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Eating things that were once alive

September 20, 2009
Mmmm...A chicken I gutted, prepped, dressed, cooked, and shared with friends. It was awesome.  See recipe below.

Mmmm... A chicken I gutted, dressed, cooked, and shared with friends.

                  So before moving to a farm, I was a vegetarian for about two years, and before than on and off since I was about 17.  I think being a vegetarian had more to do with facility and frugality than anything else.  I didn’t like eating meat that was produced in such a factory-like system, with all it’s animal waste pits, worker and community abuses, unethical treatment of living things, and force-fed subsidized corn, but I didn’t oppose the idea of raising and eating animals.  Plus, in my experience, if I said I was vegetarian people were a lot more accepting of my eating habits, than if I refused to only most of the time eat meat, go figure.  Because of all of this I was excited and a little wary of working on a farm that raised lamb and sheep for meat.  Lambs were so cute, baaahhh…or so I thought.  No, seriously they are cute, but they are also definitively not pets, a fact which took surprisingly little time to permeate my outlook on meat and livestock.                                                                                                                                                                                       Working directly with animals has shown me that an awareness of thenature of the unique  relationship between humans and the animals that provide them with food has evaporated from the American consciousness.  Now I understand that that statement is a little heavy, but the idea of raising and in some instances creating living things that you will one day also slaughter to eat, almost demands a different sort of relationship ethics than anything else I can think of, and since Americans eat so much meat (that is raised by so few)  and discussion on ethical eating is in swing, the topic demands more attention, I think.                                                                                                                                                                         I can only speak from personal experience and perspective, and to give you a sense of where I coming from I should say, I’m a care-giver by nature, to a little bit of a fault, I take in strays, move turtles out of the road, cuddle dogs that are not my own, and have wept over many a squished chipmonk, needless to say, I love animals almost weirdly.  So shifting my relationship with them, mostly sheep, but also a little bit with chickens and pigs, from that of a pet-owner to shepherd, gave me a little trepidation.   The switch, however was easy, with moments of challenge.  In general, I found that my bosses, the ultimate shepherds  cultivated an approach with us newbies that probably made it easier.  I guess the best way to describe it is detached care or respect.  There are however, some independent observations that have elucidated the process of ethical husbandry for me.                                                                                                                          First off, while the statement that farm animals are not pets seems simple, and is in many ways, working with animals highlights this in a way that feels almost like a slap across the face given how much work goes into the act. Each sheep is an independent being, and does have a personality, but they are so unhuman it is sometimes striking.  And generally, all they want from you is food.  They do not want to be touched, pet, cuddled, or even handled.  They come when called only when the calling is accompanied by the shakety – shake of a bucket of grain.  They do not attach to certain humans as dogs and cats do, and have memories of activity patterns that only last several days.  And, they were not bred to do such things.   Rams that I have bottled fed from birth, went through the same shifts in adolescence as rams naturally weaned onto grass, head butting my knee-caps even as I fed them.  Despite me roll as care-giver, I was definitely no mommy.  This is not to say that because of this lack of connection they do not deserve to live, but rather, much of the understanding of human-animal relationships seems to be informed by animals that are very different from livestock.                                                                                                              Secondly, when animals are raised ethically and sustainably (vague terms I know, let’s assume I mean on a scale that is not harmful to the environment and in a manner that respects the animal), there is much mutuality to the relationship between animals and their keepers.  Where I work, lambs that lost their mother were bottle-fed; we had a very rough spring and early summer and the quality of pasture and weather made maintaining the health of spring lambs difficult, the farmer and apprentices worked around the clock (literally nights, weekends, to exhaustion) to make sure lambs were healthy and well fed.  This attention is beneficial to both animal and farmer, it results in humane treatment and profits, neither one being the sole driver of such actions.  Lambs and sheep  here receive medical treatment when sick or injured, and are constantly monitored for good health and appropriate conditions.   We might not cuddle them, but they are very well cared for.                                                                                                                                                            Lastly, to end this very long, pro-meat diatribe, the slaughter process, which one might think is ghastly or at least simply a necessary evil, is a final ethical step before consumption.  I cannot speak to how animals are slaughtered everywhere, but done well, it is a quick process that many people go to lengths to make very fluid and comfortable.  I have killed and eviscerated  (gutted) chickens raised by a friend, and knowing how they were raised, the pause I gave the moment of the slice was relatively brief.  Recently I toured a slaughter-house cum butcher shop and was able to see 2 cows killed and eviscerated.  It was demystifying and really really neat.   The animals in this family owned, small scale shop were handled with care, and quickly and cleanly killed.                                                                                                  So to put  a finale on this rant, I leave you with a paraphrased quote from Joel Salatan in the recent “Food Inc.” movie, “If the entities that run these factory farms that produce meat and living things like a commodity, don’t treat their animals with any respect towards their existence as living beings, why would you expect that they would treat anything else (communities, humans, workers, the environment) with such respect.” Seriously, I saw the movie once, it’s a very loose quote.   But the point is that like sustainable/organic/local farming of vegetables, raising animals for meat has a special and important role in the system of production and consumption, that deserves its own ethical consideration and attention.  Farmers who bring us such meat, meat that we know, should really be lauded for their efforts to buck a system that commoditizes living things.   To maintain certain ethical treatment of animals and the earth required to raise them, they assume more risk and allot more work and thought to their practices.  The relationship is unique, and not as understood as perhaps it should be.

One Comment leave one →
  1. September 20, 2009 1:47 pm

    Great post. It seems like such an obvious fact, but it’s a very eye-opening one: farm animals are not pets.

    I try to eat only humanely treated, sustainably raised meat. Like you, I don’t oppose the idea of eating animals, but I do strongly oppose the factory farming system.

    Looking forward to reading more of your posts!

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