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.
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.