Chickens are ever-present here in Timor-Leste. Even in the poshest parts of the capital, you’re never far from the arbitrary crowing of roosters. (It’s a myth that they only crow at dawn; I’ve awakened many a dark night wishing I’d packed more ear plugs.) In the districts, chickens serve a similar purpose to sea birds flying around pacific isles: you know you’re nearing a village when you see a hen and her chicks crossing the road.
In general, Timorese don’t eat much meat. Subsistence farmers with little land simply can’t produce enough meat to partake very often. When meat is produced, it can be converted to money, so often people raising cattle, pigs, or goats don’t eat them at all, but rather cash them out. This is one reason parties are such a big deal here: whether it’s a wedding, funeral, or funeral anniversary, there is sure to be meat at the party and it may be the only meat you’ll see all month.
Chickens, while also valuable ($6 to $20 depending on size) are more regularly eaten than larger animals. When a guest comes, it is still common to ‘kill the old red rooster,’ just like the folk song of my youth. A single chicken goes a long way when put into a soup pot.
In addition, cock fighting is a popular sport here, and many people raise and train roosters to have a go in the cockpit. Chickens are also used to divine illnesses. A chicken is rubbed over the sick person’s body as a medicine person uses magic to suck the sickness, or at least a portion of it, out of the person and into the chicken. Then the chicken is sacrificed and given an autopsy, and the sickness can be identified.
It was natural then that the biology section of our training group SESIM chose to dissect chickens as a mandatory 8th grade pratika. We have teachers focus on identifying the parts of the digestive system and also check out other key organs, as well as the musculoskeletal system. Finally, we take advantage of the recently deceased animals to rerun Galvani’s experiment, in which a small voltage is used to control muscles, still full of energy and oxygen, even though the brain is dead.
I have seen this pratika carried out numerous times in the last few years, and each time I learn something new. One of the first times, our biology trainer was sick and I was left in charge. I studied up all about fowl anatomy, but I was a bit nervous, thinking I’d have to lead the killing, plucking and laying out. On the contrary, I merely pointed to the chickens we’d rounded up and the teachers took it from there. One by one the chickens were put to death in a gentle manner, so as not to disturb the body’s structure. Some were killed with one of their own wing feathers, stabbed into the medulla. Others were strangled or drown. One teacher last year covered the chicken’s mouth and nose with her own mouth, effectively giving it a kiss of death. At another training, some chemistry teachers put a chicken in a lidded bucket with some vinegar and baking soda and watched its movement slow and stop as carbon dioxide filled the container.
As I have watched the life fade from these animals, domesticated creatures raised for the purpose of providing much needed nutrition, I have had many chances to think about the meaning and extraordinary nature of life, and also to observe the Timorese regard for it. I have yet to draw any profound conclusions, except to note that when people here eat meat, without exception they know exactly where it came from and every step of the process from fertilization to disposal of the entrails. In marked contrast, my students in California get their meat wrapped in shiny clean plastic from a glowing supermarket display, just like they get their plastic toys, and could be forgiven for thinking that the process leading up to that perfect, uniform slab of flesh is as pleasant and tidy as the act of purchasing it.
I’m stunned again and again at how fast the dead chickens are plucked. When I was around six years old, my family stopped raising chickens, due in large part to my parents’ aversion to the plucking and butchering process. But here, every single teacher knows how to pluck a chicken with casual efficiency, and I’ve never seen a hint of queasiness among them. The body of the chicken, inside and out, in all its bloody, visceral, earth-fragrant gore, is accepted as natural, part and parcel with the rest of the artifacts of daily life.
Though this process is common to the point of nonchalance for these teachers, rare is the one who has closely observed and identified the parts of the chicken’s gut. They know the organs you can eat – heart, liver, and gizzard – but most everything else was before today not something to be concerned with. That, in spite of the curriculum requiring them to teach each of these organs and their functions. It’s one more example of an stultifying wall, high as the sky, between the content of the textbooks and people’s vast personal experience. With SESIM’s curriculum revision, the wall has fallen, and the textbooks with their diagrams are open on the table as the chicken comes apart.
The dissection is increasingly fascinating to me. I never get tired of it. Knowing the tiny sliver of biology and biochemistry that I do, and then having the privilege of viewing this recently functioning organism, not mammalian but darn close, is like a religious experience for me.
If you dissect a chicken, you can follow the food track from beak to anus and, by means of grubbing out and observing the contents of that channel, confirm the process of digestion, first chemical then mechanical then more chemical. You can squeeze the crop and gizzard with their mealy innards. You can pinch the pancreas hugging the first part of the intestines, where it works in lockstep with the enormously complex molecular processes occurring in the cells there. You can examine with a magnifier the tiny blood vessels that connect to the millions of villi in the small intestine and suck out nutrients and energy from the food within, then deliver it on to the liver and into the blood stream. You can stroke the mysterious two-lobed, appendix-like ceca, so ponderous and yet of unclear function. Finally, you can gaze over the queer little cloaca, the chicken’s rear end, where, just like in us mammals, in bewilderingly close quarters, solid and liquid waste are expelled and reproduction is initiated.
The rest of the guts and body are fascinating as well. A chicken’s joints alone are worth a month’s investigation. Through the joints, students (teachers) can delve deep into the physics of force and motion, the chemistry of muscle contraction, and the night-and-day difference between cell structures of muscle and bone.
I’ve come to see the chicken dissection as an experience that everyone should have. Here in Timor-Leste there is nothing standing in the way. We procure 6 or 8 chickens, dissect them, wash up, and then teachers take the meat home to eat. Back in my home country, there would probably be more complex procedures required, but it would be highly justified. The learning that takes place in the chicken dissection is of the sort that is immediately incorporated into the base level of understanding, cementing various easily forgotten technical terms floating in students’ brains, and linking observations to the functioning of their very own bodies.
It has been said that the best source for experimentation is one’s own self. In the case of a full body dissection, where that is clearly inadvisable, the chicken can be an excellent stand-in.