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An annual Colorado festival celebrates Mike, a headless chicken

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

A chicken named Mike ran around for 18 months with its head cut off. Farmer Lloyd Olsen severed Mike's head one day in 1945. It's what poultry farmers do. But Mike escaped being an entree by surviving. His head was gone, but vital organs, including brain function, remained. And Lloyd Olsen took their show on the road. Over 600 people lined up a day to get a glimpse of headless Mike. Today, Mike's hometown of Fruita, Colo., holds an annual festival in his honor. And festival director McKenzie Kimball joins us. Ms. Kimball, thanks very much for being with us.

MCKENZIE KIMBALL: Yeah, of course.

SIMON: All right. Let's begin with Mike. When I asked the question, why did he captivate so many people, I think I know. Who wouldn't want to see a headless chicken?

KIMBALL: It's pretty exciting, actually, because the story, like you said, happened back in 1945. And for a long time, it wasn't really, like, common knowledge in the city of Fruita. It wasn't a popular story in the '70s, '80s. And in the late '90s, a local Rotarian brought it up at one of their meetings in relation to history of the town. And it happened to be that one of the recreation directors was a part of the Rotary Club as well and thought that it might be an interesting thing to bring the community together and celebrate this chicken's will to live and celebrate a little bit of quirky Fruita history. And so they decided to make a festival, and it kind of reincarnated the story of Mike.

SIMON: How did he manage to survive and live for 18 months?

KIMBALL: So they actually took him to the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. And there were actually some scientists that took a look at him and basically discovered that the base of the brainstem was still intact, which is kind of - for people and animals - basic functions. He actually was pretty normally functioning. Lloyd talks about in interviews that he would still try to kind of, like, preen and peck. And he really behaved like a pretty normal chicken because of all that was left behind, even without the head.

SIMON: Oh, my word. What do you folks do with the Headless Mike festival?

KIMBALL: We've had a lot of different iterations, but the current festival - its kind of main feature is a Peep- and wing-eating contest. So we have the little marshmallow Peeps as well as chicken wings. This year - we're really excited - we're adding a history tent that talks about Mike himself, the festival, a myth-busting board and a bunch of information about what the festival came to be.

SIMON: You know, I find myself getting misty-eyed thinking about Mike. And maybe this is the whole inspiration of the festival. I mean, what a will to live.

KIMBALL: The person who started the festival - I actually know her quite well and was talking to her about, you know, what was it about this story that made you all want to start a festival, you know? And she said, first of all, it was so exciting to celebrate somebody - something's will to live. And secondly, they just wanted the community to have something fun and silly that would bring everyone together. You know, it's not political. It's not any particular emphasis on one thing. It's just part of our history. And it's something that would make our community proud and just give them a space to enjoy each other's company.

SIMON: McKenzie Kimball, director of Fruita, Colo.'s, Mike the Headless Chicken Festival. Thanks so much for being with us.

KIMBALL: Well, thank you. I really appreciate the time.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BABY FACE")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Imitating chicken clucking to tune of song). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
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