I remember when we first got chickens; a relative of mine had been given more than she could handle, and was happy to gift us our own starter flock. We had a beautiful mix of Barred Plymouth Rocks, but a few Cornish crosses as well. Not fully understanding how rapidly the latter variety grew, we let them mature well beyond pullets, and as they grew, we noticed they became more and more unwieldy.
We had an aging flock of meat birds that weren’t really designed to live past their butcher date, and far too many roosters to our hens — it was time to cull. I remember how nervous I was — it was intimidating enough to care for something and work so hard to keep it alive, and it went against a lot of my instincts to do the opposite and methodically kill them.
I knew it was a necessary part of running a homestead, and I knew these animals were living a far better life than those in the factory farms that wound up on so many grocery store shelves, but it was still a heavy concept for me to get my head around.
After a lot of research, watching YouTube videos, and listening to podcasts, we finally set a plan in place and began. We weren’t very good at it at first, and we’re still learning faster, more effective ways to dispatch animals with as little pain and fear as possible, but we had to start somewhere.
If Slaughter Makes Us Sad, Is it Wrong?
A lot of people think that the unpleasantness of killing an animal is an indication of its immorality, that because it feels bad, it’s wrong, and it’s as simple as that. I can’t argue something as deep as the ethics of killing another living thing for survival, but I can say that that thought has certainly occurred to me before. If it’s this emotional, if it makes me this sad, is it wrong?
I told my husband about my concerns one day, pondering the morality of slaughter, and with wisdom beyond his years, he told me this:
“When you kill an animal, you should feel something. If you don’t, there’s something wrong with you.”
In that simple statement, I realized he was perfectly right, and that I was (once again) referring to emotions as a form of weakness, when in fact, it was just a human part of me - a normal part — and nothing to be ashamed of.
The fact is, killing an animal is a highly emotional experience — especially when you raise it. You’re taking a creature that you’ve walked out every morning in the bitter cold to check their heat lamps, sourced the best food you can for, and then you’re turning around and killing it, and that’s a hard thing to get your head around.
I look at it this way, though: By whatever powers that be, I was given (supposedly) higher consciousness and self-awareness. I have this intellect that allows me to empathize with and understand what creatures go through in the sacrificial process of feeding me.
In some ways, I’m just like a bear — omnivorous and opportunistic in my approach to eating. But unlike the bear, I have this brain that knows it probably isn’t pleasant to be violently eviscerated, so I can choose to be kinder to my prey. Maybe most of us just aren’t seasoned enough to death, like the skilled bears are. Most of us don’t slaughter nearly as often as a bear does, and so maybe for that reason, our brains still have a hard time processing it.
Lucky for us though, and the animals we choose to dispatch, we’re able to think through the process, and make informed, conscious decisions about how we go about this harvest.
Showing Respect to Livestock and Prey
I’ve read a lot recently about hunting rituals, and ways in which various cultures honor the sacrifice made by their kill. In some European countries, a small ritual known as letzebissen, or last bite is performed, in which a sprig from a preferred species of tree is pulled through the animal’s mouth from one side to the other, as payment of respect in the form of a sort of “last meal”.
Many other cultures have their own hunting rituals, the Native Americans putting a pinch of tobacco onto an animal’s body as a sign of respect, the plant having been believed to connect beings to the spirit world.
Though much of modern homesteading and hunting has forgotten these rituals — not as chest-beating signs of superiority, but as tributes to the sacrifice made by the animal so that we may thrive — it’s my belief that there is nothing more human than using our gift of intelligence to understand and respect what is given for us when we cull.
So no, I don’t feel bad for slaughtering my chickens — if our positions were reversed, I would be understandably upset, but appreciative of the fact nonetheless, that my predator had the decency to give me a peaceful and almost painless dispatch.
In our time raising chickens for meat and eggs, I’ve learned that in this moment, the greatest thing you can do for the animal is to send them off without fear, and as quickly as possible - but never rushed.
As we cull, I often sit with the chicken that’s next up in my lap, gently but firmly hugging its body, which helps to slow their heart rate and calm them, and talking to it in a soothing manner. I don’t care how crazy it makes me look — the chicken’s muscles inevitably relax, they’re no longer looking for a means of escape, and by the time they’re ready for what happens next, they’re entirely calm.
Paul Wheaton did a really great video with a woman named Alexia Allen, who showed him that there was a gentle approach to culling chickens, and that it could in fact be, quite an emotional experience. I remember watching this remarkable video, and though it was sad (and even Alexia herself was a bit emotional), it was sort of beautiful how much care she put into this process. Paul talks about the video quite a bit in this podcast, so if you’re not sure if you’re ready for the video, you get a feel for it in this episode.
The Farmstead Meatsmith and Other On-Farm Slaughtering Resources
The Farmstead Meatsmith is another great resource for information on respectful animal harvest. Their videos are highly inspirational, detailing their processes from start to finish on ‘the art of thrift’, and in using every single part of the animal. Most notably though, I find their respect in the way of killing their livestock the most profound - there is no padding to this content, nothing to diminish what is being done — only respect for the animal that is at the other end of the gun.
Paul Wheaton also interviewed Brandon Sheard of the Farmstead Meatsmith in this podcast on his butchering methods, and did a bit of a Q&A with folks down at the forums of Permies.com — there’s lots of great information there if you’re a bit squeamish about just diving right into the videos (though I highly recommend you check them out - they are beautifully done, and so informative).
If you’re reading this as a person who has never butchered an animal before, and are nervous about it, I’m here to tell you — I get it, we all do. It’s an intimidating thing, as it should be, and taking responsibility for the peaceful death of an animal is almost as great of a burden as it is to keep them healthy and comfortable while they’re alive.
Take your time with getting to know the animal’s anatomy and creating as stress-free a method as you can — something that works well for you both. Get as familiar and comfortable with the process and you can, and take the burden of that responsibility seriously.
Destiny Hagest is personal assistant to Paul Wheaton, founder of Permies.com and RichSoil.com, as well as a content curator and freelance writer. You can catch Destiny hanging out in the forums at Permies.com quite regularly, and visit her LinkedIn profile, and follow her on Twitter. Read all of Destiny's MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.
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