Key West shares a distinction with the other hard-to-reach places in the remotest corners of America, such as Alaska, Hawaii, the San Juan Islands of Washington State, Maine, and even Guam. The locales are so far removed from the American nerve centers of commerce and industry that those places take on a deep and rich regionalism of their own. Why do people seek to be “away?” A quote from the 2002 movie, Insomnia, bounced through my head to help me answer:
“Two kinds of people live in Alaska. Those who were born here. And those who are running away from something. I was not born here” says the hotel manager to the visiting FBI man, hot on a case.
Perhaps we do flee from our routines to the corners of America for solace–whether vacationer, retiree or a fugitive. When not traveling for work, I try to get as far away from my workplace as possible. Key West is at least as south as I can get without leaving the US.
True locals to these remotest places know a foreigner when they see one. In truth, everyone in Key West is from someplace else. The first waves of immigrants were loyalists to the crown during the American Revolution, then waves of Spanish seeking refuge from the mainland annexation of Florida by the US, then Cubans, then itinerant writers like Tennessee Williams, Hemingway, and even the eventual poet laureate of Key West, Shel Silverstein. Generations of irascible, life-loving hedonism has given the island a fierce independent streak.
In Key West, the native born are happy to call themselves Conchs (KONKS) after their preferred name–the Conch Republic. If some locals had it their way, they would separate from the Union. In fact, the locals celebrate April 23 as their Independence Day, after a 1982 highway construction dispute with the U.S. Department of Transportation caused the island to be cut off from the mainland by road for a bit. This was followed by a misunderstanding with the U.S. Department of Defense, who planned to conduct a simulated island invasion without telling the locals beforehand. Island lawyers cite the both the highway separation and invasion by the federal government as “de facto” independence, but I digress.
The Conchs have their own symbols. Their flag honors the pink shell on a field of navy. They issue their own passports. The airport has a “Welcome to the Conch Republic” sign on the tarmac. And their national bird? An easy choice–the feral cocks of the Florida Keys, and I am not referring to the drunken men, scrappy vagabonds, Parrotheads and Hemingway look-a-likes that populate the island.
You cannot go anywhere without seeing roosters and hens in Key West. Feral roosters revert to their un-domesticated, natural state quickly, roosting in the banyan trees, crowing at dawn (a perfect alarm clock on vacation if there is such a thing), and fighting for their territory around downtown.
The Gypsy Chickens, as they are known, are as much a Key West icon as the Hemingway House, Sloppy Joe’s Bar, and the Southernmost Point in the Continental US. Like most origin stories, the tale of the exact arrival of the gypsies is foggy. Most stories point to the emigrant Cubans to Cayo Hueso (the Spanish name for Key West). In the 1840’s, refugees from the hostilities in Havana brought to Key West their cuisine, cigars and cock fighting. Cock fighting was a legitimate past time of the Key until the 1970’s, when the practice was banned. As a result, many disgruntled gamblers released them into the wild.
Technically, the chicken is an invasive species in the Key, and locals are split on whether they are nostalgic or a nuisance. The debate has achieved conflagration into a flame-broasted full scale argument that the Conchs call the “Chicken War.” For those whom the bird is more popular than Jimmy Buffett (perhaps why he never penned “Chicken Sammich in Paradise.”), the cocks are living history, and augment the eccentricities of the island. Those opposed cite the constant damage to property, bird poo on their cars and havoc to the ecosystem. The nays had an advantage in the 2009 flu pandemic, saying that the islanders might be at risk from a bird flu. Opponents also prefer the chickens as an entree over entertainment.
The island tries to control for population, sending off captured and noisome cocks to the mainland for “retirement.” When the locals became worried that “retirement” meant boarding in a bucket KFC value meal, the Key West Wildlife Center was established. The Center sends off the surplus birds to mainland refugee ranges. The keepers on the mainland will allow tourists who desire to take home a bit of the islands to adopt a chicken for a modest fee. (Interested? You can email SallyDIABLO@aol.com for your very own gypsy chicken.)
Most tourists in Key West seek out the Jimmy Buffett experience–sun-bleached clothes, open container laws, island shabbiness, and the free spirit that the island has always offered the libertine vagabond. Older tourists in elastic waistbands eschew the margarita for Key Lime Pie. I find the definition of Key West not in the Hemingway Cats or Conch fritters but in those feral chickens. They sum up the history of the island–Cuban refugees, low-brow entertainment, invasive species, independent spirit, and national emblem of the Conch Republic.
For more reading, check out these blogs, who do greater justice to their beloved gypsies than I do (and provided some sources for this post).
Photo Credit: The author, January, 2011.