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Key West's famous chickens raise bird flu fears

Key West is famous for its roaming chickens, but the birds could soon be cooped up amid rising fears about bird flu.
Katha Sheehan holds one of the chickens housed at her Key West, Fla. store. Key West is famous for its roaming chickens, but the birds could soon be cooped up because of bird flu worries.J. Pat Carter / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Tourists photograph them, and artists paint them. They peck and cluck in parking lots, backyards and alleys. And, yes, they cross the road, any time they please.

Key West is famous for its roaming chickens, but the birds could soon be cooped up. Worried about bird flu, City Commissioner Bill Verge wants the city to begin rounding up the island's 2,000 to 3,000 chickens.

Some chicken lovers, however, are crying foul, dismissing the danger of avian flu.

Katha Sheehan likened a Key West without its chickens to "New Orleans without the jazz and San Francisco without the cable cars."

Key West's chicken history goes back to the mid-1800s, when birds were kept for food and cockfights. Over the years, the chickens were released or escaped, and the population grew on the two-by-four-mile island.

Some residents complain that the roosters crow at all times of the day, tear up lawns and defecate everywhere. In 2004, the city hired a chicken catcher to trap birds and take them to a mainland farm, but upset residents sabotaged the effort by freeing chickens, breaking traps and keeping the birds well-fed. The chicken catcher and the city parted ways after he had collected a little over 500 birds.

Now, however, the bird battle has a new source of urgency: avian flu.

More than 100 deaths have been blamed on the avian flu virus around the world, none of them in the Americas. The virus can infect people who have had close contact with sick birds.

The virus has yet to turn up in the Western Hemisphere. But Verge is worried that migrating birds could spread it to the chickens of Key West. Next week he plans to try to renew a program to remove chickens from public and private property on request.

Verge said he worries about children playing in areas where there is chicken feces and elderly people and others whose immune systems may be weak. In addition, he said the island's main industry, tourism, could be severely damaged if even one chicken dies of the flu.

"We're not trying to spread panic about it," Verge said. "Just like the oncoming of a hurricane ... it's just called preparedness."

Pro-chicken sentiment
At her shop on Duval Street, The Chicken Store, Sheehan lets chickens roam in one room and nurses injured birds back to health. She also sells pro-chicken merchandise, including "Choose Freedom" stickers, and will pick up nuisance birds for a small fee. Her van's license plate reads "The Chix," and a bumper sticker proclaims: "This too will pass KW Chickens are forever."

Sheehan agreed the island's chicken population needs to be managed so that it does not get out of hand, but she argued that the birds should be considered part of its character.

"I love 'em," 67-year-old James Matthew Chapman, who grew up in Key West, said while feeding a small flock in his yard. He shrugged off the risk of bird flu: "It hasn't killed me yet."

David Lane is not as fond of the fowl and the constant crowing and said he is concerned about bird flu. Over the past six years he has joined with a neighbor to hire a chicken catcher and trapped some 40 birds himself.

"I have another neighbor who has tried various poisons. I have another neighbor who has a sling shot," he said.

At the restaurant Ricky's Blue Heaven, chickens wander around the outside tables and at least one bold bird is said to have stolen a diner's banana bread.

"Face it, they're pretty filthy. They're a nuisance," said Holly Shea, who works at the restaurant. "But there's something very islandy and Third World and magical about having wildlife roaming, even if it's only a chicken."

Tourists especially seem to find the wild chickens charming, pointing at them from cars or as they pass the birds on the street.

"You expect to see it when you come. It's a little bit of history," said Marlene Kozlowski, visiting from Michigan.

But Verge has this answer for tourists upset about the potential loss of the birds: "Give me your address, and I'll ship you some."