For years the community has hotly debated the merits of the birds. Tourists love them and are led to believe that Key West has always had chickens wandering the streets. Locals form into two camps: one is also happy with the chickens and find them to be a quaint part of island life. The other group of locals wants them gone, and the current fears of bird flu are being used to further their eradication desires.
In reality, although chickens have historically been raised in Key West, they were usually kept in cages (how else do you collect eggs and the occasional chicken?). Just about nobody keeps a caged chicken anymore.
By commissioners estimates today, there are approximately 3000 chickens on Key West streets and neighborhoods, a number that is too high for almost any resident. That figure is probably overstated, but the numbers of poulty have definitely been on the rise. One reason may be that residents who might normally have kept the chicken population in control (by eating them) have been displaced. Also, supermarkets sell chicken for $0.99 per pound, making it a more desirable chicken since it's already been cleaned and feathered. The funny thing is that the city of Key West was in love with chickens just 5 years ago, when they passed a resolution declaring the bird as the official bird of Key West and protecting the fowl from any harm. It became illegal for residents to take care of a problem chicken, and so the population mushroomed.
So popular and common did the chickens become, a local resident Kathy Sheehan opened the Chicken Store, and has spent much of her time championing and protecting the birds.
Commissioner Verge was at the spearhead of the resolution to eliminate the chickens. His rational was that the coming bird flu is a threat and that the city of Key West must do something to protect itself. But will eliminating chickens make us safer. Using his logic, what about the other birds? Key West is a major migratory route for hundreds of species of birds. Plus, there are plenty of resident populations: pelicans, ibis, doves, hawks, vultures, heron, egrets, and countless others.
Have the chickens become the scape-goat for bird flu? Isn't the real danger that a human will bring the bird flu to us? What about the one million cruise ship passengers that reportedly come to Key West each year? And all the other tourists too? Seems to me that eliminating Key West chickens will do little to stop the bird flu, since there are so many other vectors out there.
And what about the bird flu? Is it really coming? Or is it the panic of the year that the news is chomping on like a dog on a bone? Remember SARS? Or how about Lyme Disease? And West Nile?
Sounds to me that the chicken foes have finally found the rational to eliminate the birds: they will kill you. Maybe they are right, but I suspect that Key West is no safer with or without the chickens. One thing is for sure: people will sleep better at night - some because they feel more protected from bird flu, but most because there won't be a crowing chicken nearby.