Sunday, January 09, 2005

The Chicken Store in the News

This from the Chicago Sun Times:

But the Southernmost Hotel always will have the Chicken Store across the road.

The Chicken Store opened in February 2000 in a former tanning salon at 1229 Duval, just north of the Southernmost Hotel. The storefront shop is a home for relocated roosters and injured and orphaned chickens. When I visited the Chicken Store in October, owner-founder Katha Sheehan had an inventory of nearly 40 chicks.

The Chicken Store has been a bone of contention for some residents because of early morning territorial cock-a-doodle-doos. The noise doesn't bother Babich and it's only bothered me on my last-call walk home from the Green Parrot. (In true Key West style, the Chicken Store is next door to the Scrub Club, which offers erotic modeling, fantasy role playing and other extreme pastimes for men at 1221 Duval.)

"If you have problems with them crowing at night [chickens, not Scrub Club customers], we offer free ear plugs," Sheehan said. "One thing that gets them going are people retiring from the bars driving by with the boom box going in their car. That wakes them up. This is one of the noisiest towns I've ever lived in and chickens are the least of it. We don't have large features to break up sound and since Hurricane George we lost a lot of our big ficus trees. They're not likely to be replanted since they're yard hogs."

Sheehan was lugging around a big bag of chicken scratch when I just dropped in to see what condition her chickens were in. "This started when I was a volunteer at the local animal shelter," she said. "I was working with dogs but I noticed they received calls about nuisance chickens, orphaned chicks, injured chickens. And it always was, 'We don't do chickens.' But to me chickens seemed a very significant part of wild-domestic animals here."

The Key West "gypsy chicken" is a descendent of the first fighting gamecocks brought to the Florida Keys (first pegged "Isle of Bones") by the original Spanish who arrived by galleon with tools and livestock on board as well as Bahamian settlers who became the first Conchs. These fowl later interbred with a stream of bantam chickens brought to Key West from Cuba (occasionally on homemade rafts). And the feisty Cuban cockfighting chicken El Gallo Blanco was so famous, local lore has it that Key West residents met his boat when it arrived from Havana. Today there are an estimated 2,000 chickens on the tiny 2-by-4-mile island.

"Chickens do us a great favor," Sheehan said. "There's a lot of bugs in the tropics and chickens eat their fair share of bugs. You can't have a better friend than one that's out there eating cockroaches and termites almost day and night. Chickens are omnivores. They'll eat anything from rocks to beef. They eat rocks for their gizzards. It helps their digestion. They don't paint themselves into any evolutionary corner. They always keep their options open. They'll try anything once."

Sheehan knows her chickens. When she was 18, she worked in the chicken section of a kibbutz (communal farm) during a six-month stay in Israel. In 1999 she was certified by the state of Florida as an animal control officer for the Florida Keys SPCA (Society for the Protection of Cruelty to Animals.) While working at the shelter, she specialized in Key West gypsy chickens. In 2000 she opened the store to finance the effort to take care of the chickens.

"At one point I had seven roosters," she said. "Every night I would put in [pet carriers inside her van] my roosters so they wouldn't disturb my neighbors. I finally said, 'This is getting to be a chore. If I had a store, I could have a place to keep the roosters at night and afford to have people help me with the chickens.' "

Sheehan is from Honolulu. She first visited Key West in 1970 before embarking on an extreme car trip from the Southernmost city in America to Seattle. Sheehan met her husband, Roy Stone, in Austin, Texas, in 1982. His family had property in Key West. Sheehan and Stone were married July 1, 1983, and moved to Key West the day after their marriage. Sheehan loves her city as much as her chickens. Key West is the type of place where natives and animals always put their best foot forward. Sheehan smiled as her chickens scampered around snarfing up her chicken scratch.

"Most of these chicks are rescued," she said over a chorus of cackles. "But we do have a few permanent chickens that are blind or disabled. They really are not adoptable. [There's no charge to adopt chickens, but applicants are carefully screened.] We did find a home for one blind one as an artist's model. Blind ones can be beautiful, but they don't move around a lot so they're good for modeling.

"They're all individuals. The most wonderful revelation for me is that there's as many different chicken personalities as human personalities. There are chickens that are intelligent and responsible and there are chickens that are reckless and hell-bent on self-destruction. There's all kinds of relationships. Most of the hens are serial monogamists, but some of them sleep around. You can tell because their chicks are all different colors."

The Chicken Store has excellent folk art, mugs, T-shirts and greeting cards that support Sheehan's efforts and her three-person staff. Visitors are encouraged to wander around with the chickens and take pictures. "You can go into the Chicken Lounge and interact with them," she said. "Feed them, talk to them, hear them. They are very bright. They are a beautiful adornment to Key West. They give it that special grace and Caribbean feel."

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