The Key West "Chicken
The war began
nearly fifteen years ago and still rages on. Like all wars, there
were two sides.
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
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.
she cried out. "Those poor little chickens!"
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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"
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
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.
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.
Key West, Florida
me if you can,
Mr. Chicken Man!"