“Isn’t it hard to butcher an animal you raised yourself, especially if it had a name?“
“It was at first” is about the simplest response to that common question. The act of destroying life comes with its own unique and complex emotional journey. For those of us who empathize with the life and suffering of other beings, killing is not a straight-forward affair. I really do think it’s an important conversation to have for those who have an interest in farming or hunting to feed themselves. My own journey with these grounding experiences started not with farming, but with hunting wild game. As I do not support the USA’s factory-farming meat industry, I am left to source meat in other ways.
In my late teens and early twenties my hunting rules were “hit it right the first time” and “if you shoot it, you eat it“. It took a few years of eating squirrels before I really had any deep revelation about hunting. It took knowing people so derangedly bloodthirsty, so excited to kill anything (and waste all of it), that I felt repulsed by my own personal enjoyment of hunting.
During this time I also discovered (and reported) disturbing incidents of poaching; hundreds of animals shot and left to waste across dozens of incidents.
Seeing such extremes helped me to form clearly defined ethics around my own hunting. When you see the ugly side of something, you’re forced to introspect and ask yourself where you stand with it.
“Why am I even hunting?” I had to recognize what defined the need for it, and to recognize what kind of respectful conduct must accompany that.
I effectively gave up hunting for many years and started raising small livestock, though hadn’t butchered any of them myself yet. I had run into a moral conflict. Which was more acceptable; going out into the wilderness to procure meat, where animals run wild and free but they know that you’re there to hunt them? Or raising an animal from birth, feeding it, naming it, allowing it to know and trust you, then one day taking its life?
My first attempt at butchering a chicken almost convinced me that hunting wild game was indeed more ethical. I had no idea how to properly dispatch a chicken, and someone had told me with great conviction that the ‘best’ way to quickly and painlessly dispatch a chicken was to “crush its trachea”. Let me be clear, that is a really bad idea and it doesn’t work.
Killing Fernando, as this rooster was dubbed, scarred me. It had to be done though. When a car arrived in the driveway, he would jump into the driver’s door when it opened and furiously attack the human inside. It was totally unacceptable. But I had no idea what I was doing when I tried to dispatch him. To make matters worse, after I finally got the job done and got the bird plucked and in the freezer, I labeled the bag of chicken meat “FERNANDO“. Again, very bad idea. The meat sat in the freezer for 3 months before I decided to feed it to the cats. I couldn’t even bare to look at it, let alone think about eating it.
Soon I found myself with far too many roosters running amuck. I sold and rehomed a few, but challenged myself to try butchering again. I wanted to raise all my own food, and I had to learn how to do this. I tried the classic method of head-chopping with a hatchet. I gave up on that after 3 birds. I didn’t have the “umph” needed to whack them properly. It was far too violent for me. Contending with a half-headless bird that refuses to die is a traumatizing experience, and it made every swing of my hatchet weaker and weaker.
As I continued to breed chickens, turkeys, and ducks, I was confronted with the reality of the necessity of butchering on a farm; too many boys. One day I found a young cockerel sulking listlessly on the ground. I scooped him up and inspected him. The older roosters (of which there were far too many) had attacked him and ripped the undersides of his wings open. He had maggots crawling around under his skin. It was utterly horrifying and I killed him right there out of pity. That was my introduction to mandatory rooster butchering on a working, reproducing farm.
When a small flock has the ability to produce over 100 roosters in a single year, there is no ‘animal rescue’ or ‘sanctuary’ that can possibly hope to house them all. If they tried, the roosters would just kill each other off. Some folks give them away (to people who want free meat), others drop them off at night at farms, hoping the roosters will have a place in the flock that lives there (and I think they assume I won’t just eat the newcomers, but I will, because they present a biosecurity threat), and others drop off car loads of excess boys in the wilderness… I assume to feed hungry predators, or occasionally to give me a fun afternoon of netting ‘wild roosters’ that I myself can bring home and eat.Why not raise your rooster and eat him, too?
I would say that the first 100 chickens I butchered were all very difficult. The first 100 rabbits were equally hard. I had to be in a very calm place and be willing to dissociate from the experience in order to partake in it. It was emotionally taxing. Some days I didn’t think I would be able to butcher another one for a good long time. But over time, each animal got just a little bit easier, a little bit less exhausting. I had settled on cervical dislocation as a rapid, bloodless method for ‘whacking’ critters, as I call it (because saying ‘kill’ every time leaves a bad taste in my mouth). It works on everything smaller than a large turkey (at which point the larger critters need a .22) and is the least violent, most reliably successful method I’ve tried.
But now and again my internal conflict still flared up; would it just be better to go shoot the wild versions than to go through all this?
Fast forward many years, and over 1,000 home butcher jobs. I now know where I stand with the debate. I protect my animals and give them good lives, feed them good food, and when the time comes, they repay that by taking care of my needs; furs/leathers, meat, oil, and income. If I were to release them all into the wild, every last critter would be dead within a month- if not a week. My care and protection is what keeps them alive. So that’s our exchange. On the other side of the coin, I still find it difficult to hunt wildlife. Even shooting predators out of necessity leaves me a blubbering ball of tears for the day. When you pull that trigger, you take the only things a wild animal has; command over its own body, and its life. I only shoot wildlife if I need the food or I need to protect the animals in my care. This is the balance and nature of stewarding animals, especially in such a wild region.