For a long time, I’ve thought that if I’m going to eat meat, I should be able to kill the animal I’m eating. It just seems like the honorable thing to do. However, I don’t know how to hunt, and I don’t know anyone who raises livestock. This spring, however, my dear friend Suzie told me of a conversation she’d had with someone she’d met at a conference. This woman, Lori, and her husband, Floyd, and some neighbors raise about 75 chickens each year, then get together one day in the fall to butcher them. Lori graciously invited not only Suzie, but me to come out and help this year.
Chicken Day was yesterday, and I’d like to tell you about it. Some of the description will be a little graphic, but there are no pictures. Still, I’ll put it after a cut so you can skip this post if you want to. But really – I’ll be talking more about my thoughts about meat eating, so don’t be put off! (If you want a really nice photo essay of the process of slaughtering chickens, please see Angie’s excellent posts on prep, slaughter, dressing, and packaging chickens, plus her husband’s post on building a mechanical chicken plucker. I used the same methods, only varying a little bit in details like the wooden trough instead of a cone.)
I arrived around 9:30, and they’d already gotten started. There were two tall tables set up in the barn where two folks were dressing birds. They handed me a pair of rubber gloves and a knife and I jumped right in. This was pretty easy for me. I’ve been cutting up whole chickens to cook for years, and it wasn’t much of a stretch to first cut off a head and feet and then take all the innards out. It looked kind of like a rubber chicken – so not quite the “oh, hey, this is a dead animal” punch it might have been.
I got pretty good at eviscerating birds. It took a few times before I got all the parts out on the first try – lungs and kidneys are especially hard to remove. I didn’t even know I’d missed the lungs on the first bird! I’d not realized how warm the birds would be. It makes sense; they’d been alive three minutes before. This was actually pleasant surprise. My least favorite part of cutting a chicken into serving pieces is that my hands just ache with cold. The tactile feedback wasn’t as bad as I’d feared, either, except perhaps with the lungs, which really have to be scraped out. (Even this morning, I was having some “fingertip memory” of that feeling. It wasn’t the most pleasant thing, but it wasn’t horrible.) If you’re used to handling whole chickens, you’ll probably do fine with gutting one.
After cleaning a few chickens, it was time to try killing and plucking. I ended up killing two chickens. It was not physically or emotionally difficult. It’s possible I was distancing myself mentally from what I was doing, not wanting to freak out in front of strangers over snuffing Chicken Little – but I really think I am just at peace with the idea that I killed these birds and I will eat them later.
In college, I flirted with vegetarianism. I hated everything I learned about factory farms and it seemed like not eating meat was the only answer. Then I started gardening, and I realized that many of the non-animal things we eat also die so we can eat them. It seemed like there were two choices – eat only things that don’t die as a result of my eating them (so, fruit, leaves, and perhaps grains, which die on their own in one season) or accept that eating often causes the death of the eaten.
So yes – I want to do as little harm as possible in my life, but I have a right to eat, too. Eating meat that came from real farms, where the animals got to eat and act like the animals they are, seemed like a viable third option.
These chickens led good lives and died quick, respectful deaths. As I felt their necks, looking for the place to make the cut that would kill them as quickly as possible, I found myself thinking, “Thank you.” Not, “I’m sorry.” Just “thank you.” Then I cut their throats, and they bled, and they died.
I didn’t feel horrible afterward, which tells me my heart and my head agree that eating meat raised like this is ethically acceptable to me. Two of the fifty birds I helped dress yesterday are now in my freezer. The two of us will probably make upwards of fifteen meals from them. They were huge birds, and by the time I make stock from the bones, we might be closer to twenty meals.
Thanks, Suzie and Lori, for giving me this opportunity.