On Butchering Chickens

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.

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11 Comments

  1. TeacherPatti said,

    September 28, 2008 at 7:32 pm

    What a great experience! I’ve never considered being a vegetarian for even a minute, as I feel much the same way you do.

    One of my fellow teachers gave me a “what for” on the issue once. She grew up in the “hood” (she’s fine now–both she and her husband are teachers and live in Grosse Pointe) and pointed out that, unless it is for religious reasons, choosing not to eat meat is the luxury of the privileged. If she hadn’t eaten meat growing up, she would have starved.

    She and I actually had been discussing my constant attempts to follow Jewish dietary law. I don’t eat pork, but I will admit that if I was starving, I’d be lining up at the pig. To paraphrase an old saying…I’d do what I had to do this Shabbat so as to survive to the next Shabbat.

  2. Ashley said,

    September 29, 2008 at 2:20 am

    I absolutely agree that killing animals is the noble thing to do. Here is a video on the slaughter process if you are interested: http://meat.org

  3. Leasmom said,

    September 29, 2008 at 10:02 am

    Wow, you had a much better experience than I did. Mine was horrific because I didn’t have the proper equipment and I was devastated that I had taken a life, coming from a Buddhist background, it was even harder. But, I had to forgive myself and I now know that I can do it if I have too. And having 11-13 chickens, at some point I may have too.

  4. mtgardeninggirl said,

    September 29, 2008 at 3:54 pm

    I’ve often wondered what my reaction to butchering chickens/ducks/the animals I eat would be. My husband killed chickens in his youth, and while he’ll do it, he disliked it. The descriptions that I’ve read else where have been somewhat off putting, because either it describes a really horrific process, or in the case of an article about it on Slate, there was an intense pleasure in the process that I didn’t understand at all. Your description gives me hope that I’d be able to accomplish that type of task without veering into the extremes on either end.

  5. farm mom said,

    September 30, 2008 at 7:21 am

    That’s often how I feel, very thankful. We had to process a few of our turkeys this weekend and as I sat plucking the feathers and remembering the lives these birds had on our little homestead I was nothing but grateful. Grateful to the birds for sharing their lives and their deaths with us. Grateful for the opportunity to live my life the way that I do and have the opportunity to be responsible for and grateful to the lives that sustain us.

  6. Amanda said,

    September 30, 2008 at 11:00 am

    Wow, this is a tough one. I know for sure that I wouldn’t have been able to do it. We do eat meat once or twice a week, and I buy organic/free-range meat and eggs when I do use them. But every time I find myself over the kitchen sink scooping out the innards of a chicken, I find myself sobbing in guilt and feel like a hypocrite. I know I could never ever kill an animal and struggle with this on a weekly basis. If I were single I would go completely veg, but I don’t feel like I have the right to make that decision for my husband and toddler son. *sigh*

  7. brandon said,

    September 30, 2008 at 3:28 pm

    I would love to be invited to a similar “chicken day”, to experience that would be something.

  8. shayne said,

    October 1, 2008 at 5:57 pm

    I grew up on a farm so chicken killin was every few weeks and we plucked those bad boys by hand. Yep we hunted too so dressing all kinds of critters was part of the country livin. Boy I miss venison and rabbit.

  9. shayne said,

    October 1, 2008 at 5:58 pm

    PS I have been cityfied so I am not sure if I can reamember how to dress any of it.

  10. Julie said,

    June 10, 2009 at 8:04 pm

    Do you have A tape on the pro on killing A chicken and butchering ?


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