Sunday, March 21, 2004

KEY WEST, Fla. - Like Superman emerging from a phone booth, Armando Parra steps out from the bathroom of his old-time barbershop transformed into the Chicken Catcher, dedicated to ridding this island town of nuisance fowl.

To some, Mr. Parra is a hero clearing out the birds that tear up lawns, sneak inside houses and leave a carpet of droppings in their wake. To others, he’s a villain, snatching beloved roosters and speckled hens from neighborhood streets where they delight tourists and residents.

Wearing shorts and a shirt emblazoned with “Key West Chicken Catcher,” the 63-year-old Mr. Parra climbs into his van and starts the patrol.

Mr. Parra has snared more than 90 chickens in the few weeks since he became the first official chicken catcher in Key West, where chickens dart through traffic on busy streets, meander in mangroves and even greet customers at the KFC drive-through.

The city agreed in January to pay Mr. Parra $20 for each nuisance chicken he catches until Sept. 30. His limit is 900, or $18,000. Every few weeks, the birds are collected and brought to a 400-acre farm in Miami-Dade County, where they live out their days.

More than 2,000 chickens are estimated to roam the streets of Key West, and city officials decided that for the birds to remain a charming addition to town life and not a nuisance, their numbers would have to be halved.

Debate over the downsizing led chicken lovers to hatch plans for the first annual ChickenFest this summer. Events include a “Poultry in Motion” parade and “Tastes Like Chicken Cook-Off Party.”

Katha Sheehan, also known as “the chicken lady” in Key West, offers a chicken-trapping service for a $20 fee, but she says she doesn’t approve of the city’s trapping policy. She wants city leaders to “stop considering [the chickens] as a disposable waste and start looking at them as a permanent asset.”

Miss Sheehan, who operates a local chicken rescue, has collected more than 4,000 signatures for a petition urging the city to allow chickens to remain on the streets of Key West. She has been assured that chickens will not be eliminated altogether.

“They’re going to have egg on their face if they don’t have any chickens on the streets when the chicken festival comes around,” Miss Sheehan said.

Mr. Parra, a semiretired barber who keeps his own pet chickens, says he has no intention of trapping all the city’s stray fowl.

As official chicken catcher, Mr. Parra receives a “master list” of chicken complaints from the city, with names and addresses of residents who have unwanted birds on their property.

He lays out metal-box traps with a door that falls shut when the chicken, lured by scratch feed, steps on a trigger inside. Mr. Parra returns the next day to collect his catch.

At Sally Lewis’ house, Mr. Parra nabbed two of the dozen or so chickens roaming her yard and reset the trap to catch more the next day.

Miss Lewis, a retired city commissioner, calls the chickens “brazen” and says they have climbed through her pet door into her home, roosted in her Christmas tree and perched on her bed. They have harassed her dog, destroyed her lawn and covered her car with droppings.

“They divebomb you,” she said. “They’re not just pedestrian chickens.”

Mr. Parra, a third-generation native of Key West, says the city’s wild chicken population took off after cockfighting was outlawed and with the arrival of major supermarkets, which meant that residents didn’t need chickens of their own for food and eggs.

He calls himself “the first and only official chicken catcher in the history of the United States.” He has a Web site ( that sells $15 T-shirts (Front: “Why did the Chicken Cross the Road?” Back: “To Escape the Key West Chicken Catcher”).

“I’m hoping that I can sell enough T-shirts,” he said, “that I don’t have to cut hair.”

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