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Activists cry ‘fowl’ over Key West's move against chickens

For years chickens have roamed freely around Key West and have even been protected by local city ordinances.  But weary of complaints, local officials are negotiating with a "chicken catcher" to seriously reduce their numbers.  NBC's Mark Potter reports.
A rooster lurks near the Blue Heaven restaurant in the Bahama Village neighborhood of Key West, Fla. in April 1999.  Wilfredo Lee / AP file
/ Source: NBC News

For years, chickens strutting through streets and yards have been as much a part of Key West's island charm as the fiery sunsets, conch fritters and free-wheeling lifestyles.

But, weary of complaints, city officials are negotiating with a "chicken catcher" to dramatically reduce the feathered population and keep it under control.

Assistant City Manager John Jones said, "They’re everywhere. You’ve got an island full of chickens. They’ve nowhere to go.”

Officials estimate that as many as 2,000 roosters and hens run free on the eight-square-mile island, a popular tourist destination 163 miles south of Miami in the Florida Keys. A city ordinance prohibits killing the birds.

Jones said the chickens pose a safety and health hazard and have been the subject of nearly 150 citizen complaints.

Residents have been upset about chickens digging up yards, darting through traffic, leaving droppings and crowing loudly at odd hours. 

Under a measure approved by the City Commission, about half the chickens could  be trapped and shipped to a farm near Tampa.

Feathers ruffled
Some long-time residents, though, are crying foul, claiming chicken are a Key West tradition, and should be protected.

"It's a blame and deport the chickens kind of thing," said Katha Sheehan, known locally as the "Chicken Lady."

She has collected thousands of signatures in defense of the birds. "They're so beautiful, so optimistic, so full of life," Sheehan said. "They are a beacon of hope for people who live such dull lives."

The man applying for the $20,000 trapping job is 63-year-old Armando Parra, a third-generation Key West resident who runs the "Conch Town Barber Shop."

Parra said he has "dealt with chickens all my life," and can catch lots of fowl without harming any of  them.

His plan, if hired by the city, is to set traps around town. "I can catch more chickens in four hours than the city would want me to," he bragged.

Parra said he has already received a number of complaints about filthy and noisy birds, adding, "I'm getting calls at the barbershop from people who can't sleep at night."

Do chickens deserve same respect as tourists?
But Sheehan, who runs "The Chicken Store," a tourist shop on Key West's famed Duval Street, suggested the establishment of a "rooster park" where nuisance birds can be kept for adoption.

"I don't think we have an overpopulation problem (with chickens) so much as we have with humans," she said, claiming the birds are more visible now because much of their habitat has been destroyed by development and a recent hurricane.

Arguing the city should not try to "export our problems," by removing half the chicken flock, Sheehan said chickens should get the same respect afforded tourists, some of whom commit crimes.

"Are we deporting tourists?  I don't think so.  Should we deport half the tourists?"

Parra, at the barbershop shop, responded, "A chicken has to be controlled, too."