Yesterday, I killed a chicken. This post will chronicle that event in detail, with photographic evidence. (That's yer warning, friend.)
He wasn't my chicken. We went up to our friend's farm to get an idea of morning chores and to discuss our plans to share space. One of the chores she mentioned was the slaughter of a few roosters. As you probably know, having too many roosters is not a good thing for a chicken flock; they fight viciously and can be very violent with the hens as well. I wasn't excited about killing a rooster, but I was prepared to do it. Since I started eating meat, I've felt that I should accept this responsibility at least once. It seems to me that we are so picky about meat in this country (boneless skinless chicken breast, anyone?), and so quick to ignore the reality of factory farming, because we're wholly divided from the animals we eat. It's far too easy to carelessly consume meat when you don't understand the full weight of an animal's death -- which implies, for almost everyone, the confined, tortured life that preceded it.
In the early afternoon, we headed up to the chicken coop to pick up our roosters. They were corralled apart from the hens and as always, I was surprised by how large they are. Maybe my hens are especially small. Patrice caught her bird, then Jeremy caught his, and then it was my turn.
I'm terrible at catching chickens. They're smarter than me, and faster, and they know I'm afraid of them. But finally I caught one, a gorgeous Silver-Laced Wyandotte. (I couldn't get a picture of him, but they look like this.)
We carried our roosters up to the killing cone and that's where we ran into our first problem. Patrice's bird didn't fit. Apparently this is a relatively common issue with killing cones -- the outlet on the bottom is too small for the bird's head. So out came the rooster while Patrice fussed with the cone. Finally, Patrice pulled his head through and showed us where to slice, just under the jawbone.
And then she did it. With one decisive slash she cut the rooster's artery and he began to bleed. That went on for a minute or two, then he noticeably relaxed. His eyes didn't close so much as the lid sagged down, the lens behind it opaque.
Patrice pulled him out and hung him up on the fence, and then it was Jeremy's turn.
Jeremy did well. He told me later that his hands were shaking, but I didn't notice. Here's where the second problem presented itself: the knife was not very sharp. He slashed once and opened a gash in the bird's neck, but the artery just bubbled out without bleeding. So he opened it and the bird began to bleed. A second rooster up on the fence.
Finally it was my turn. I'd held this huge bird under my arm, facing behind me, for at least twenty minutes by that point. I handed the bird to Jeremy, who tipped him upside-down in the cone. Then I spent a minute orienting myself to the bird's geography, figuring out how I would kill him quickly without cutting my hands. I was calm. I didn't have many heavy thoughts. The first two killings had happened quickly, without much violence or gore, and I was optimistic.
But here arrived further problems. First, my rooster was the largest and the fluffiest and most feathered of the three. Upside down, his neck feathers obscured his face and made it difficult to see where I should cut. Also, the feathers would interfere with the cut itself. Second, due to a miscommunication with the farm caretakers, the birds had not been fasted. When chickens eat, their food moves into a bulbous sac called the crop, which sits just below the throat. The crop can be absolutely packed with food before it moves on down the line into the gizzard. Not only does it make evisceration a messy procedure, but it can complicate slaughter to have a full crop, so generally chickens are fasted for 24 hours before death.
You can probably imagine what happened. I tried to cut the bird and found, first, that the feathers were totally blocking the path of my knife. So I had to pull them aside and try to cut again. This time I barely passed through the skin because the knife was so dull. So I cut again, harder, and this time I hit the crop. Half-digested food began pouring out, matting the feathers and further obscuring my vision. The rooster was barely bleeding and I was, to say the least, horrified that I had cut this bird three times with killing him. In a panic, I sliced as hard as I could, further opening the crop, and still the bird did not bleed.
That's when I had a little meltdown. I began sawing at this bird's neck with the dull blade, begging him to bleed out, and apologizing frantically. There was blood and feed mush everywhere, and still I had not hit the artery. I'd just mangled everything in there. I'd lost all my anatomical landmarks.
Patrice told me I might just have to cut off his head, so that's what I tried to do. The bird was a mess, I was a mess, and still he would not bleed out. "Cut the spinal cord," she said. "Just get him dead." So I pried open his mouth and shoved my knife toward the back of his skull as fast and as hard as I could. I felt a snap, and finally, he went limp. I returned to his neck, spotted the artery, sliced it, and finally, he began to bleed out.
I could feel stress hormones coursing through my body, I was sweating in the hot sun and suddenly I was sobbing. I had botched this kill. I'd given this rooster a bad death. Me. I had done this. I'm not sure I've ever felt such a terrible remorse as I experienced at that moment.
After the rooster was eviscerated we found that his crop was enormously full, nearly the size of my hand. It seems impossible that I could have missed it. Add in an especially feathered bird, and being third in line with a dull knife, and I'm not sure this could have ended differently. The circumstances were all wrong. If I could do it again, I would have asked someone much more experienced to teach me, and I would have expressed more hesitation about the knife and the lack of fasting instead of smothering those concerns.
Jeremy tells me that the rooster's death only came a minute or two later than the others. He insists that I just experienced it as a long drawn-out killing because I was panicked. I hope this is true. I'm crying now as I write this, because, as strange as it might seem to an ethical vegan (certainly as bizarre and twisted as I would have thought it not long ago), I love chickens. To me, they are friends and food. And it is absolutely my position that no animal should suffer for my meal. To think that I could have inflicted suffering myself is unbearable.
