Wednesday, 14 April 2010

On decapitating my dinner...

Until I turned 26 I'd been mostly vegetarian for 13 years. I abstained from fish until I was about 18, and once I became a pescetarian I still avoided meat until I was converted by a roast duck breast in orange sauce. A delicious one. I don't regret spending so long without meat, nor do I feel guilty about consuming it now. The meat industry-sponsored lie that vegetarianism is unhealthy has no factual basis at all, while militant vegetarianism is both fatally unrealistic and often equally bereft of meaningful first-hand information.

One challenge that vegetarians often ask of carnivores is whether they would be prepared to kill their own dinner. Since I started eating meat again, and perhaps because I came to it later in life, I've tried to educate myself about the processes of livestock rearing, slaughter and butchery so that I can make well-informed decisions about meat consumption that favour humane and sustainable methods. I'm still hugely ignorant of the butcher's art, so I want to know exactly where certain cuts come from, what happens to the leftover parts of slaughtered animals, and which methods of killing are best for all parties. Inevitably, this includes exposing myself to a bit of gore. Through exposure I've become more educated and less squeamish, and it seemed an appropriate next step to participate in a killing, to not only witness but become participant in the delivery of death that gives us meat.

I don't believe that every person who eats meet should necessarily have to kill their dinner, mainly because this is unrealistic. It's akin to demanding that vegetarians only earn the right to eat vegetables once they've grown their own. However, few would dispute that growing your own provides a lot of educational and gastronomic value, prompting consumers to appreciate the risks, inconsistencies and economics of food production, not to mention almost always providing optimal freshness and nutrition. The same values are imparted through participating in livestock slaughter, with the added benefit of providing a real insight into the ethics of meat production. Depending on others to slaughter and prepare meat assumes a degree of trust, and where free range and organic produce is concerned, we may rely too readily on certification systems whose stamps of approval rub salve on our doubts. It is entirely possible to raise certifiably free-range, organic chickens using highly mechanised, industrial methods. These meat products may meet official welfare standards (often agreed after consultation with industry lobbyists) but would they meet your personal ones? There's no better way to find out than taking part in a slaughter yourself. As I said, I'm not so extreme as to say that anyone unwilling to do this is unworthy of the right to eat meat, but it should least bring them to question why they would ingest something about which they have such little intimate knowledge. What, truthfully, does passing the dirty work onto someone else actually bring the consumer? If the answer is willful ignorance of uncomfortable facts, then I think it is right to challenge their consumption choices because these decisions have real impacts on the environment, rural economy and animal welfare.

I was offered a chance to help with the slaughter of five chickens on my second day at Cascina dei Frutasè. Simone, Bruno's elder son, had to choose five of the fattest of their couple dozen chickens and kill them for use in the family's restaurant, with leftovers eaten in the house. I'd built up the event to signify something important, some rite of passage that would leave me forever changed. In actual fact it was over quickly, five chickens squawking and pecking one minute, all dead about half an hour later. I wasn't profoundly changed by it, so can't offer any reflective wisdom. It's just a mundane farm task, one that nobody really likes but is essential in a food economy that places a high value on top-quality meat. First they're alive, then they're dead. The best I can offer is to explain how it happens:

Simone brings me into the coop and casts about for the largest birds. They're given plenty of space to cluck around outdoors, but all are kept inside while the best ones are chosen. There's a slight sense of panic as Simone and I move around, and the chickens do appear to express fear, especially when Simone shoots his arm out to grab a chosen bird by the legs. The captured chicken is quickly turned upside down, where it goes into a strange kind of repose as Simone carries it out of the coop by its feet. Possibly frozen with fear, or maybe just confused, it remains completely still, wings folded tightly, while Simone fixes a little noose around its feet. I carry the bird by the string and we go outside, to a mesh fence where several hooks await. The bird is hooked onto the fence by the string around its feet, and Simone shows me how to hold its wings. It will jerk and panic, he warns, and its wings need to be held tight to prevent it from spraying blood or injuring itself further in its last seconds. We lift the wings up and I hold them together where the joint meets the shoulder. I instantly recognise this part of its anatomy – it feels exactly like a naked chicken wing you'd prepare to cook: a large joint, thin layer of skin and tender meat beneath. I don't know why but this is the strangest moment of the whole experience, my hands recognising a consumer product while my eyes see a living animal. Simone takes a very sharp knife, used exclusively for slaughter, and explains that he needs to slit a vein in its throat, not an artery, or else the blood will spray and squirt. He begins sawing into the red skin of the chicken's neck while the bird remains silent and still, as if it knows there's no point in resisting. Success is marked by the sound of a sizeable tear into the skin, followed by the steady flow of blood onto the concrete block below. It comes fast enough to give the chicken a quick death but, as Simone had hoped, flows smoothly rather than splutters. Its fight or flight responses kick into gear and it tries to flap its wings. I hold it steady, hating that I'm winning such an unbalanced fight but conscious that its fate will be worse, its death more gruesome and prolonged, if I allow it to flap away, hanging upside down with its throat cut. I look more directly at it before it dies and see it mechanically opening and closing its mouth, trying to take breaths that will never come. Its body swells and deflates, still searching for air, still employing its instinct to keep living, until it all stops, forever.

The whole process, from capturing the chicken in the coop to taking it off the slaughter hook, hasn't lasted more than a couple minutes. There's no doubt that those last moments of its life are awful, having been lifted from relative freedom to captivity and dispatched by a knife to the throat. I can't pretend that I can sense animal emotion, so I won't offer anything as glib as a reassurance that it led a happy life. I have no idea what chicken happiness would look like. What I can offer is an invitation to look into the condition of birds in high-density factory farms if you find what I've written above, or these photos, upsetting. What I can infer about animal emotion would hold that the freedom to walk in open space, eat a mixed diet and experience regular sunlight is something that Bruno's chickens are naturally inclined toward. Factory farming gives animals a death which is probably no more or less traumatic, but subjects them to a traumatic life.

I understand why the up-close reality of animal slaughter is upsetting. It asks us to confront death and our complicity in causing it. As meat eaters we are complicit in death on an enormous scale, and though I wouldn't expect everyone to kill an animal to prove their worth as a carnivore, I would insist that our choices about meat are considered with these factors in mind. If they make you uncomfortable then you may want to rethink those choices, because the more distance you put between yourself and the source of your meat, the uglier the processes which bring it to your table are.

All photos were taken by me, just after the slaughter and during their preparation for butchering.


  1. Even although i wasn't able to participate in the actual slaughter i feel exactly the same way about the meat on our plates. Just from tending to the chickens every day and appreciating that they thrive in a nice, clean and open enclosure with access to daylight. Seeing how beautiful and heathly looking they were makes me shudder at the thought of meat reared under horrendous industrial methods. How can we enjoy the flesh of an animal that has suffered.
    You make me proud wee man!

  2. Bastard... Poor animals... You're a psycho!