21,000 Code Citations Can't Be Wrong

Three years into the Magic City's battle against illegal minutiae, residents want to know: quality of life? Whose?

The idea coincided with changes spurred by new development. "These areas have been solidly populated by immigrants for 30 or 40 years," Borges explains. "Now people from the suburbs are buying in the area. They're moving to East Little Havana and The Roads. They're not used to roosters waking them up at three or four in the morning. They complain.

"In Cuba," he elaborates, "which is where I come from, the Latin people have pigs and chickens as pets. They give children dyed chicks when they're little, and when the chickens grow up, they can wander around the yard."

But this is a new Miami, and reformation is on the march. The three received permission to catch the stray birds, and Chicken Busters was formed, an official Quality of Life intitiative.

Jonathan Postal
Jonathan Postal

The trio was surprised by the sheer magnitude of the problem when netting birds in earnest began in April 2003. Zebra-striped hens, majestic green-necked cocks, and day-old chicks pecked and strutted around Miami by the thousands. "We experimented a little in the beginning," Borges recalls. "There's an old wives' tale that the chickens are easier to catch if you feed them raisins soaked in rum, but the liquor didn't take. Then we tried using fish nets, the sort you cast out." But the best tool has proven to be the simplest: a large net on a long handle.

Soon the Chicken Busters' popularity grew. "After all of the media attention, it got bigger than the hierarchy," Iglesias says proudly. "[The city] gets too many complaints not to support it now."

On October 14 the busters met at 7:30 a.m. at the East Little Havana NET office. They loaded the cages and nets into Borges's white pickup truck. At the Miami River Fish Market they bartered some coffee for a bucket of ice to keep the Gatorade cold and then headed for the Little Haiti house of a she-male vodou priest, a notorious chicken gathering-place. Soon Borges netted a handsome red rooster.

In overgrown yards next to weed-covered Cadillacs in Allapattah, in alcoves of duplexes near the Orange Bowl, the busters jumped walls and squeezed through fences into chicken-strewn lots, netting birds by the handful. "Catch 'em by the wings, transport them by their legs," says Borges, removing a brown hen from the net. "It's almost a science."

Some residents anxiously watched the busters. "You're not going to kill them, are you?" asked a housedress-clad woman in Spanish. But owners rarely lay claim to their fowl. Keeping a rooster is illegal in Miami, and hens must be in cages. Few want to risk a fine by confessing responsibility, and there are plenty of replacements. Borges estimates the busters' catch rate at 30 percent.

And the chickens can be a nuisance. "It's one of the crazy things in the city that people are actually in favor of," Iglesias says. "Chickens destroy the landscape. If you plant a garden, it's gone."

By the time the busters reached the nursing home, they had netted some 60 chickens. The men were sweaty, dirty, and exhausted. The cranky birds gnawed on the plastic cages and crowed loudly.

The busters' daily average is 98, although they once caught 217.

Back at the nursing home, the gazebo's soundtrack switches to Antonio Carlos Jobim's bossa nova standard "Desafinado." The CD begins to skip. The chickens suddenly pause in their pecking, apprehensive. The busters pounce. An explosion of birds shoots skyward in a cloud of feathers. Then ... the chickens have disappeared. The cluck of a hen is faintly audible from a parapet up above, but she is nowhere to be seen.

The city effort has produced disgruntled citizens, many of whom are convinced that Quality of Life is a racket, a way for the city to boost its coffers by leeching off of its poorest residents. Among the unhappy is Jeanette Marks, a tall, soft-spoken woman whose face is lined with worry. God is her copilot. It says so on the front bumper of her 1988 Buick LeSabre, a mostly maroon hulk with a tan hood. Marks has a small collection of city notices — a ticket after a stray dog she used to feed bit somebody, a warning about citrus canker in an orange tree out back, and multiple citations from the office of code enforcement.

Marks, age 59, used to be a telephone operator until a fall on a freshly waxed bathroom floor eight years ago left her on disability with a herniated disc. Three years ago she moved in with her 84-year-old mother, Kathryn Trumpler, who is nearly blind from glaucoma and at times suffers from dementia. They share the bedroom of the tiny house at NW 50th Street and 17th Avenue in Liberty City that Trumpler bought in 1965.

Jeanette Marks doesn't know much about Wilson and Kelling's view on broken windows, but she has her own theory about criminology. "Somebody's getting paid in this city to take people's property. It's a racket they got going — every Cuban place in Hialeah is full of these people's cars that they take for nothing." Marks used to have two vehicles, but since she couldn't afford the insurance and tags to run both, she parked the inoperable one, a 1988 Chrysler LeBaron, in the yard, ready for the morning that the machinery under the LeSabre's patchwork hood would fail her. "If one broke down," she explains, "I'd have something to fall back on."

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