eating meat, killing animals, and reconnecting

29 Mar

meat chickensPlease be warned: This post includes both graphic description and graphic images of animals being slaughtered. If you do not wish to read/see this, please navigate away.

One of the recurring conundrums in my wellness odyssey is the consumption of meat.

We, as humans, have developed such a strange and uncomfortable relationship with non-human animals; from domesticated livestock that are treated like soulless burgers-on-legs, to pets whom we subject to unending confinement and training. Because we believe that animals are lesser beings, our moral compasses somehow seem to allow for a wide array of mistreatment and subjugation. The factory farming and dairy production systems are prime examples of how far we have fallen in our respect for non-human life.

Carl Sagan famously wrote:

Humans — who enslave, castrate, experiment on, and fillet other animals – — have had an understandable penchant for pretending animals do not feel pain. A sharp distinction between humans and “animals” is essential if we are to bend them to our will, wear them, eat them — without any disquieting tinges of guilt or regret. It is unseemly of us, who often behave so unfeelingly toward other animals, to contend that only humans can suffer.

It seems to me common sense that animals suffer. They feel pain, they scream when they are slaughtered, and they mourn the deaths of other animals. Anyone can see this if they take the time to look.

That being said, I still eat meat.

My main objective, as I’ve previously stated, is to become more ethical in my eating habits. And honestly, I don’t believe eating meat to be inherently unethical (sorry, vegans).

Humans have been eating meat for millions of years. We were once part of a complex ecosystem, in which we ate other animals, and other animals ate us. In fact, the development of an omnivorous diet is what allowed our brains to grow in size and ability. In short, we would not even be able to have this philosophical debate about the moral implications of eating meat if our ancestors had continued to subsist on nuts, tubers, leaves and berries. Vegan apes would never become humans. And in many ways, that would have been better for everyone.

But here we are, millions of years later. Our brains allow us to create complex societal structures, which effectively remove us from the immediacy of a natural food chain. We create our own food chain, in essence, and we are always at the top. But somewhere along the way, we lost respect for those lives that are taken to feed us.

So, in my experience, it is the treatment of the animals we raise for food that is ethically objectionable. Cattle are confined to revolting feedlots, pumped full of chemicals, and abused by heavy machinery. Pigs are kept in filthy small pens, and are brutally slaughtered in front of their family members (which, for animals more social than dogs, is tantamount to torture in my book). Chickens’ beaks are chopped off, and the birds are kept in battery cages so small they cannot turn around.

Completely aside from the health risks of factory farming, how could I possibly feel good about eating an animal that knew nothing but suffering during its brief life?

A vegan’s approach to answering this dilemma is to abstain from consuming any and all animal products to avoid culpability for the suffering of animals. I have a lot of respect for ethical veganism, and while a nutritionally extreme approach, it is not far in intent from my own goals. Although my views are constantly changing (and I’m open to suggestions/comments), I still think it is possible to consume animal products and maintain ethical eating practices. After all, we are all animals, and…

Animals kill and eat each other. That’s how nature works. Even my seemingly benign and over-domesticated dogs will unhesitatingly kill any small furry/feathered creature in their paths. So how are we different? It seems to me that it is our capacity for cruelty toward living creatures that differentiates us from other animals in this regard. Our ability to relegate other living beings to the realm of “objects” or “property” is reprehensible and destructive. It was not always this way.

David Petersen told the Sun during an interview about hunting (December 2009 issue):

For hundreds of millennia prior to the advent of agriculture – which reduced wild animals, via domestication, to soulless “property ” -our human forebears hunted, killed, and ate animals, just as animals hunted, killed, and ate them. Throughout all that formative time… humans everywhere on earth had an animistic spirituality in which animals were not lesser beings but equals… our duty, our debt of reciprocity, was to honor and respect the animals who give their lives and whose lives are taken. This animistic spirituality, in my view, provides the highest moral guidance as to how we should relate to animals. But with the spread of agriculture and domestication, animism was was replaced by increasingly human-centered dogmas that conveniently put us on a higher plane than “soulless” animals.

I love that interview. It talks a lot about hunting (which I will do for the first time this Fall), and how taking the life of an animal can connect you with the food that you eat. Petersen also discusses the ethics of predation:

…in our culture, in order to even entertain the idea of an ethical predator, the observer must approach the subject with an open mind. Ethical hunting is predicated on dignity and respect: Dignity in our private thoughts and public words as well as in our actions afield when, as hunter Aldo Leopold pointed out, nobody is watching us. And respect, not only for the animals we hunt, their habitats, and the greater natural world, but also for ourselves as hunters and human animals. Carry those two blessed burdens in your heart, and you will do no moral wrong as a predator.

