Teaching Young People Ethical Animal Slaughter

Animal slaughter demonstrations, like Joel Salatin’s poultry processing, teach children that to ethically eat meat they must respect sentient animals, reject the slaughterhouses and factory farms, and embrace the cycle of life.

Joel Salatin at Fair

Salatin and his contemplative young crowd pull heads and cut feet at the 2015 MOTHER EARTH NEWS FAIR in Topeka, Kansas.

Joel Salatin at FAIR

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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.

Meat Myths

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
spiritual balance.

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.


Joel Salatin and his family raise and harvest animals honorably at Polyface Farms in Swoope, Virginia. Joel is the author of Folks, This Ain’t Normal, as well as numerous other titles related to local food and sustainable farming, some of which are available on the MOTHER EARTH NEWS store.

martinbeck
3/14/2016 8:09:47 PM

Didn't mean to post it twice - new to this technology.. Sorry..


martinbeck
3/14/2016 8:08:28 PM

Wow - so beautifully written.. We live by these concepts every day and never shrink away from saying kill or slaughter regarding our animals.. I was pleased to chat with Joel at one of the conferences several years ago and have made this concept our North Star ever since. We cherish the life, take it in gratitude and share that sense of wonder and privilege with a society that consumes a disproportionate percentage of the world's natural resources with little thought about the balance and justice of that exchange. We have always felt that "harvest" and "processing" were euphemistic efforts to intended to diminish the magnitude of the gift we require from the animals in our care.. And remember that care is at the core of this story - too many Americans are simply consumers without concern for the animals or people or environmental impacts along the way to the supermarket shelves.. I invited some JWU culinary students from the sustainability group to our home where we raise heritage breed meat rabbits to kill their own for a special Tasting Table menu. They were psyched to embrace the cycle of life, filmed it and put it up on RI Farm Bureau website where most people were happy to see meat locally, humanely and naturally produced. A few loud complainers called it savage, outrageous, barbaric. I wonder how many of them purchase commodity meat at the supermarket for 1/3 of the price of our respectfully raised protein.... jest sayin'....


martinbeck
3/14/2016 8:07:51 PM

Wow - so beautifully written.. We live by these concepts every day and never shrink away from saying kill or slaughter regarding our animals.. I was pleased to chat with Joel at one of the conferences several years ago and have made this concept our North Star ever since. We cherish the life, take it in gratitude and share that sense of wonder and privilege with a society that consumes a disproportionate percentage of the world's natural resources with little thought about the balance and justice of that exchange. We have always felt that "harvest" and "processing" were euphemistic efforts to intended to diminish the magnitude of the gift we require from the animals in our care.. And remember that care is at the core of this story - too many Americans are simply consumers without concern for the animals or people or environmental impacts along the way to the supermarket shelves.. I invited some JWU culinary students from the sustainability group to our home where we raise heritage breed meat rabbits to kill their own for a special Tasting Table menu. They were psyched to embrace the cycle of life, filmed it and put it up on RI Farm Bureau website where most people were happy to see meat locally, humanely and naturally produced. A few loud complainers called it savage, outrageous, barbaric. I wonder how many of them purchase commodity meat at the supermarket for 1/3 of the price of our respectfully raised protein.... jest sayin'....


anotherangle
2/1/2016 3:38:19 PM

There is absolutely nothing sacred and respectful about a child snapping off a chicken's head to a crowd of cheers. That is vile and in no way appears to teach respect towards that animal but rather dominance and trophy-ism. If the gravity of life and death is so well understood then one would know to avoid causing death of other beings needlessly. Regardless of sentience, a plant regrows a severed leaf, a chicken does not regrow its' severed head. Those who oppose animal slaughter for human consumption are not at all unaware or "imbalanced" in their understanding of the cycles of life and death but rather fully aware of them and our place within the intricate web. We are a species with the ability to choose the level of suffering we cause, unlike the lion which has no choice. We are capable of empathy and choice. Some things must endure within the cycle, the roach must die because it bring disease and filth, the same for the mosquito. But the chicken or cow does not need to die at our hand. Perhaps they might if one's crops failed and one finds themselves in the dead of winter but that is not the reality we live in. These things are done merely for pleasure of their taste and nothing more. A young child accepts whatever you show them as normalcy because they know nothing else but what you show them. To show them how to kill at an impressionable age shows them that is what is accepted as normal. It would be no different if you showed them how to slaughter a human. They would think it is normal and a part of a "beautiful cycle" because that is what you taught them.


climatevegan
1/28/2016 5:58:28 PM

Life and death in a compost pile is hardly comparable to shedding innocent blood for the sake of taste pleasure. There is no respect shown by killing someone who wants to live and has as much right to as you or I. Humane-washing is profoundly unethical. There is no dietary need to consume animal corpses; in fact a plant-based diet is far healthier for people, the environment, and climate as has been shown widely. Meat in any form is considered a class B carcinogen by the World Health Organization and processed meat Class A. It's never to early to learn the importance of non-violence to ourselves and each other.


vegangirl
1/28/2016 5:56:51 PM

Wow. Indoctrinating children to be alright with violence and cruelty, even calling it humane. Teach children to be compassionate, to care for their fellow earth dwelling creatures. Teach them to care for the environment by not consuming anima products(www.cowspiracy.com). Teach them that all life matters.


