Florida Archives – Crown Cruise Vacations
The shifting landscape beneath me seems to be pulling me down into its clutches. Creatures with tall spindly spider legs and long elephant trunks gallop across the horizon.
Alice Cooper appears from nowhere. Wait – was that really the shock rocker? What is Alice Cooper doing in my dream?
“He’s beautiful. And he knows it,” a woman said, watching me try to take a photo of the confident rooster.
I think she was right. Perhaps this preening critter knew that he was a popular sight on cruise ship stops and that he could come and go as he pleased – protected by the laws of Key West.
Where else do chickens have such legal jurisdiction? Among its many idiosyncrasies, Key West takes care of its feral fowl or Gypsy Chickens as they are sometimes called.
A bartender along Duval Street told me that the scrappy little birds wandering the streets, yards, taverns, restaurants and everywhere else in this Florida community are descendants of ferocious fighters.
When Cubans came to Key West to escape troubles in their country in the 1860s, they brought their chickens with them. The birds were raised for meat and eggs. The roosters also were prized for their beauty and cockfighting prowess.
Even more chickens came when thousands of Cubans fled to Key West in the 1950s as a result of the Revolution. However, cock fighting was outlawed in the 1970s and many of the no-longer-wanted birds were turned loose. With easy access to meat and eggs in supermarkets, the backyard “grocery stores” were no longer necessary so those chickens also hit the road.
With few predators on the island (except hawks and feral cats) the “wild” chickens thrive on a diet of native insects and lizards. Several generations later, it is estimated that between 2,000 to 3,000 of these birds still roam freely throughout the island.
Although tourists like the colorful birds – and local artists have capitalized on that with chicken paintings, T-shirts, ceramics and even chicken jewelry – many locals are weary of the marauding creatures. Whoever thought roosters only crow loudly at the break of dawn is sadly mistaken. Passing headlights, flashing porch lights or any disturbance can set a rooster off on a loud concert long before daylight. Warnings from awakened sleepers to “shut up” seem to increase the crowing even louder.
The birds annoy homeowners by scratching up yards, flowerbed and vegetable gardens and by leaving “little gifts” on cars and lawn furniture. Territorial mother hens can seem a bit scary to unaware strollers. The chickens are regarded by some as a nuisance and a danger to public health.
But efforts to control the “invasive species” have met with strong opposition in notorious live-and-let-live Key West. To me, the scurrying chickens and preening roosters are a colorful part of the fabric of this unusual cruise stop.
Photos by Jackie Sheckler Finch
Good guesses. But wrong on both. The Conch Republic is located in the good old USA, in Florida, in fact. Conch Republic is the nickname for Key West.
How did the far tip of Florida get that moniker? From what might have been the shortest the shortest naval battle in history.
“We declared war on the United States and threw stale Cuban bread at a Navy officer,” Key West guide Robert said. “It lasted for about a minute. Then we surrendered and asked for $1 billion in foreign aid to rebuild. We’re still waiting for that $1 billion.”
A popular stop for cruise ships, Key West knows how to make cruisers feel welcome. When my ship docked for the day in Key West, many of us climbed aboard a Conch Train open tram to tour around the unusual community. Driver Robert pointed out sites of interest and told us stories of Key West’s past and how it got its nickname of the Conch Republic.
“You are in the Conch Republic,” he said, gesturing to a Conch Republic flag on a porch. “We are proud to be Americans and we are proud to be Conchs. Our local high school sports team is the Fighting Conchs.”
The problem began in 1982 when U.S. Border Patrol set up a checkpoint at the entrance to the Florida Keys so agents could search cars for contraband. Since the checkpoint was on the only road into and out of the island chain, traffic was brought to a standstill. A 17-mile-long traffic jam resulted.
The roadblock angered residents, visitors and Keys officials who complained that the Keys were being treated as a foreign country. Citizens should be able to come and go more freely, they argued.
When their protests were ignored, Keys residents decided to secede from the Union. On April 23, 1982, the southernmost point in the continental United States did just that. They seceded from the United States of America and formed the Conch Republic.
“The roadblock was quickly removed,” Robert said. “That is why our motto is ‘We seceded where others failed.’ We celebrate that.”
In fact, a 10-day Conch Republic Independence Celebration is held every April. In a town known for its parties, the annual celebration is legendary. That is one thing I quickly learned to like about Key West.
In addition to its colorful characters, laidback atmosphere, renowned Key Lime Pie, balmy weather, many museums, fishing fun and fascinating history, Key West is the only place I know that publicly celebrates the end of every day. Folks gather in Mallory Square to salute the sinking of the sun and to watch for the famed green flash – a special glint of light in the water at sunset.
I think I could get used to that. Celebrate every day and live life to the fullest. Good philosophy to have no matter where you are.
Story and Photo by Jackie Sheckler Finch