So, being a woman of action, I set off to more fully appreciate the animals I consume. I had already made the switch to ethically raised meat (pastured local beef, local free-range chickens/eggs, etc.), and had drastically reduced my meat consumption. But I still felt like the neat plastic-wrapped sirloins and breasts I took home weren’t making the connection for me. How could I justify eating meat if I couldn’t take that life myself?

Honestly, I didn’t know if I would be able to do it. I’m one of those people who take spiders and insects found in the house outside, gingerly caught in Tupperware containers and placed in the garden to continue prowling. (Mosquitoes, black widows and flies are fair game, however, due to their respective parasitic/inflammatory, painful, and disease-ridden statuses.) I’ve never killed anything with fur or feathers. I can hardly even stand to watch suffering in nature. I once took a whole family of baby moles home to my parents after their burrow had collapsed. But, I honestly feel that if I am unwilling to take a life, I should not have the right to eat the meat that comes from taking a life.

I went to a local chicken operation in Mesilla to slaughter chickens yesterday. I’ve been to their place a couple times before to talk about Joel Salatin’s model of raising meat birds (which they employ), and to snap photos of the chicks and pens as part of my project.

I have to say that the process of killing chickens was surprisingly un-disgusting. The farmer and I were helped by her three young children, who were quite adept at killing, scalding, and defeathering the birds. For those of you who don’t know how it works (graphic photos follow… viewers beware):

  1. The bird is placed in a metal cone, head down. The head is pulled through the opening at the bottom. This prevents too much struggling and the “chicken with its head cut off” syndrome. The throat is slit, and the chicken bleeds out. It only takes 5-10 seconds to die, and then the chicken thrashes around a bit after death.
    chicken slaughter
  2. The dead chicken is placed in hot water for a minute or so, to scald the skin so the feathers can be more easily removed.
    scalding chicken
  3. The scalded chicken corpse is placed in a large tub with rubber protrusions. The tub spins very fast when turned on, kind of like a washing machine. The rubber protrusions remove almost all of the feathers.
    chicken defeathering
  4. The chicken is then ready to be eviscerated. The head is chopped off, the feet are removed, and the organs are cleaned from the body cavity.
    chicken gutting
  5. Ta-da! Ready for dinner.
    chicken for dinner

The whole process takes less than 10 minutes per bird.

I helped. I took photos. I participated in every step of the process.

Do I now feel more connected to my food? Well, I cooked up some chicken last night in a stir-fry. I thanked that animal genuinely, and was grateful it had led a cruelty-free life. I did not just give lip-service to a feigned gratitude; I meant it. And it hardened my resolve to avoid meat raised inhumanely, and to decrease my overall meat consumption.

Makenna Goodman summed up my feelings about killing chickens pretty well when she wrote:

It’s about being connected to the very foundations of self sufficiency, and understanding that meat does not simply fall from the sky, packaged on a shelf in a supermarket; it comes from a living, breathing being. Chicken killing at home is deep. Emotional. Ethical.

What about you? If you eat meat, would you be willing to take a life? What are your thoughts on ethical hunting as described by David Petersen in his interview with the Sun? Do you think we can ever reestablish humans’ place in a natural order based on our respect for animal life, or do you believe that predation and respect for animals are mutually exclusive values? Chime in! (Respectfully, of course.)

4 Responses to “eating meat, killing animals, and reconnecting”

  1. Shelley March 28, 2011 at 2:54 pm #

    Wow. Thank you for sharing this. The images manage somehow to achieve beauty in the grotesque. I, like you, often struggle with my impact on the world around me. I am not a vegan, but am thinking of becoming one. Perhaps I too should go kill a chicken… I am one of the disconnected urbanites, with no appreciation for my food.

    • ThisAmericanDiet April 5, 2011 at 5:36 am #

      Thanks for visiting, Shelley! Thanks for the kind words. I’m glad to hear you are giving thought to how your eating habits impact our world. The eternal question: to meat, or not to meat? I read a great article in YES! Magazine the other day here, that allows ol’ Salatin to ramble on about the ethics of eating meat. Worth a read if you are facing that dilemma.

  2. Dave D. April 4, 2011 at 10:47 am #

    Thanks Ramey for sharing your experience. I also wonder what it would be like to actually have to kill my own meat before eating it. I hope to make the opportunity to do that before too long. Understanding where most of our meat comes from gives me a much greater respect for hunters who do the whole process for themselves to an animal who has had a respectable life. I am curious how it goes if you decide to go hunt some larger animal and how it feels to take its life in order to eat.

    -Dave from CS

    • ThisAmericanDiet April 5, 2011 at 5:33 am #

      You’re very welcome, Dave! I hope you get a chance to connect with your food in this way. You might be surprised what you learn about yourself as a human, and about your relationship with other living beings.

      You can be sure I will document my hunting experience and share it here. We put in for an elk tag, and I’m off to hunter safety class soon. ;)

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