brucem
1/28/2016 9:45:29 AM

Very well written article. Sadly children and adults look on the food shelves in a grocery store and see packaged animal parts and don't give a thought to where it came from or that it was a living being once. Children will have more respect for animals if they understand the process. It seems some want to shield children from just about anything they perceive may damage their delicate minds. This subject isn't one of those. The more children can understand of the live death cycle the better they will be able to handle similar matters in their lives. Not all will agree of course and probably because they have never been exposed to where grocery store animals come from. There will be trolls as pointed out very well already which is just something those who write to benefit others will have to deal with. They just want to argue and demean the subject and the writer.


richards
1/28/2016 9:38:30 AM

Thanks Joel. Once again you nailed it.


christine
1/27/2016 8:12:39 PM

This is an outrage!!! Children can become traumatized by watching an animal being killed. It also can contribute toward children having indifferent feelings toward animals and lead them this way toward cruelty toward all animals. This must be stopped immediately. I am so disappointed that Mother Earth News would feature an article of this nature...


myles
1/27/2016 10:31:40 AM

Trolls are part of nature as well, and the more you take them seriously and bother responding, the stronger they get. They have no minds their own, they have no opinions, they can't perceive and process information like normal humans, all they do is to object and try to start arguments. Just keep ignoring them and they will eventually withdraw back under their bridges and fade into oblivion. This one probably can't form 5 full sentences about "factory farming" and even define what that term means, and if you were to ask him one country in Africa that trains "child soldiers", he would have to look it up first, and then come and give you names along with copied and pasted information, without even understanding a word of what he pasted. And of course, more than probably half of what he owns has tiny "made in China" stickers placed with superglue under them while trying to pursue and obtain things in life just "because others have them", or because "that would be cool". If you were to put him in the middle of a forest for a week, he would probably be dead from the cold, from his fear of nature, or from starvation before the week is up unless an animal gets to him first or he ends up eating some mushrooms because they "look cool", not to mention he would also be suffering a great deal due to drinking water from the first source he happened to find.


ballyshannon
1/27/2016 9:27:06 AM

I see a disconnect between "sacred slaughter" and a "triumphant" performance on stage that elicited hooting and clapping. I am not opposed to eating meat, but I'm opposed to the concept of conquering the animal in a contest, such as a hunter grinning into the camera while holding up his victim's head. Perhaps there is something missing from your slaughter demonstration that would encourage reverence for the task.


molly
1/9/2016 11:15:23 PM

Hey there, Tommy. If you're not a troll and want to talk about this issue, I'd love to discuss this with you. Hopefully you took the time to read the entire article as Mr. Salatin addresses the myths that you mention. The 9 year old boy that Mr. Salatin writes about is my son. I can't tell you how much Mr. Schaefer and Mr. Salatin's willingness to roll with the turn of events at this demonstration impacted our family--especially our son and the other kids who were in the audience (and the adults as well!!) We have recently adopted a lifestyle that connects us more directly with our food. It is a change from the food lifestyle I was raised under and a change that has not been without some squeamishness on my part. But after years of research, we know that this lifestyle is the best we can choose for our well-being and the well-being of our planet. We involve our kids in gardening, animal raising and, yes, the processing of our food as well. It is with much thought that we have made this decision--and it is with much thought that we eat our food as well. Our children's involvement is their choice--just as our son asked to be involved in the demonstration in this article. For the first time in a couple generations, (I'm sure my great-grandparents did not have a problem with farm-to-table concepts, this is a very recent disconnect borne out of luxury) my children do not think that the food on their plate just magically appears. They know how much work it takes. They know what it means to raise animals ethically. They also know how much better they feel when they are eating real food compared with the standard American diet of processed junk. That speaks volumes to me.


molly
1/9/2016 10:08:08 PM

Hey there, Tommy. If you're not a troll and want to talk about this issue, I'd love to discuss this with you. Hopefully you took the time to read the entire article as Mr. Salatin addresses the myths that you mention. The 9 year old boy that Mr. Salatin writes about is my son. I can't tell you how much Mr. Schaefer and Mr. Salatin's willingness to roll with the turn of events at this demonstration impacted our family--especially our son and the other kids who were in the audience (and the adults as well!!) We have recently adopted a lifestyle that connects us more directly with our food. It is a change from the food lifestyle I was raised under and a change that has not been without some squeamishness on my part. But after years of research, we know that this lifestyle is the best we can choose for our well-being and the well-being of our planet. We involve our kids in gardening, animal raising and, yes, the processing of our food as well. It is with much thought that we have made this decision--and it is with much thought that we eat our food as well. Our children's involvement is their choice--just as our son asked to be involved in the demonstration in this article. For the first time in a couple generations, (I'm sure my great-grandparents did not have a problem with farm-to-table concepts, this is a very recent disconnect borne out of luxury) my children do not think that the food on their plate just magically appears. They know how much work it takes. They know what it means to raise animals ethically. They also know how much better they feel when they are eating real food compared with the standard American diet of processed junk. That speaks volumes to me.


tommy
1/9/2016 1:11:29 PM

This is like training child soldiers in Africa.


tommy
1/9/2016 1:10:06 PM

Ugh, this is horrific. You're still supporting animal agriculture, which will inevitably lead these kids to support factory farming.