Last Saturday, we spent a good part of the day with Jen and Pete and their Back Yard Birds, harvesting chickens for consumption. If this bothers you, please read with caution. There are no pictures but a lot of rambling. We didn’t bring the camera because we did not want to view the event through a camera’s lense, or tell ourselves that we were only there to document the process. No, we were there to kill and prepare chickens for eager consumers the next day.
For great pictures and a more coherent outline of the process, check out J. Kenji Lopez-Alt’s Article “Birds in Hand: Slaughtering Chickens with Pete and Jen”.
Laura’s Chicken Day and Philosophical Musings:
It was another one of those early mornings, where we were getting up to go out to some farm. As always we were running late, on account of me. This morning I knew I would be facing a potentially emotional and intense experience. However, I think I was too groggy to quite prepare myself to be nervous until we showed up at Verrill Farm, and stood in a circle listening to instructions from Jen, and introducing ourselves.
Luckily, there were a lot of other first timers gathered around in our group of about 12 chicken slaughter volunteers. I felt relieved to know that we were not the only ones there for the experience of slaughtering our meat. There was even a vegetarian there, who I suppose was herself feeling out the whole process, and perhaps feeling out her own emotions and principles on the idea of eating animals. I know I was.
I have been eating meat (not a ton) for a good while. When I was a teenager, I was a vegetarian until I met Theresa and she started cooking tasty meat based dishes for me. Then, in undergraduate school, we pretty much were vegetarian by virtue of terror of our cafeteria’s food and the limitations of our tiny dorm fridge. After moving to Boston, we resumed a veggie heavy diet, but with more meat.
In spite of my vegetarianism, I have never gave up meat for the animal’s lives sake. Industrial meat was disgusting to me, and the suffering not something I wanted to support. But the big question: If these animals did not undergo the terrors of industrial meat production, was it still right, could I look at animal death straight in the eye and still feel okay about it?
This endeavor to slaughter chickens was, in my mind, the time to really look at eating animals, and probe my logical, emotional, and visceral feelings. Anticipation of this event, lead me to be (of course) a little nervous. Would I break down into tears in front of the other half of volunteers (some who were coming to merely pick up pointers for harvesting their own flock). Would I be insensitive, and find myself not care? Could I live with knowing that?
Well, after a hearty round of precautions and directions, a hearty welcome., and also a guest appearance of Martin (one of our chicken farmers at Red Fire Farm) we set off for the mobile poultry processing unit. It was a small processing unit.
They needed two people over on the kill side, and everyone else on the processing side. Theresa enthusiastically went for the kill side. My gut told me to maybe not go over there. Not because I was afraid of watching lots of death, but because the kill side had to be quick and efficient something I couldn’t trust myself to be early on a Saturday. Theresa, though, is the perfect person for that type of thing, and was ushered off to be with Pete, who had already managed to get through 30 chickens before the group showed up. Theresa went off to help scald freshly killed chickens, put them in the defeathering device, and cut off their heads and feet. All at a very quick pace. I, myself went off with Jen and the rest of the crew to learn about how to eviscerate the freshly beheaded chickens and get them in good shape for delivering to customers.
The whole eviscerating thing was actually really cool. I will admit right here and now, that I have always been utterly fascinated by anatomy. In undergraduate school, I loved dissections so much, that when there was a lab class doing dissections, even if I wasn’t enrolled in the class, I usually managed to get in with the biology lab instructor to at least sit in or participate in those lab classes. So, the whole process of chicken processing was relatively easy and really neat to me. You pull on the esophagus and tube connected to the crop to loosen them. Then you cut into the abdominal cavity, pull out the whole digestive tube (intestines, gizzard) the liver, heart and lungs. Put them all out, remove any left on feathers, and wash the bird down really well and stick in a cooling water-bath.
After going through instructions on how to eviscerate the birds, I realized I wouldn’t be participating in the direct killing part until the end. Therefore, when finding a place to process chickens, I parked myself right up and next to the kill side of the processing unit, so that I could see Theresa, and what she was up to, and see everything going on with the killing (killing cones and all). Then, began the whole process. I got some very fresh chickens and began to eviscerate and process them. I will admit that I certainly need guidance at first, and I luckily had set myself up next to evisceration veterans (they had volunteered with Jen and Pete a few times before). I will also admit that I think I was pretty good at what I was doing… however I was certainly not the fastest. Nonetheless, I managed to chat with my neighbors about lots of things, food, community, CSA’s, industrial meat, Concord, meat-eating, recipes, you know, sort of awesome topics, all while we had our hands up inside our chickens pulling out various organs.
It was a little bizarre how natural it felt. It made me wonder at what level of cognitive dissonance I was functioning at. Therefore, after enjoying myself on the processing side, I took moments to stop and look over at the kill side. I watched Pete use a stun knife to kill many chickens in the kill cones. The chickens were picked up out of a crate, put in the cone, stunned with the knife and then their throats slit. They relatively quickly bled to death, and then they were off for processing, after death had taken them.
