Saturday, August 20, 2011


This post involves the slaughter of meat birds on a small farm. If you are sensitive to imagery involving animals, you may want to skip this one.

Before today, the only creature I have knowingly and directly killed was a severely injured flicker that was being euthanized at the bird rehab where I volunteered. With the exception of mosquitoes, ticks, and fruit flies, I do not kill anything with reckless abandon. I relocate spiders. I bring injured mice outside for the owls to eat. My laying hens will live out their lives long after they stop (sporadically) laying eggs. I was a vegetarian for a very long time, and now I eat meat. I like to know where my meat comes from and how it was raised. I knew if I was going to eat animals, I would eventually need to be directly part of their deaths. Today, I was.

I knew this day was coming. I'm signed up for a nose-to-tail hog processing in the fall. I thought maybe I should be involved in the deaths of smaller animals before I went on to the larger mammals. I've had several opportunities to help with small farm meat bird processing. Once was the week before Camp Widow, and I just felt too raw and sensitive to do it then. I almost backed out today.

I got up at 5 am to have some time to calm myself down before heading out to the farm. I kept panicking. I wasn't sure I was strong enough, or calm enough, to do this today. It wasn't until a brief text volley with a friend that I realized I was expecting to be traumatized. I was expecting to have matt's death come flooding back to me. I was expecting him to die again, there on that farm with the chickens. I was terrified to be that close to death again, and what it might do to me. It may be weird to say, but realizing he would not die again instantly relaxed me. I went from fighting back panic to being almost excited.

I drove the hour to the farm and found my friends just waiting for me to arrive. K and I went directly out to gather the ducks. Who were huge. I had my first wave of panic. Ducks are big. I won't go into deep descriptions here, as it is disturbing to me to recall and would likely be disturbing to read. Well, okay, it will still be possibly disturbing. I can't tell this story for myself without some graphic parts.

So in the barest of details, the slaughter of birds is not the calm and quick affair I had read it would be. It is graphic and visceral and loud and upsetting. I played the scientist and asked why there was so much thrashing, and why could it not be done more quickly. My friend (an acquaintance, really) said "they don't feel anything after the first few seconds. That's all just muscle spasms." Seriously? Have you ever been a bird with its throat cut? How do you, how does anyone, know whether they feel anything or not? That sure did not seem like 'muscle spasms" to me. That looked like struggling. Later, as the production line got going, there would be a bird struggling at one end of the table while people eviscerated or plucked cooling birds in the middle. It seemed so incongruous, to have this struggle happening and no one - I don't know - witnessing it. There was a prayer said before the first bird, but it was not enough for me. I felt like first dismissing, and then ignoring, the struggling was just a way of trying to make it okay for the humans involved. Now, mind you - these people take very good care of their animals. They raise them with respect and care. They are not cavalier killers. I think it is just a human tendency to mitigate what we view as suffering by telling ourselves it is not so bad as it looks, or by ignoring it altogether. I am a terrible liar, especially to myself. I cannot say that someone elses' experience is not so bad just to make myself feel better. I cannot pretend I am not complicit in pain or difficulty just so I can eat with less guilt.

Matt and I talked about raising meat animals and how that would be for us. He was a fly-fisherman. He hated killing fish. He did it with a prayer and a thank you, as swiftly and cleanly as he could. He refused to make it pretty, but moreso, he refused to close his eyes and pretend suffering wasn't happening. He did what he could to lessen the suffering, but he would not pretend it wasn't there and that he was not the cause of it. Once the killing was over, there was no sentimentalizing - we said thanks, and we ate fish.

I needed him there with me today. I imagine he would have come up with something to make the process more gentle, or more swift. I wanted to hear him talking to the animals, calling them "my friend," coming to them with his strong, gentle hands. He could be calm in the face of death. In the face of anything. But even more, I needed him to talk about all this with me. To talk about being open to death, to understand and witness it without making it pretty, to be present to our actions and still want to eat meat at the end of it all. These kinds of discussions were normal for us.

I want this now. I need this now, as my life comes closer and closer to the death of animals I have raised. I want to be able to stand there and calmly round up the meat birds, not turn away when they are put into the cone. Not stand there with my mouth hanging open while the bird thrashes around and everyone else just goes about the other tasks at hand. Not pretend that death isn't happening, that I have taken a life that was not mine. I don't know what I would do differently. Just - to do this, to be so close to death itself, to be the one choosing it, ordering it, dealing it out - I so much need him here. It would not make it pretty. But his perspective and his unshakable calm would change things for me. To do this without him is so entirely sad.

