Thursday, February 11, 2010

The Case of the Headless Chicken--Cruelty Most Fowl

Dr. M.P. Key of the District’s Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals was outraged as he walked into the office of DC District Attorney Moore’s office at Police Court on Christmas morning of 1883. Over one arm hung a basket, from whose depths could be heard a curious fluttering.

The creature inside, he announced, had been on public display for several days at 941 Pennsylvania Avenue. The owners of the creature, Mssrs. Randolph Warrick and Henry Irving, had been placed under arrest for animal cruelty.

In what certainly had to be a memorable moment in DC legal history, Dr. Key opened the basket. Out jumped a headless rooster.

To the amazement of those who gathered to see the spectacle, the chicken had a well-developed body, neck and legs.  However, most of its head appeared to be missing. Those who had the stomach to lean forward and examine the flustered bird more closely noticed that though its eyes and beak were absent, it did retain its ears and what appeared to be the base of the head.

Mssrs. Warrick and Irving appeared before Judge Snell some time later that day, represented by lawyer Campbell Carrington. Warrick explained that he had bought the curious bird from a Richmond man for $25. The former owner explained that the bird had been missing its head for over a year. It happened this way: the former owner from Richmond had chopped off the heads of a number of fowl one day. However, the bird in question refused to die. So the Richmond man had kept it alive by forcing feed down what he believed was its windpipe.

Warrick and Irving argued that they had received a permit to show the bird from Chief of Police Dye.

After lengthy arguments over the nature of animal cruelty, Judge Snell dismissed Irving but fined Warrick a hefty $50—twice what the latter had paid for the bird.

It was Snell’s opinion that exhibiting the bird amounted to animal cruelty—and any creature missing a brain had to be suffering.

He also publicly questioned why in the world Police Chief Dye would have given a permit to exhibit the poor bird.

Dr. Key placed the bird back inside the basket and left the courtroom. Meanwhile, Mr. Warrick told the press he was astonished by the verdict—why, Mr. Barnum of circus fame would likely be willing to pay $1,000 for such an oddity as the headless chicken.

That should have been the end of the matter…it was not. The following day—Boxing Day, when other Washingtonians were home still digesting their Christmas dinners of headless geese and suckling pigs, Warrick and his attorney Carrington were back in Police Court, appealing Judge Snell’s decision. Today, the defense was ready to scientifically prove that the headless rooster was not suffering. Carrington had arranged for an autopsy of the hapless fowl by the esteemed Deputy Coroner, Dr. Hartigan.

It was Hartigan’s observation that though the head had been removed and a greater portion of the bird’s brain was missing, a small portion remained in the base of the missing skull. Furthermore, he opined, since that portion of the brain which feels pain was located in that part of the brain that had been missing, the bird had not, in fact, suffered at all. If the bird were in pain, he pronounced, it would not have thrived as it had.

Furthermore, Dr. Hartigan stated, he had conferred with a number of other physicians, all of whom concurred with his diagnosis.

Judge Snell, however, stuck to his guns—as well as his previous judgment. “I think this is a demoralizing exhibition,” he said. “If this is allowed, we will have all the boys in the city trying to cut the heads off chickens.”

The case was dismissed. Justice was served.

And someone enjoyed a fowl supper that night.

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