What are my conclusions from this experience?
Well, I don't think I'll be killing again. Of course this experience is fresh in my mind, and eventually it will fade and become more of an academic memory, but it's hard to imagine ever taking a knife to a living thing again. I have long felt that there was something deep within me that was incapable of killing, and well, I was wrong. I ended a life. I killed that chicken by myself. I didn't turn over my knife; I took responsibility. And now that I know what it's like, I don't think I'll be doing it again.
Would I feel differently if the killing had gone smoother? Yes, I think I would. As it is, I'm not sure I could confidently approach another slaughter.
I suppose a more significant question is whether this experience informs me more intimately of the suffering some animals endure at death and if this new information encourages me back into vegetarianism. This question has been on my mind constantly.
As we hauled the roosters inside for (de-)feathering and (un)dressing, Patrice said, "I bet that tofu is looking good right about now."
And without hesitation, I said no.
See, when I was vegan I believed that intention was important. I knew, rationally, that animals were killed for my beans and rice, but I thought they mattered less because I had to eat something and at least I wasn't paying some oppressed fourth- or fifth-party to kill an animal on purpose. I even thought it was fortunate that wild animals were killed rather than animals confined in factories. And if only these two systems -- vegetarianism and factory farming -- are considered, I haven't changed my position.
But I can't argue now that it's better for thousands of animals, millions of insects, and billions of microorganisms to be slaughtered carelessly, "accidentally" (I would say systematically), than for a handful of well-loved animals to be killed deliberately, quickly. Ultimately what is responsible for mass destruction is industrialized agriculture, whether the "product" is broccoli or beef. So the smartest move, if your wish is to reduce harm, is to support small-scale farms in your community, regardless of what you eat. And in this circumstance, most of the protein foods you find will be animal in origin.
Of course, what rests at the bottom of this thought process is the belief that we can't exist without killing something. I don't think anyone can disagree with this. When pressed, most vegans will admit that animals are killed in the production of plant foods. They might point to veganic agriculture, but I can guarantee that the vast majority of vegans are not getting their foods from veganic agriculture; their excusing of present deaths is predicated on a fantastical future. Ultimately most vegans will say what I said: I have to eat something. And then they'll point at the factory farm system and say, But at least I'm not supporting that. And right they should.
But neither am I.
I'm sorry for what happened to that rooster. If those were the circumstances for the other animals I eat, I would revert back to vegetarianism. But I know they are not. So maybe that's my bottom line, what I'm taking away from this experience. I don't feel again that animals should not be eaten. I certainly do not feel that dependence on industrial annual agriculture, with its attendant mass deaths of animal, insect, microbiological, native, and indigenous human life, is the natural best choice. I simply feel that animals should be fasted, and they should not be slaughtered with dull knives.
One final thought.
Once upon a time, I thought it a horrific truth that most industrialized people eat meat for simple convenience. Everything an animal endures in a CAFO, and that's excused because it's easier to open a package of chicken nuggets than to boil a pot of brown rice? Well, let me tell you something. Here's how "convenient" it is to eat a chicken -- the ideal chicken who has been raised with kindness in a plush environment and killed quickly where he lives. You must:
fast a rooster for 24 hours
catch the rooster
make sure he fits in the killing cone
slaughter him, quickly
wait until he bleeds out
dip him repeatedly in a pot of boiling water
strip him of his feathers
slice off the head and feet
remove the internal organs
clean him carefully, inside and out
let him rest three days before you can even think of eating him
And that's all before you cook him.
It should not be convenient to eat an animal. It should not be cheap to eat an animal. It should not be an anonymous act to eat an animal. Animals are sentient; they feel pain, they love their lives. I do believe, as Tasha says,
'To live as locally and sustainably as possible while also maintaining our health will in most circumstances, in my opinion, require the inclusion of animal products.... The only reason so many people can advocate veganism is because most of those people live in highly industrialized communities and have no notion of what it takes to grow food and no experience living in equilibrium within their local foodways.'Still, I cannot ignore my relationship with the animals who give me love and life. I will not. And I would ask, as presumptuous as it may seem, that you do not either.
In some religions, priests are the slaughterhouse workers. They alone, it is felt, can understand the true weight of an animal's death. Some people might brush off such concerns, claiming that omnivorism is our anthropological destiny and it's pointless to argue ethics beyond humane treatment. But meat-eating has long been a complicated struggle for humans. Rituals surrounding slaughter date back to pre-agricultural communities, which would imply that the psychological burden of killing an animal is not simply a construct of industrialization.
Now, if we are to provide ourselves with any antidote to our pervasively destructive culture, we must take up that task. If we are to eat good meat, to restore some equilibrium to our landbase, we must raise animals in a way that gives credence to our higher nature, and we must deliver animals quickly into death with solemnity and gratitude for the sustenance of those living. Not everyone can raise animals, but a great many people can reduce their consumption, and redistribute that cost into localized, integrated farming systems that do justice to animals, plants, water, air, and everyone else on this planet.