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The Straight Dope 

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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 perhaps because he was just 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. You don't think it happens in humans too, you've never had a good look at a game show contestant.

I thought cholesterol came from animal fat. How can palm oil be as bad for us as I keep reading? --Marcia Wichorek, Coral Gables, Florida

This is what comes of a constant diet of USA Today, Marcia kid--the fine points of life tend to slide right by you. Cholesterol as such is found only in animal products. But saturated fats, which (some feel) can produce high blood cholesterol levels in humans, can be found in many things, notably "tropical" oils such as palm and coconut.

Nontropical oils, such as corn, soy, and safflower, are high in polyunsaturated fats, which reduce blood cholesterol. Why are tropical oils different? Because they come from more forgiving climates. Vegetable oils are a major component of plant cell membranes. But they've got to stay liquid to work, and saturated fats congeal when cold. To avoid this, plants in northern climates have to produce unsaturated fats, which don't congeal. Tropical plants, though, can get by with the saturated stuff.

One caution: discouraging the use of tropical oils is potentially controversial. The following amazing letter to the editor appeared recently in a health journal:

"Have you thought about what happens to the Third World countries who rely heavily on tropical oil exports as a means of livelihood? The Philippines, for example, is beginning to suffer because of the sudden reduction in the U.S. market for their oil products. And where will these tropical oils go now that the United States is not consuming them? To other lesser developed countries, where the lifespan is actually going down now. Is there a difference in the value of a middle class American life and the life of a poor Indonesian agricultural worker?"

In other words (as I understand it), Americans have an obligation to eat tropical oils to support third-world economies and keep the stuff out of the hands of poor people. Sort of like throwing ourselves on a slow-motion grenade. I've heard of liberal guilt, but this is ridiculous.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.

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