Life and Death on the Backyard Farm

I’m sorry I’ve been absent. On the 17th we butchered Sauvage, and I just haven’t felt up to writing or even going on the computer.

I knew it wouldn’t be easy, and I anticipated getting emotional, but I’ve shed more tears for the rooster than I thought I would. I couldn’t even write this without tearing up. He was a mean little SOB, but I still loved him. I think the hardest part though was looking into his bright eyes, full of unmistakable sentience, and voluntarily snuffing that out.

Roosters are difficult to rehome, and I wasn’t comfortable taking the chance that he would go to a home where he wouldn’t be properly cared for. I was the unlucky person to find the remains of my neighbours’ chicken after a coyote went into their unlocked coop. I would rather give my roosters a quick death myself than send them somewhere where they’ll be mauled to death due to negligence.

Ultimately I decided to butcher him because part of the reason I switched Suki to homemade food was so I could ensure the meat used to feed her was humanely raised. It doesn’t get more humane than an animal that you’ve raised yourself, that died just a few feet from where it lived.

I wouldn’t blame you if you’ve wondered whether I eat chicken, or even meat in general. I’ve wondered that about other bloggers with pet chickens. Right now the answer is yes… And no. My meat consumption wasn’t particularly high to begin with, but after butchering Sauvage I haven’t been able to even look at chicken and I couldn’t eat any meat for nearly a week without feeling sick. I’ll likely continue to eat meat, including chicken, but even less than I did before and with a lot more scrutiny over whether the animal was raised humanely or not.

Years ago someone told me that if you can’t kill an animal yourself you shouldn’t eat meat, and that’s stuck with me ever since. I’ve never shied away from what eating meat entails, but this has shown me that there’s a huge difference between knowing it and actually taking part in it. I think if more people took that advice there would be a lot less meat consumption.

Warning: I’m going to talk a bit about the process, so if you don’t want to read about that just stop here. I didn’t take any pictures, and I don’t think photos would help anyone anyway, but if you’re about to go through this yourself I hope I can help mentally prepare you for it. As prepared as you can be, anyway.

Here are the videos I found helpful:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lDtXeMHOMLw (Has various methods, shows the death throes, etc.)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oEa2l5Fejck (This is the one J found the day we butchered)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NAJh9ehtTmA (We followed this one for cleaning out the body cavity. He talks about severing the esophagus to make getting everything out easier)

I opted to skin Sauvage instead of plucking because I didn’t want to deal with pots of hot water. The main mistake I made was trying to skin from the hock down, whereas it’s much easier to skin from the hip up to the hock as the skin is much more loosely attached around the hip.

The hardest part was, of course, actually killing him. I backed out two days before I was finally as ready as I could be. I opted for beheading because while gruesome, it’s the fastest way to do it with the least margin for error. The main concern was having him pull his head in at the last second and not making a clean kill. To keep his neck stretched out we made him a collar and leash out of gardening twine. We rehearsed how to actually kill him as quickly as possible to minimize his stress when we actually did it. I focused on keeping my heartbeat normal and calm in hopes he wouldn’t pick up on my stress. I held him for nearly 20 minutes, petting him until he was so relaxed he fell asleep, then in one swift motion I placed him onto the block, held him around the base of his legs, J pulled the twine tight, and swung the axe. He went from sleeping in my arms to dead in a matter of seconds, and I don’t think he even had time to realize what was coming. The most important advice I can offer is to make sure you have completely worked up the nerve to go through with it, because you cannot hesitate at all. Opt for a soft wood block instead of something hard like plywood so the axe can easily cut right through the neck. We made the mistake of using plywood and while his neck was severed enough to kill on the first hit, his head was still attached by a bit of skin and it was traumatizing thinking we hadn’t killed him in one hit. The death throes will be much less traumatic if you’re 100% certain the chicken is dead.

For me, once he was dead I was too preoccupied with skinning to really dwell much on what had just happened. It was while gutting that I first broke down. The organs are very tightly attached along the back and I was worried about bursting the intestines. I got so frustrated that everything I had been holding back came flooding out and I had to take a break to recompose myself before trying again. While you do need to be careful, the organs are not nearly as delicate as you are likely to think. If you’re having a hard time removing the organs it’s likely that you haven’t completely severed the esophagus near the breast bone. It helps a lot if there are two people so one can work a tablet with a video tutorial on it.

The second time I broke down was after he was in the slow cooker and I went to clean his feet for broth. It’s often the strangest things that hit home. Most people talk about how much they love their chickens’ fluffy butts, but for me it’s their adorable little feet. Picking them up really slammed home everything we had just done.

The last bit of advice I can give is to just give yourself time. I don’t think it’s weird to grieve for animals that you’ve butchered for consumption. Chickens are amazing little creatures that will steal your affection even if you try to remain distant. Afterwards you may find you’re not comfortable with eating meat, or you may just need to go vegetarian temporarily, or you may bounce back right away. I don’t think there’s a right or wrong way to react.

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