Monday, August 15, 2011

Slaughtering Chickens

Warning: this post contains photos documenting the honest slaughter and processing of chickens.

Some people hold strong views on the topic of animal welfare, ranging from a utilitarian belief that the pleasure and suffering of animals is as meaningful as that of humans to a biblically grounded belief that humans have dominion over animals, a dominion so absolute that the existence of an animal is justified only to the extent that it serves a human end. But most people I’ve talked to about it search for a comforting middle ground – a place where animals lead happy, healthy lives, but are then quickly dispatched, packaged, and sold for a reasonable price in a supermarket refrigerator case. As I know from personal experience, the trick to rhetorically supporting this sort of food system while eating a burger that concretely supports factory farms is to not think about it too much.

But I’ve been thinking about it quite a lot lately. A bit over a month ago we butchered the sixty-five broiler chickens we had been raising, a few more than last year. The experience of killing animals is a singularly difficult topic to address in writing. When I say this, I do not mean that it makes me uncomfortable to discuss or describe in detail. Most any striking or meaningful experience loses something in the translation to writing, though it may gain something as well. But in the case of killing another sentient creature, the act itself is uniquely visceral.

We raised our chickens in a 10’ x 12’ cage with an open bottom. Twice daily we shifted this onto fresh grass, so the chickens always had fresh forage and somewhere clean to lie down. We actually purchased 100 chicks, and we only lost the expected few in the first two weeks, but a few days after we put them out, 30 died in a single night. A predator had killed five, and the rest had suffocated after piling up in a corner of the cage. A few days later I trapped and shot the skunk that was responsible.

Modern chickens put on weight incredibly fast, and even though we were raising broilers bred to gain slightly slower than the most aggressive commercial varieties, by nine weeks they were big enough, and dragging the cage around the pasture had started to bother both my and Ed’s backs. So on an overcast Saturday we set up the scalding tank and plucker beside a table in the hops barn and positioned the killing cones just outside.

Ed went and caught about a dozen chickens at a time, placed them in smaller cages, and trundled them in a wheelbarrow from the pasture to our makeshift abattoir. Each went upside down into a stainless steel cone with a hole at the bottom just large enough for the head and neck to pass through. Each head was grasped, and each neck slit with a sharp knife. After this they went into the scalding tank, and then the plucker, and then to a table to be cleaned, bagged and frozen.

Last year Ed and I did all these tasks in roughly equal measure, but this time, with both Alanna and my aunt Juliet helping, we each more or less took responsibility for a part of the process. I only killed a few of the chickens early on and spent the rest of the time gutting them.

There are parts of the whole experience of raising chickens this year that I regret. I am saddened by the ones that died near the outset, though I recognize that some predation is inevitable in any outdoor production system. Feed is extremely expensive, and I wonder if chickens with different genetics would have been more efficient and generally healthier. And the actual, final act of killing is sad. I do not feel guilty when I kill a chicken, nor do I feel empathy for it in the narrow sense of the word. The sadness arises from the simple recognition that nothing (except maybe mayflies and salmon) dies without a struggle, tempered with the recognition that deaths large and small constitute each of us.

Although I can’t imagine a plausible alternative, I find slaughterhouses problematic. Of course I am horrified by unnecessary brutality found in many of them, but I am just as troubled by the idea that most of us do not confront the deaths we have chosen to endorse while a few of us become utterly desensitized to them. One step in the right direction would be to let farmers harvest animals and sell their meat directly to customers, a practice which is allowed to a limited extent with chickens, but doing this to a broad extent would require a complete overhaul of the regulatory system, and it would raise a host of health concerns, some legitimate, others not.

In the meantime, we will keep raising and hunting and butchering for ourselves, and I would encourage anyone – particularly anyone who eats meat – to have a hand in the death that preparing dinner really starts with.



  1. Garth, thanks for this post. As always, your writing makes things clear and powerful.

  2. Thanks Garth. I have troubled over these issues perennially, just with less of the direct experience you share. I still strongly feel the logic that if I'm willing to eat it, I need to be willing to raise and kill it (at least some of the times). Its hard to do this in suburban Toronto where even owning chickens is still against city ordinances. Hunting deer for meat also seems important to me, but I don't own a gun, I don't know how to use it, I don't how to butcher and I live gallons and gallons of fuel away from places where I am allowed to hunt. From this perspective, I really appreciate you bringing your farm experience closer to mine, even just through words. (I'm glad you raised those chickens and gave them good chicken lives, and I'm glad they will provide great nutrition for your families).

  3. Thanks for the responses.

    Brian, I really don't want to suggest that the only ethical way to eat an animal is to raise and kill it yourself. I'm sure I've said to you in one context or another, most likely as a critique of capitalism, that I believe the further removed an action is from an individual, the harder it is for the individual to make sure the action is done in a manner that he or she would consider moral. To me, factory farming is perhaps the most compelling example of this dynamic. Almost everyone - and I certainly include myself in this - contribute to a mode of food production that would horrify them if they had to participate in it in person, and most of us do not give it much thought. I often hear that having to work in a slaughterhouse would make more vegetarians, but I'm not sure of this. I think people can be desensitized to surprising things, which would be even worse than the status quo as it is. It should be something we meditate on, not something we take for granted. It's good, when eating a chicken, to think, "this is a chicken. It was alive, and now I'me eating it." Perhaps not in those terms, but something to that effect.