Today we killed one of our beloved chickens. I held its little body while J cut its throat. As it reacted and tried to wriggle from my hands, I sobbed, but I kept my grip tight so that it would die with as much peace and steadiness as possible.
I was shocked at the strength of my response. After all, I had thought I was getting tough to this sort of thing. I saw two enormous pigs killed this year (truly made me glad kashrut [kosher dietary law] has decided for me never to eat these animals…) and helped with the eviscerating when friends did a run of 150 pasture-raised birds for their CSA members. But I had never done the deed myself, had never felt a body filled with life first spasm and flail and then go still. I had never killed an animal that I myself had raised, had lovingly cared for every day, bringing fresh greens and clean water and organic grain, shoveling shit and gazing adoringly at him for hours.
I had grown to love this bird with my quotidian care. And then I had killed it.
We killed this chicken not for food, but because it was sick. Last week it just stopped getting up. Its legs became paralyzed and it couldn’t get food or water. Other chickens would trample it; it called out in pain. We knew it was the right thing to do to end its suffering (not to mention stop the spread of a bad chicken disease and protect the flock) but that did not make it any easier.
This mercy killing was a prelude to a much larger debate raging inside myself. Killing animals is something I have been furiously wrestling with for the last year. I was raised vegetarian and I haven’t eaten meat in over fifteen years. When I was young, my desire not to eat meat largely stemmed from a love of animals and repulsion to the idea of killing them. When I got older, my ideas about environmental stewardship mandated eating lower on the food chain and vegetarianism felt bolstered again. After graduating college I lived at a residential school that kept a vegetarian kitchen. Not eating meat was an easy choice for me, my beliefs lying pretty much unquestioned.
But the deeper in to the food world I explored, the more desire I had to take ownership over the calories I consumed. I noticed that although I wasn’t eating meat, I was certainly eating a ton of animal products. Dairy is a staple of our diet—milk and cheese and yogurt find their way into our bowls in some form at almost every meal. And the more I learned about dairy, the more I realized that death and dying were certainly a part of that system as well. (There’s no need for boy calves that are born to nursing milkers….) Not to mention that there are different human health implications to eating a cool block of cheese rather than, say, a piece of chicken. (No judgment there. Lord knows I do it on the reg.)
Even more important, when I didn’t choose dairy but instead opted for some soy product—tofu or tempeh or tofurkey (heavens to betsy – guilty pleasure!), I began to realize those products (and the massive amounts of fields of soybeans and corn they required) were involved in the clearing of rainforests, massive species die off, topsoil erosion, and enormous uses of pesticides that flow into our waters and poison the ocean. yikes.
I began to appreciate the idea of local food. While I do not believe that farms near to you have inherently better practices than others, I do believe in the power that you can go and find out. You can ask that farmer what she sprays. You can see how much space those chickens have. Most important, you are removing the idea that food comes from “away.” Just as there is no “away” for trash (where does it go when the trucks pick it up?) there is no “away” for food. Growing food is part of a system of life and death. Even vegetables require animal manure to thrive. Death gives birth to life which ends in death, and so on.
And so I began to get excited about not only eating as local as possible (God help me with coffee and chocolate. I pray for a heated tropical greenhouse one day), but wanted to become as much a producer as a consumer. Jacob and I set the intention of trying to (eventually) produce 50% of the calories we required. (The great thing is with community, we don’t need to grow everything. If you already have an awesome sweet potato storage system, rad-- I don’t need to worry about it, and am happy to rely on you for those. Being entirely self-reliant and silo-ed for some weird zombie apocalypse is not my goal. But being [at least] equal parts producer and consumer certainly is.) Immediately we realized that animals, in some form, would have to be involved in any such system if we were going to get serious about what we humans require to stay alive.
And so we ordered chickens, half of them to keep for eggs, half of them to kill for meat. We have been raising them for the last two and a half months, and I have fallen in love with them. They have personalities. They are funny and soothing to be around. They peck at greens we grew for them, the play with worms they dig up from the soil. How am I going to kill these little guys and eat them?
I don’t have any easy answers. There is no way around it; the fact that we rely on death in some form is a painful one. And yet I also do believe that scale matters, intention matters. I agree with my vegetarian self that we DO need primarily to eat lower on the food chain—that having a primarily animal meat diet makes us not only unhealthy, but irresponsible global citizens. But I also have come to believe that contending that any diet is free from implications of death is a fallacy as well.
The Baal Shem Tov (a mystical Jewish leader) wrote about the work of being a shochet, a person who slaughters animals. He said that each time the shochet kills, he should cry so many tears they can wash the blade clean. As I held the chicken and let its ‘nefesh,’ its blood and life force, drain to the ground, my tears flowed with it. My unease doesn’t make me think that I will be wrong to eat meat when we do slaughter chickens in a few weeks, it makes me human. (Although I still don't know what it will be like to eat meat!) When I forget the real sacrifice made to keep me alive, I lose a crucial piece of my humanity. But when I think I can somehow keep myself apart from the circle of life through my diet, I might be ignoring my place (and my responsibility as a conscious steward) in the natural order of things.
My views don't feel cemented on this at all; I will see what comes as my work and life with animals grows, changes, and deepens. Any thoughts you have are always warmly welcomed.