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“I got those low down, dirty, chicken pluckin’ blues.”― Ben Harrison, The Poultry Operetta

Feral poultry are once again in the news here in Paradise. The situation is a tax-dollar-at-work classic with the government on both sides of the issue.

In deference to animal lovers, the City of Key West passed laws to protect feral chickens. As you might expect if you were anyone but an animal lover or elected official, after years of protection, you can hardly swing a cat in Old Town without hitting a chicken.

Legal protection for chickens has been a wild success. The City must now act to appease voters tormented by the growing population of nuisance poultry. At their next meeting, (which may already have occurred when you read this) the Commission plans to hire a local barber to rid the island of obnoxious fowl. The barber reportedly enjoys unnamed poultry relocation connections and is one heck of a chicken catcher. He almost certainly has a past, if not a present, in the world of cockfighting, a sport that is more politically incorrect than feeding Christians to lions. For the chickens, as it so often does, the velvet glove of subsidy becomes the gauntlet of tyranny.

The City is taking on treacherous work. Undertaking Key West chicken control is the political equivalent of clearing a minefield with a snow shovel. Half the town and most of the tourists will scream “cruelty to animals” as hired chicken herders try to corner noisy, fleeing victims. The birds themselves are fierce, cunning, whip-quick and tough as coconut husks. Humiliation for the hunter lurks in every bougainvillea.

My good friend The Chicken Lady, Katha Sheehan, who, by the way, already offers cheap, humane chicken rescue and relocation services, calls them The Key West Gypsy Chickens. They and all their modern brethren descend from the red jungle fowl of Southeast Asia, Gallus gallus. Their proud bearing and wily toughness are the result of four thousand years of breeding and training for sport. Size, strength, speed, and beauty were the goal, not flavor or egg production.

Cockfighting was popular in Asia before western history began. In the Persian religion of Zoroastrianism the cock is a sacred bird symbolizing light and the triumph of good over evil.

Cockfighting migrated to Greece in the time of Themistocles, around 500 B.C. The Romans eventually took it up with such enthusiasm that a 1st century A.D. Roman writer worried over the number of farmers who went broke betting at the pit.

From Rome cockfighting spread north. Despite early attempts at suppression, it was a favorite pastime of the English gentry from the 16th to the 19th century. It arrived early in North America and was popular throughout the colonies.

In the early 1800’s people started raising chickens for food as well as fights. Not much later, in 1836, reasoning that it is more humane to slaughter box-raised birds by the thousands than to have even a few of them die fighting, Massachusetts became the first state to ban cockfighting. Many countries and all but two states have done the same. Cockfighting in Florida has been illegal since 1986.

Not long after that ban became effective, Monroe county government and the ancient blood sport arrived at a fateful, peculiar nexus. And therein lies the cautionary tale for the City’s would-be chicken controllers.

In the spring of 1989 the County Sheriff and Code Enforcement officials descended on a Rockland Key property belonging to one of their own, code enforcement inspector Woodrow “Woodsie” Niles. A three-month investigation had uncovered what was common knowledge. Woodsie ran a cockfighting pit on Rockland Key.

Cockfighting wasn’t a tourist business. In defense of the Sheriff, it is hard for agencies staffed mostly by the native born and entirely by locals to spring a surprise raid on their friends and relatives. The only ones surprised by the raid were the 300 chickens living at Woodsie’s. Lawmen found, Oh My Gosh, “evidence of wagering” and “cockfighting paraphernalia” but they didn’t catch anyone staging cockfights. Everyone knew about the raid so no one was there. They had to arrest Woodsie at his county office. With no cockfights and the birds well cared for, the animal cruelty charges collapsed.

Thinking fast, the Sheriff gracefully segued his case to “rooting out the tentacles of corruption,” that is, getting after Woodsie because his place was such a mess. Of course it was a mess. It was a cockfighting pit, not a garden club. Guys go to cockfights to gamble, drink, swear, smoke cigars and pee outside. Nobody worries much about picking up the trash or watering the petunias. But Woodsie was, after all, a code enforcement official. It was his job to pester people who were messy. Thus, was the Sheriff able to confront the “tentacles of corruption.”

Woodsie’s trashy yard, however, turned out to be the least of the Sheriff’s problems. The big problem was the birds. The same problem our City officials will soon face.

The Sheriff had 300 fighting cocks in custody. Their fate became the focus of the story. A spokesman for the Humane Society recommended killing them, otherwise they would have to fight and that would be cruel. You could almost hear the birds hopping up and saying, “Whoaaa, hey, wait a minute! I’ll take my chances with any of these skinny cocks. Just give me a shot at ‘em, I’ll kick their puny little rooster butts.”

The Sheriff tidied up the euthanasia scheme by suggesting the birds be donated as food to the poor. Local songwriter Ben Harrison in his wonderful Poultry Operetta called this the “Cock in Every Pot” solution. That idea collapsed when the Sheriff learned the birds contained more steroids than a Russian hammer thrower. Without a crew of hungry, down-and-out bodybuilders, the chickens were not edible. In the end the birds went back to Woodsie. Now that they were county property, taking care of them would be a service to the community.

There is a lesson in this story for our City leaders. They should be wary of hasty attempts to suppress our gypsy chickens using methods that involve a “free” service to our citizens. Thousands of generations of selective breeding have equipped the local poultry with a ferocity, cunning and grit that we admire in our friends and respect in our enemies. The combination of their indomitable character and the support of chicken fanciers will likely prove more than a match for bureaucrats who hope to protect chickens with one hand and control them with the other.

A more sensible approach would be to maintain laws against cruelty to the birds while easing the laws protecting those who are a nuisance. Let private chicken catchers contract with those who have chicken problems. The city would do better to offer some of its unused outdoor space for the use of private chicken rescue and relocation services than to get into that line of work directly or through a contract.

Although Key West Gypsy Chickens respond well to our kindness, 200 years of breeding for tenderness won’t take four thousand years of fight out of a Key West cock.