I watched and probed my feelings. How did this make me feel? Sympathetic? Sad? Angry? Truthfully…. a little numb. I was curious about the chickens’ experience, but the throes of death are not new to me. I’ve seen many a poor rescued wild animals die and the spasming of the body as it finally dies is not new to me. The only difference here is that this was intentional death. I probed my feelings some more about this fact, and felt very little. The chickens were not suffering, they weren’t even aware of their fate. (Chickens are not the smartest animal we eat, I will say this right now.) I did not sense any strong feelings either for or against the killing. I found myself fairly unmoved (which was a little disconcerting). I knew that Pete offered to let some volunteers actually kill a few chickens at the end to go through the experience. After feeling out my ambivalent feelings on the slaughtering, I planned to participate myself to perhaps get an even better exposure to gain further insight and perhaps come to some conclusions.
I continued on my evisceration, still enjoying it, and still really enjoying the beauty of the fresh bodies. I will admit that dissections in classrooms are pretty nasty by virtue of formaldehyde and old specimens. These chickens were simply put, beautiful. Lovely, fresh, and really their bodies were a lovely healthy thing to behold. Their organs so intact, and complex, their tissues so firm and fresh. I will be honest, I was not convinced to not eat chicken again by virtue of dissecting them. They were not disgusting even though I got to see their innards up close and personal. The only thing is the scalding bath produced a bizarre smell that I will admit did turn my stomach and haunted me for the day. But, on the whole the process did not make chicken meat ‘nasty’ or turn me off in any way.
Finally, at the very end, Pete brought volunteers over to the kill side of the processing unit to teach us how to kill a chicken. I ran on over a little nervous to take death into my own hands. He showed us how to grab a chicken from a crate, hold it so it wouldn’t struggle or hurt itself. Put it in a killing cone, pull the head through, grab the head securely, let go of the feet, take the stun knife to its throat, stun it for 2 seconds and then slit the throat with the knife and release for them to bleed to death.
And then it was my turn. I went to grab a chicken, and was just surprised by how very calm it was. Just hanging out in a crate, potentially watching its fellows dying in the killing cones next to it, and I went to grab its legs, and it just let me. I pulled it out and took hold of both of its legs and then held down one of its wings, at which point it stopped struggling. It relaxed in my hands. I brought it over to the killing cone, and simply shoved it down, pulling its head out at the bottom. I looked at its eyes, and I did not read any particular emotion. It was fairly calm. After getting a good hold of its head, I let its feet go. It seized that moment to struggle, to see if it could get its head free, but my grip was tight. Once it realized it couldn’t get free, it again, relaxed. And then it was time to take the knife. I was nervous. I was afraid to botch it up and hurt the chicken. I took the knife to its neck, still probing my feelings. Asked Pete to verify my position on the neck. Then, I pushed the stun knife button. I felt the chicken tense for the 2 -3 seconds I held the button, and then relax (apparently this tends to make them unconscious). Then quickly tried to slit the throat. It didn’t happen easily. I had to push much harder than what I had thought, and it took two or three times of trying to cut into the throat before I got it. When I finally cut into the throat, with a good healthy gash, the blood just drained out of the chicken before my eyes in a steady stream into the blood trough. The chicken seized at first with little movement. It seemed to have been unconscious (though its eyes were open), and then as a lot of blood drained from its body, it began to tense. Its feet splayed and tensed, its feathers moved, its feet didn’t really kick as much as spasm (this is a common event in the beginning of death – at least from my previous experiences). And then, its eyes closed. It finally gave a few more spasms, its feathers relaxed and then was very still. Of course it was dead, or pretty much dead. It was always good to wait a little while before putting them in the scalder, just to make sure. But that, that was it. I stepped back and watched others slaughter their own chickens, and felt deep inside myself for what I felt. I wasn’t quite sure.
After my own chicken killing, other volunteers followed, and I stayed on the kill side, assisting Theresa with the scalding, plucking and removing of heads and feet. I was happy to have participated in every step of the chicken slaughtering process. Finally, our little crew managed to get through about 400 chickens. It was past 1pm, and Theresa and I had to go so that we could still make the Boston Local Food Festival. We headed off as the last of the chickens were being eviscerated, and cleaned ourselves up a little (we were pretty gross) and headed on our way back into the city.
On our way back I assessed my feelings. How did I feel killing a chicken? I had hoped this whole experience would have informed my principles and decisions. That I would have some epiphany, some new understanding. Yet, I found myself to have had no big epiphany. I found that I had a new perspective on killing (chickens at least)- respect for the sacrifice, and respect for the work and art of slaughtering when done well. But, I found that I did not have sympathy. Not strong guilting sympathy, at least.
