests and belong in a barnyard (or a stewpot). Of course, visitors to the island found the chickens charming and photogenic. After all, chickens abounded in the towns and residential areas of all the other islands in the Caribbean. And who could resist smiling as a long line of cars, buses, and trucks waited patiently (or impatiently) as a chicken and her brood slowly meandered across the road. Even some members of the anti-chicken league were willing to admit that a family of chickens can be quite appealing -- provided that they are way down the street (way, way down the street) and on somebody else's property.

But when Jennifer Gloriousgarden goes out into her backyard and finds her freshly-planted flower bed scratched into an unrecognizable heap; or when Harry Hatestogetup gets awakened at 2:00 AM, then 2:30 AM, then 3:00 AM, then 4:00 AM, then 5:00 AM, and every other fifteen minutes or so by a big rooster hanging out in the mango tree next to his bedroom window -- that's when the fur -- and feathers -- begin to fly. (For those unfamiliar with the close-up sound of a rooster crowing, imagine a pair of rusty ice picks piercing your eardrums. That's for starters.) And whoever thought that roosters only crow at the break of dawn must have been living in a fantasy land. A rooster will crow every time a car's headlights come around the corner and shine into its roosting place, or a dog barks at the moon, or even (and this is really annoying) when you shout at the rooster to shut up. But, for the moment, Key West chickens have been given protected-species status, and no rooster-swatting is allowed, even though you are so mad that the veins on your neck are standing out like knotted anchor ropes.

There are also those who warn that the chickens are encroaching on native bird habitats, that they are unsanitary, that they are a menace to pets and children, that they drop bombs in convertibles, and that they can be more aggressive than a panhandler on payday. One local lady (after going away for the weekend and forgetting to close her doggy door) returned home to find a mother hen in the middle of the bedroom pillow defending a pile of incubating eggs. And when the lady tried to shoo it out, the hen's big rooster boyfriend ran out from under the bed and tried to peck her toenails off (which, alas, -- according to her statement to the local newspaper -- had just been painted at one of Miami's most expensive salons).

It was at that point that one was once able to avail themselves of the services of the local Chicken-Catching Man or -- if you preferred a feminine touch -- the local Chicken-Catching Lady. (Yes, at the height of the Chicken Wars in Key West, one could take out a contract on a chicken; not a neck-wringing vendetta, but a "relocation" contract.)

The Chicken-Catching Lady, who once operated the famous Chicken Store and Rescue League on Duval Street (now closed), specialized in roosters. For $20 she would come out with her pet rooster on a leash, place it beside her car, and somehow get it to crow on cue. Moments later, the rooster with the contract on its head would arrive in order to give the hit-rooster a good thrashing and was immediately grabbed by the Chicken-Catching Lady, thrust into an awaiting cage, and hustled off to her store for adoption or shipped to a "retirement farm" in mainland Florida, where they would supposedly live out their natural life in some version of a gated chicken community. (Some skeptical Chicken Huggers suspected that the destination was not a retirement farm at all, but a frying pan.)

Then was a Chicken-Catching Man on the city payroll who would come out and catch problem chickens. Within a month he had received so many death threats that he quit and almost had to go in hiding.

Many other solutions to the chicken situation have been suggested, some of which would make good skits for Saturday Night Live. One of the most amazing was a plan to convert an abandoned trash heap on a neighboring island into a chicken sanctuary. This monstrous trash dump, affectionately known as Mount Trashmore, looms in the distance and is now covered with some sort of green vines and studded with vertical hollow pipes which apparently release gas vapors from years of rotting who-knows-what. Occasionally one of these pipes starts smoking as if some kind of volcanic activity were taking place deep within. (Well, other Caribbean islands have volcanoes, so it all seems appropriate).

The plan was to surround Mount Trashmore with a tall fence, plant it with edible chicken-friendly grain (or something like that), and thereby offer such benefits as an endless supply of eggs to feed the hungry and indigent. Considering that when Mount Trashmore was operational years ago, one could observe glowing purple pools of some unknown substance oozing out of its base, anybody who ate Mount Trashmore eggs long enough would soon be glowing themselves and probably give birth to three-headed children. The matter was dropped when someone further observed that chickens can fly -- and fly quite high -- and commented that, unless a huge wire dome were built big enough to cover the entirety of Mount Trashmore (at a conservative guess of around a million dollars) -- that the chickens would soon be right back on the main drag and everywhere else. (And probably mutated into flesh-eating zombies from ingesting contaminated Mount Trashmore chicken grass).

Other chicken-control proposals included the "Fox in the Hen House" plan submitted by a Midwest breeder of "domestic" foxes (whatever they are). After considerable debate, the idea was judged impractical when someone remembered that the chickens in question did not live in hen houses, and as such, the foxes would also have to be free-roaming -- with attendant problems like fox bites (possibly rabid); packs of foxes yowling all night (outdoing even the roosters); missing pet parrots, etc.

Another idea was to release a dozen or so wild Florida bobcats (Lynx rufus floridanus - related to the Canadian lynx). This proposal practically brought the cat-owners on the island out in mobs with burning torches. The thought of the sweet family Tabby-Wabby-Woo coming home late at night and later giving birth to a basketful of snarling, fanged, bob-tailed mini-monsters was just too, too much. (The gentleman who made the suggestion has since left town.)

So, the Key West "Chicken Wars" continue, and the cameras keep clicking, and the locals keep bitching, and the chickens keep clucking, and basically it all just gives everybody something to talk about. For the most part, folks just continue swinging in their hammocks, totally unconcerned that a monster rooster might be squatting and squinting and straining in the palm tree over their head ... or that a big coconut might be about to fall on their noggin and send them on to a more permanent and peaceful Paradise higher in the sky than any chicken can fly.

© Whitfield Jack
Key West, Florida

"Catch me if you can,
Mr. Chicken Man!"

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