As you wander through the streets of Key West you will see people in swimsuits, with red, purple and pink hair, and with multiple piercings walking next to people in business attire – men in sports coats and ties, or women in shirts with heels. It is a place for just about everyone. However, this every day acceptance is not limited to people, but also animals. Welcome to the Gypsy Chickens of Key West!
When people in earlier times migrated to Key West and being aware of its isolation from food sources, they brought their own chickens with them, providing eggs, meat and of course reproduction of the species. As Key West became more connected to the rest of the world and with the advent of local markets and supermarkets carrying these products, some people quit raising chickens and they were more or less released. No longer being fed by their owners, the chickens were able to survive off of the native insects, lizards, scorpions and worms around town. It is said that the chickens have helped to minimize cockroaches in tropical Key West.
By 1860, Cubans began to move to Key West and, it is said, that they brought their love for cock fighting and their Cubalaya chickens with them. By 1890, more than half of Key West’s population was of Cuban origin.
Luckily, the southernmost city outlawed cockfighting in 1970’s, putting the Cubalaya chickens out of business, and out on the streets of Key West. Domestic chickens on the island were losing their homes at the same time when their owners moved away. Now the roosters & chickens were left to roam free, and nature took its course. So, some forty years later, you now have what are called “Gypsy Chickens.” Like in the 1970’s, they are still protected, and make Key West the truly unique place that it is!
It is against the law in Key West to kill the local chickens. Local folklore says the law dates back to voodoo practices involving the sacrifice of chickens. And while the chickens make Key West a unique place, some of the locals are very unhappy with them. Over a period of time, chickens roaming freely and “letting nature take its course” can make for a lot of chickens. The following is taken from Sarah Goodwin-Nguyen’s blog concerning the “gypsy chickens”:
Key West’s city government, beset by calls from disgruntled locals, have tried several times to “downsize” the chicken population. In 2004, the city hired local man, Armando Parra, a barber and self taught bird catcher, to serve as “chicken catcher”. The birds were supposed to be “relocated” to a free range farm in Miami-Dade. Amid speculation that the birds were secretly being killed, local pro-chicken factions began tampering with traps and Parra was dropped from the city payroll. In 2008, Assistant City Manager, John Jones, made some comments to the local paper urging fed-up locals to “humanely” break the chickens necks, outraging animal lovers.
Since then the City has formed a symbiotic relationship with the Key West Wildlife Center. In exchange for financial aid, the KWWC, which aids in the rescue and rehabilitation of local birds and other wildlife, serves as a holding center for “nuisance” Gypsy chickens that have been trapped and brought in (traps can be borrowed from the center for a deposit). The birds are adopted out to people outside of the Keys, who must sign an agreement stating that the birds are for pets and not meat. Adopted chickens come with a signed letter from the City Mayor attesting to their authentic breeding as “Key West Gypsy Chickens.”
So be forewarned while you may pay $250 a night for that classy resort room, your alarm clock may be in the street below your room and go off at the oddest, most inconvenient time. Don’t be surprised if the waiter at your table is accompanied by a strutting rooster. Welcome to the Conch Republic!