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Here a Chick, There a Chick

Sunday, January 15, 2006

In Key West, many people cross the road . . . to get to the Chicken Store on the other side.

Almost 70 wild chickens live at the Duval Street establishment, which is a foster home of sorts for birds that have been injured, orphaned or sickened and sought refuge from the city's mean streets. Most of the chickens roam the small barnlike building as if they own it, so you'd be wise to heed the sign on the Chicken Lounge door that reads: "Please don't step on the chickens." You'd also be smart not to taunt Miss Curly Toes, because her peck is sharper than her claws.

The town of Key West is like a free-range chicken coop; the fowl strut along the roads, roost in the trees and residents' yards, even scratch for scraps under restaurant tables. They've been around for at least 200 years. They accompanied settlers as food sources and were helpful in fertilizing the soil (with their guano) and exterminating scorpions and roaches. In later years, they jumped into the cockfighting ring.

Nowadays, they're unemployed and stirring up controversy.

As with any wildlife issue -- even one that could be easily resolved with a giant cook-off -- the locals are split on how best to manage the wild chickens. Some say shoot them, others say catch 'em. The Chicken Lady says adopt them.

Katha Sheehan opened the Chicken Store nearly six years ago, and besides creating a safe haven for the feathered outcasts, she has covered the shop walls with a Chicken Hall of Fame portrait gallery, articles on the Chicken Wars and colorful folk art, including coconuts painted with chicken motifs, metal shingles decorated with -- yeah, you get the point.

The front building also is crammed with souvenirs, such as "Save the Chickens" T-shirts. But if you truly want to support the Chicken Store's mission, go for the "mystery eggs." For $1.50 per fertilized egg, you could very well become the proud parent of a Key West chick -- unless you send it through the airport X-ray machine, and then, well, you've just bought yourself breakfast.

-- Andrea Sachs

The Chicken Store, 1229 Duval St., 305-294-0070,http://www.thechickenstore.com.

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