When I killed my chicken, I carefully observed the chicken looking for suffering, for something ‘wrong.’ Yet I could not find it. In reflecting on the whole process, I found that I could even condone my pet going through this process, it seemed so streamlined and filled with so little suffering. However, I would never want my pet to die. So, how was it that I was okay with these chickens dying, and even at my own hands? True, I had not spent time with these chickens, and developed any strong attachments. But I didn’t even have a ton of sympathy for them to end their little birdy lives. I balked at my speciesist sentiments. I found that even deep down inside, I didn’t find anything wrong with extinguishing their lives. Of course it would be different if they suffered or that their death was for nothing. But, I found that there was no emotional response in me that said ‘no! wait! don’t kill them! they don’t deserve it!’ I think I was more than half expecting that to be the case.
So, without an emotional feeling one way or the other, how do you decide if it is right or wrong to kill animals for your consumption? In the end, I felt pretty much that it came down to principles. IF your principles aligned with the idea that it is wrong to kill an animal for your consumption, then it is wrong. If you feel that it is okay for animals of another species to be killed for your consumption, then it is okay. I found that I couldn’t find a generalized argument for slaughter. It really came down to your own principles, your own beliefs. Emotions had little to do with it in the end. (And if you think about it – usually sympathy with animals utilizes an often fairly selfish speciesist mode: anthropomorphization).
After this experience I think I could better understand the idea that some people feel it is wrong to kill animals by virtue of only respecting them for what they are or can be for us, and not for what they simply are, period. When slaughtering chickens, unless you tried and thought about it, it was hard to not see them as simply meat on their way to becoming meat. Which I do agree does fall short of the respect that they deserve. But I also feel like the respect that I gained from this experience for the necessary sacrifice to enjoy meat approaches the level of respect that they deserve. I think I now have a stronger appreciation for how special meat is, and the costs of its enjoyment. It certainly has raised my consciousness to the process of eating meat. This, and this alone is all that I could really learn from this experience in terms of the moral implications of eating animals. And, although I had hoped for a more gripping emotional experience, and some cathartic break with previous principles and ensuring epiphany that would clearly tell me whether meat was right or not to eat, I think I can accept that this is what I was able to learn.
I do not feel that these sentiments that I have had should be shared by everyone. I think it is pretty individual, as eating meat really is up to the consumer. I am happy to feel like I was able to really face the death that is necessary for eating meat and was able to probe my feelings and in the end come to some understanding. In the end, the question of whether or not eating meat is right or wrong has not been clearly answered. However, after this experience, I think that I may have come to a point of acceptance in that maybe it isn’t a question that is easy and clear to answer.
Theresa’s Experience and Reflections:
As Laura has talked at great length, and I have already expressed a great deal of my view here on the blog already, I will try to keep my portion of this essay shorter.
I have eaten meat for the majority of my life. I was vegetarian for the most part in undergraduate school for reasons stated above. Laura exposed me to industrial meat woes, and we discovered how great local, humanely raised and processed local meat could be. I have been examining my own conceptions about eating meat, speciesism and animal rights recently, and this event was to see if being a part of the actual process changed my opinions on anything.
After hustling Laura out of the house in the morning, getting a run down and walking out to the processing unit. I volunteered to work on the kill side of the unit. I think I was far too enthused about killing a chicken to realize that it wasn’t that easy, and that I would be working fast all morning. We had about 400 chickens to kill before lunch.
Myself, and another lady, were tasked with removing the dead chickens from the killing cones, scalding them in the hot water bath, moving them through the plucking machine, and removing the heads and lower legs.
I will say this now, I did not personally kill a chicken this time around. However, I watched over 350 chickens die. By the end, I had seen it happen so many times, I knew I could do it, I had watched dozens of those chickens stiffen, quake and die. You know what mostly kept me back? My hands hurt. Cutting of the heads and feet required using large blunt shears to cut through connective tissue and bone, and after all the birds were finished, it was hard to squeeze anything. My weak hands! A week later, and they still ache when I make certain motions. Next time, though, I will do the deed myself.
However, did this affect or change my view of eating meat at all? Yes and no. I still believe that an animal that has lived a contented life and is treated to a quick death is potential food, with little to no guilt attached. We have honored the animal’s right to no suffering, and as little suffering as we can manage when we take their lives. However, I am contemplating eating perhaps a little less meat, knowing the work that goes into the harvesting of the birds. It is stressful for the people and animals involved, though less than I expected. We were all calm, and the birds were all calm. No humans cried or tried to rescue the birds, and no chicken tried to escape from the crates, even if they had the chance. Yet, it was hard work, and I don’t think we realize the work that goes into processing a good chicken every time we pop a broiler in the oven. Would I subject my pets to this process? Yes, but I wouldn’t want to. Before anyone jumps on me for that, understand I wouldn’t want them to die because I want their company, which is a different use for their lives, but if I was starving, this would be the way I would want them to go.
In all, I had a good day. It was hard work, and I was tired (wet chickens are heavy!), but I would do it all again in a moment.