the epic tale of one vegetarian farmer’s travels into the world of “humane” animal slaughter
by Casey O’Leary, Earthly Delights farmer
My ideology seized me the night before, as I sobbed and blindly transferred the girls from their usual roosts one by one into the plastic dog carrier that would be their final sleeping quarters, fumbling in the dark until my shaking hands would poke a startled squawk and give away their otherwise stone sleeping bodies. Finally sixteen, tucked away, or so I thought, and tucked myself away then, too, dreading the morning.
Upon opening the coop to the usual morning ruckus, a single set of orange wings burst out in search of sunshine and food amidst the sea of black chickens. This old girl had eluded me in the coop last night, and I tried to catch her this morning, to seal her fate with the others of her generation, who had grown too old to lay much and were going to serve as our first foray into the other side of livestock management. Yes I, the former vegan turned egg lover by the good humor and genuine farm contributions of these very same birds, was now going to (maybe) try my hand at ending their lives. I told myself it was a necessary part of raising laying hens. I told myself they had lived very wonderful and happy lives, that their suffering would be brief, and we would know once and for all whether we could in good conscious raise and care for, in all stages, a flock of laying hens.
The single orange bird flapped and ran from me as if her life depended on it. It did. After fifteen minutes of diving into the muck trying to catch her, I named her Lucky (the only one of my girls with a name), and returned to the task of the day.
Our helpers (or, rather, teachers) weren’t due to arrive until 10:00, and I decided the doomed hens deserved a last meal of tasty grass and clover, so I busied myself fencing off a little yard near where the killing would take place, so they could graze contentedly until their untimely end would come.
At 10:00 sharp, Ramon pulled up in his big truck, helping out of it his 86-year-old mother, Miren (mee-DEN), and her sister Mercedes. The two elderly Basque women, clad in colorful aprons, rushed for us, much like hens themselves, hobbling and flapping and squawking their hellos. Miren proudly brandished her favorite tool for this project, a long, sharp knife she had brought over from the Basque country. Ramon slapped Marty (my farming partner) on the back with a hearty hello, while the ladies clucked on in a dance between English and Spanish about how excited they were, how long it had been since they had helped butcher chickens, what a beautiful day it was for this.
“Ay, Ca-See, ¿Como te sientes hoy?” Miren asked me. I told her I was very nervous and maybe wouldn’t want to help at all. She swatted me on the butt, muttering, “Yes, si, si, difícil…la primera vez…”.
We led the three of them to the spot in the grass where we had set up a table with a propane stove and a big kettle. They ordered us to bring more buckets for guts and feathers, sealing my reluctance to participate into a terrified hiding while the first few girls met their fate. Slowly, I crept out to peek, thinking mostly of Miren and Mercedes, of how wise and comfortable they were, how capable and kind. They saw me watching and called me over to where they sat on stools plucking dead chickens. I watched for a moment, not even able to recognize the birds in their adept hands, soggy masses of feathers that did not resemble in the slightest the girls I had loved and cared for the past years. I sat down next to them as they expertly cleaned each tiny, bony bird with tiny, bony fingers. My large hands felt awkward and uncomfortable as I tried to pluck the stiff tail feathers, but the sisters assured me my work was satisfactory.
Ramon was teaching Marty how to slaughter a hen the way they do it in the Basque country, holding the girl between his elbow and waist, slicing her neck, and holding her as she bleeds out and dies. This extremely close contact, cradling the bird as she dies, seemed to me a very tender and gentle way to do it, and certainly a more personal one. No axe-length distance to this method. I glanced quickly at the girls remaining in my makeshift yard, worried they sensed what was coming. They did not. No idea. They were just walking around, pecking and scratching, like every other day of their lives. That made me feel a bit better.
As we sat and plucked, Miren and Mercedes inducted me into the beautiful mindset of farm women, who understand completely the connection between live and animals and food on a table, and all the unglamorous but essential steps along the way. The three of us women working in a circle, sharing stories about life, love, language and culture, is now etched as one of the fondest memories of my life. Although they did not dwell on it, the gravity and tragedy of what we were doing while socializing was tenderly present, as one of them would casually glance over at the pen of hens-in-waiting, shake her head, and mumble, “pobrecitas”, poor little things, then return to the whirr of feathers in front of her.
We slaughtered fifteen birds that day, and each soup made with one of them is deserving of a commemorative tale of its own, infused with all the stories of the life and death of the bird. And while I am still by and large a vegetarian, I do respect the place well-raised and well-slaughtered meat has at a loving, healthy table. I feel so grateful to have experienced the transformation from animal to food the way I did, instead of the way it almost exclusively takes place in this country, in huge factories behind closed doors that keep a kind-hearted population supplied with meat they would never buy if they saw the way the animals lived and died. Thank you to all the chickens who have given me wonderful eggs and meat these past few years, to Ramon, Mercedes, and Miren for sharing their beautiful skills with us, and to all of you who make conscious decisions about what you choose to put in your bellies. Bon Appetit!