Since 2012, David Schaefer, with Featherman Equipment, and I have demonstrated poultry processing at MOTHER EARTH NEWS FAIRS. In our poultry demonstrations, David and I go to great lengths to teach humane techniques for slaughter, which David calls “squawkless dispatch.” At each Fair, David and I kill, scald, pluck, eviscerate and chill eight pastured chickens, and leave little to the imagination. (If you haven’t been to a MOTHER EARTH NEWS FAIR, go — it’s the experience of a lifetime.)
Even with three years under our belts, a 9-year-old attendee surprised David and me during the 2015 Oregon Fair by innocently asking to come up on stage with us during the demonstration. Naturally, we agreed, and before I knew it, this young person had pulled off a dead chicken’s head and raised it triumphantly. The crowd hooted and clapped.
Before David and I could collect ourselves, other children approached. Some peered into the scald water. Others grabbed a souvenir foot. A few even pulled off heads. David and I looked at each other and realized we had definitely added a new dimension of theatrics to our no-nonsense session. At the following Fair, in Asheville, North Carolina, we asked parents to allow their children to come forward — and nearly a dozen did!
While the response to this story has been overwhelmingly positive, some folks strongly object to letting children actively participate in animal processing. I’d like to tackle this thorny issue a bit because I believe that many of the negative reactions to exposing children to animal slaughter are built on two major misconceptions.
The first misconception at play states that because eating meat is unnecessary and immoral, killing sentient beings is uncivilized and uncharitable. Refusing to kill animals does not indicate a new state of evolutionary cosmic awareness; rather, it reveals profound disconnection from the life-death-decomposition-regeneration choreography that underpins all life on Earth. Everything is eating and being eaten; if you don’t believe me, go lie naked in your garden bed for three days and see what eats and what gets eaten between you, the bugs and the veggies.
Let me be clear: Animals are not the only reservoir of sentience on our planet. All of nature is pulsing with observation, language and adaptation. When sunflowers turn with the sun’s path across the sky, that’s sentience. When leaves change their chemical compositions to become less enticing to munching herbivores and bugs, that’s sentience. Custodial bacteria communicate as they guard every human cell; that’s sentience. Further, cyclicity is just as widespread in the world as sentience. A compost pile, perhaps better than anything, illustrates how biological cycles require death in order to produce life. After we recognize death as a part of life, we can understand that animal slaughter epitomizes what occurs every day in the soil and in our bodies.
Proponents of the second myth argue that it’s natural for a person to avoid visceral participation in food production and processing, including the slaughter of animals. This is, historically speaking, completely aberrant. Only with the contemporary West’s privilege can we so ignorantly disconnect from ecological food systems. Absent that luxury, we’d be like many other places on the planet, where children welcome a piece of chicken or a glass of milk, and, where each child would know the origin and process by which that food arrived on his or her plate.
Shifting the Practices and Perceptions of Animal Slaughter
The inability to contemplate how something must be sacrificed for something else to live might seem like a small failure, but I submit that it profoundly affects how a person values life. Participation in slaughter impacts how a person views his or her personal responsibility to the overall ecological system that sustains life. Frankly, I’m surprised we didn’t start discussing the appropriate age for participation in slaughter sooner.
At Polyface Farms, my wife and I have never shielded our children from the cost of life. Whether we were pulling weeds in the garden to grow a crop of green beans, cutting and stacking firewood so we could stay warm in winter, or butchering chickens to provide sustenance for the following week, we involved our children in everything from day one. We saw no inappropriate time to expose them to the depth and breadth, the mystery and majesty, of life’s grand choreography.
Without the vital lessons provided by the intimate processes of taking and making life, I worry that future generations won’t understand the gravity of life. The preciousness of life. The repercussions of our decisions. To stare our own dependency in the face as we care for and then harvest our food shapes our minds and humbles our spirits.
It’s time to take a breath. I’m sure some folks are disgusted, perhaps even seriously offended, at what I’ve written. They will ask about animal abuse, factory farms and those awful factory slaughterhouses. Believe me, all of those methods disgust me as much as they do anyone else. The scale of operations and our willingness to engage make an enormous difference. I believe we can eliminate factory farms and processing facilities by training our children in self-reliance and joyful participation in food systems. That such horrible, large-scale operations exist testifies not only to our drive for profit at any cost, but also to our assumption that integrity could ever exist in a climate of ignorance. That so few people know how animals are treated — on the farm or anywhere else along the processing chain — creates a blind spot that allows abuse to spread.
A More Humane Way
In addition to victimizing animals, I believe contemporary slaughterhouses are inhumane to the humans who work there. Nobody should kill animals all day, every day. While I encourage children to participate in the slaughter process from a young age, I strongly believe in monitoring the regularity of exposure to slaughter — no matter the age. Excessive exposure to slaughter enables callousness and furthers emotional imbalance with nonhuman life.
However, when a person who cares for an animal participates in taking that sentient being’s life, the sacrifice takes on sacredness rather than sacrilege. Honoring an animal in life by providing it a diet and living conditions in which it can express its distinctiveness (or, “the chickenness of the chicken,” as David puts it) elevates the harvest to a respectful completion of its life cycle.
Having helped children slaughter chickens for decades, I’ve concluded that if children aren’t exposed to slaughter by 10 years of age, then, more often than not, their first experience will evoke an ishy-gishy revulsion rather than an innocent embrace. A warning to those parents who accept this responsibility for their little ones, but who have not yet experienced it themselves: You will likely wrestle with the experience more than your children will. A child’s openhearted and discovery-oriented mind will see a slaughter event as part of his or her life awareness. However, adults who have been disconnected from this all of their lives may get knots in their stomachs. I believe that food goes with festivals. Respectfully bringing food from field to festive table should never repulse us.
Ethically butchering animals offers a final homage in our care and stewardship of animal life. That moment when we harvest the sentient being we’ve protected, fed and watered provides a profound intimacy with animal life. Encouraging our children to understand, witness and participate in that kind of relationship builds loyalty and character. Denying young people the understanding that death inevitably follows life opens them up to self-centeredness and shallow thinking.
If an animal is raised well, harvested humanely, and eaten with gratitude, nothing about that beautiful cycle can impair the spirit or emotions. Yes, that beauty entails disturbance and profound loss, but as long as the difficult times create beautiful moments, our children will comprehend the whole picture, for emotional and
Moreover, when we are grounded in ethical slaughter, we see that factory farms cannot offer a sacred sacrifice because they demean and cheapen life. But when animals are raised with respect and honor, their slaughter brings us face to face with our own frailty, our interdependence, and our responsibilities to life and its stewardship. It is never too early for children to grapple with these profound concepts.