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Chickens run afoul of tolerant Key West

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KEY WEST, Fla. — This is a tolerant place, usually. Bikers in black leather and mirrored shades cruise Harley-Davidsons down streets filled with college boys on pastel scooters. Tanned women in bikini tops and silver toe rings share sidewalks with sun-blasted old men in ragged T-shirts who walk their battered bicycles like wounded horses.

It is a mantra here: Live and let live. There is room, even on an island just two miles long and four miles wide, for everyone and everything.

But the chickens have to go. Their love calls — and ill-timed wake-up calls — drift from banyan trees, back alleys and the parking lot of a Burger King. Cars crawl so roosters can strut across Petronia Street, and hens cluck over chicks in manure-smeared alleys behind galleries, candy shops and restaurants.

Once just a quaint part of island culture, the chickens — descendants of those brought by settlers in the 1800s — have multiplied and become a nuisance. Residents say they are fed up with crowing at 3 a.m., manure-fouled beaches and oddly aggressive behavior.

Key West has begun catching the chickens and moving them to the Florida mainland, in a kind of anti-chicken crusade designed to scale down what wildlife experts say is a chicken population of some 2,000. City officials have said they want to relocate about 1,000 of the chickens to farms on the mainland, where the chickens can live out their lives in a kind of chicken exile. They are not sent to slaughterhouses. Only their eggs are harvested.

But this has led to clear battle lines in the community, and even a chicken safe house. Katha Sheehan, a kind-faced woman who cuddles even the fiercest gamecocks, runs the Chicken Store. "Chickens Are Safe Here," a sign over the door promises. She sells chicken paintings and crafts to pay for her outreach program. She takes in roosters wounded by people who have tried to kill them, and others injured in cockfights, which are popular, though illegal, here.

Some residents say the squabble over the chickens is just one more sign of a relentless gentrification of this tourist city of some 28,000 permanent residents, where T-shirt shops and theme restaurants have replaced ramshackle dives, and single-story shotgun houses with a view of nothing at all sell for $360,000.

"I like the sound of roosters in the morning," said Richard Hatch, an owner of Blue Heaven, a Key West restaurant where chickens, sleeping in the branches of trees over the dinner crowd and pecking under the tables at breakfast, have long been a restaurant draw. "But we are victims of our own popularity." People who can afford houses worth millions do not want outlaw chickens in their trees.