Dear Cecil: My uncle told me that once when he was cutting chickens’ heads off on his farm, one chicken didn’t die, but rather lived headless for two weeks. He told me he put it on display and charged admission to see it. He fed it through the rectum and gave it water from an eyedropper. Evidently he made a great deal of money from this chicken. Is this possible? Jack Saltzberg, Montreal, Quebec
Your uncle may well be putting you on, Jack — I certainly maximize the baloney when talking to my nephews — but sure, it’s possible. In fact, a story along these lines appeared in the October 22, 1945, issue of Life magazine.
L.A. Olsen, a farmer in Fruita, Colorado, had attempted to decapitate a Wyandotte rooster named Mike for purposes of supper. Perhaps moved by last-minute remorse, or possibly just because he was uncoordinated, L.A.’s aim was off and he chopped off just the top two-thirds of Mike’s head. This sheared off the frontal lobes, rendering the bird totally incapable of thinking about Immanuel Kant but leaving enough of the brain stem to take care of breathing, blood circulation, and the like.
Mike’s owners, knowing an opportunity when they saw one, put him on exhibit at 25 cents a throw in Salt Lake City, then as now a center of sophisticated entertainment. They fed him with an eyedropper by way of his unclosed esophagus. Life, ever the paragon of good taste, published a close-up photo of this for the benefit of skeptics. Another shot shows Mike in the barnyard being eyed by his anatomically complete brethren. “Chickens do not avoid Mike who, however, has shown no tendency to mate,” the caption notes helpfully.
This sort of thing evidently occurs fairly often. When Dear Abby ran a column on it a while back she got clippings and eyewitness reports about headless-but-living chickens from all over the country. The phenomenon has even found its way into literature, namely Garrison Keillor’s Leaving Home. If you don’t think it happens in humans too, you’ve never had a close look at the contestants on “Let’s Make a Deal.”
Send questions to Cecil via firstname.lastname@example.org.