I have been in a daze since coming home. It's only when I sat down to eat (raviolis, thank you very much. no meat for tonight) that I really started to cry. I cannot believe I have to live this life without him here. That there will be more deaths, more meat, more days when our doing it together would have made everything alright when it is not. I miss how he refused to make things pretty, how he came to things with such a gentleness, such clear peaceful goodness.

And what I miss, what I miss what I miss what I miss is my love here to talk with about this. To hear his voice. To see that little light in his eye and that gentle smile. To see how it is that he leads an animal to slaughter. To see what this experience is like when done with him. I always knew this day was coming, if I was going to continue eating meat. But I thought he would be beside me. I knew he would. And he is not.

My mother cannot understand how I can do this. How I can, even in theory, raise an animal knowing I will eventually eat it. My mother eats meat. Grocery store, factory farmed meat. My argument - however unsuccessful - is that I would rather eat a creature I love, that I know has been loved, than eat one no one has ever cared a thing about. I cannot be complicit in a life unattended and unloved no matter how cheap that might make dinner. And here is the point, for me, in all of this. I want my heart open enough to witness this. To hold on to this. I want to love and care for creatures knowing full well they are going to die. That I am responsible for their death, as well as their life, and that this is part of love. I do not want to look at anyone I love, meat or not meat, and ignore the fact that death is part of us. I can't make that pretty, and I can't pretend it doesn't hurt.



  1. You want to know something that will sound kind of odd. Okay, maybe very odd. Your description about loving and animal, knowing that it is going to die, is what my relationship to Michael was. We found out quite early in our relationship that he was going to die from his tumor. He gave me an out at the time. He didn't want me to have to go through all that was ahead of him, and said he would understand if I chose to end our relationship. Of course I already loved the hell out of him, and chose to keep on loving him. That was also a big part of our getting married. I said my vows, knowing that I was going to love him until death did us part. I knew that I would be the one that would be there when he died, and I knew that I would be the one who decided what his experience of death might be like.

    Pretty powerful stuff. I too chose to look death straight in the eye, and to keep loving Michael even though death was always right around the corner.

    Thanks for sharing this.

  2. Knowing where food comes from is important.
    That being said, I am only able to kill and eat fish. Greg would always slaughter the chooks and occasional beast. What made it OK with me, was knowing that the animals had a healthy, safe life with plenty of food and water.

  3. Although I am and have been a vegetarian for most of my life, some of the livestock on our farm was raised as meat for Don and members of my family. It was important to us that the animals were all raised with kindness and that when the time came, they were killed as humanely as possible. We did have methods which I believe were pretty humane and certainky far better than what is probably experienced by the average animal destined for the mass grocery market or chain restaurant. I believe that those who consume meat should show some appreciation for the animals that were raised for their consumption. Unfortunately, our modern age has so far separated food from its origin that... well.... you know what I mean.

    Dan has raised an interesting point about caring for and loving someone that you know will die in the not too distant future. When I cared for both my Dad and Don through their illnesses, we knew from the outset that their cancers were terminal and that there was no effective treatment that would do anything beyond possibly buying a few extra weeks. It was sad and felt as thought it was killing me by inches over the months that I cared for them, but it was important to me that they knew they were loved - with unwavering, unconditional love to the very end of their lives. It was difficult for me, but who ever said that to love is easy.

  4. Dan - I do not think that is strange at all. In fact, it is exactly what I mean in all of this, woven in with my feelings on animals and meat: to be able to love fully and honestly, knowing that death will come, that it is coming. That is certainly how matt lived, how his heart and mind were arranged.

    Bev - not easy. Not one bit.

    A - if you know, and would like to share, Greg's method of chicken slaughter, I need more education. I have since learned from someone I respect very much that what happened yesterday can be done MUCH more humanely and swiftly. Perhaps a fb email, so as not to be too graphic out here. Bev - I would love to hear your method as well. I think with input from the people I respect around animals, I can find my way here.

  5. Meg, as you write, I found none of your story disturbing...the love and sorrow pouring through your words are powerful and compassionate. I am so sorry that you are facing this alone. I hate those moments in my life. Successes and failures all seem so shallow without sharing them with the one I love. C

  6. megan - this is among the most beautiful and powerful things I have ever read. Particularly the last paragraph, but as a whole also. I do also see parallels in choosing love and openness and presence knowing there is deep unavoidable pain on that road.

  7. Re-reading this yet again and finding even more strength and comfort in it, and in the comments, too.

    I don't know if I'll fall in love again. I don't even much care, yet.

    But I do know that having loved "til death do us part" and beyond is key information to who we all are now, and we're all trying to open our hearts to that, when human instinct is to clench shut against this kind of pain.