“Dammit. I loved that pig.”
The five words that ran through my mind for weeks last October. It is a hard enough thing to wake up to the mismanagement of the modern food system, and then, what is worse is to have one’s entire life of happily and comfortably eating processed food stuffs to overcome. You see, producing meat animals for one’s own consumption is quite uncomfortable. I always knew it would be, and always wished it were something I could overcome. I’ve always felt rather hypocritical gnawing on a chicken leg, which I knew had never carried the bird very far or to at all pleasant places. Not to mention the health benefits of consuming livestock raised at home, in a humane and healthful environment, rather than commercial meats fed Roundup ready corn and systemic antibiotics. But I must restate that it is quite uncomfortable.
We started out with the chickens. I find it a little amusing now, thinking back to the first few chickens that I “helped” Nicholas butcher. It was pretty hard for me at first. Not only was it sad to look into a living creatures eyes, knowing that you could just choose to not eat them, and they could go about their merry way, but it was also supremely yucky. Chickens are stinky, and poopy, and gross. which I guess kind of helps to make it okay to want to kill them. . . eventually I became pretty comfortable with butchering them, in that it didn’t make me too sad; however it is still really yucky. Since I have been with Nick, I have assisted in gutting, skinning/plucking, and butchering deer, several Dexter bulls, a friend’s goat, four old sheep, a gaggle of rabbits, and of course lots of chickens. I even did one of the deer and one of the sheep basically on my own (after the killing part of course). None of these animals were quite so tough for me as Bacon.
“We should get pigs,” My then boyfriend, now husband, Nicholas proposed. Nothing could be more undesirable to me. My arguments in opposition were ‘that pigs stink, they’re mean, they’re scary, and they could eat me; all of me.’ I realize now that my prejudices were completely wrong. Well, that last part was true, they could actually eat you if they wanted to. As usual my resistance was futile, and before long we had purchased a Tamworth gilt; papered, and adorable. We intended to breed the following year and are only now looking into finally getting her bred. Shortly after, we relieved the poor pig’s loneliness by picking up a scruffy little Berkshire cross to be her buddy. We obviously named him Bacon, because that way it would be TOTALLY CLEAR, from the VERY BEGINNING that HE WAS FOOD. I COULD NOT get attached that way. Uh huh… Sure.
To be frank the little buggers scared the crap out of me initially. Feeding the pigs was Nicholas’ job from the very beginning. But before long he had showed me that, much like horses, if you set boundaries and are assertive, they learn to give you your space and to respect you. It’s amazing how quickly I came to love the stinkers and wanted to feed them myself. I shall title this: A Regrettable Choice. Over the course of their lives, I became more and more attached to the pigs; I could scratch their tummies and make them lie down, they were good listeners, and they always followed you around the pasture looking for food or affection. As Bacon’s kill date drew nearer and nearer, I began to notice how attached I had become. After all, this little wiener had been a part of our daily lives for the better part of a year. And Princess Leia, our female pig, loved him dearly! Those two piggies snuggled with each other every night, and half the day. When they weren’t cunoodling they were following each other about the pasture looking for bugs or small mammals to devour. There were however a few occasions on which I felt I might be alright with Bacon’s demise; specifically when he would manage to escape his paddock and evade capture, leaving us out of breath and utterly without patience. But as it turned out, when the time came I really was less ready for butcher day than I had expected.
A balmy fall morning greeted us on the fateful day. We had invited our usual group of helpful and all around awesome friends to assist in the duties of the day after church. It was a surprising realization later that this was likely our first mistake. Nicholas and I spent the morning preparing for the task at hand with our usual butchering buddy arriving early to help. We set up a small pen to contain the pig, to be sure that if anything went awry we could dispatch him quickly, confined. After much coaxing and luring we managed to lead Bacon to the enclosure and gave him a few good tasting scraps as a farewell gift. Nick poured the whiskey and prepared the rifle. I thanked our friend for being there to help Nick with the slaughter, since I felt it was best to keep my distance for this part. I took to the kitchen and waited to hear the pop of the .22. When I did, I couldn’t help but peek out the window to see how things went. I was relieved to see how quickly he had gone down, and was even able to go out and assist in holding his body still as the last death throws wrought through him and he was bled out. Once it was over, and all was still, I felt much less emotional; for the moment.
It has occurred to me, in writing this piece, that many in the audience may not have much of an insight to my personality, and might find my emotional state in the following portion of the story hard to understand. To be brief, I am a rather introverted person. That doesn’t mean that I’m backwards, or hate people, or want to be alone constantly; it just means that I have a daily allotment of time in which I can be in a group, and after that period is up, socializing is no longer fun, and becomes incrementally more exhausting. I generally shut down and shut up once I hit this point. If you know me personally, you may have witnessed this phenomenon, and for that I’m sorry; it really isn’t personal. The period of time during which I find people fun is directly proportional to my existing emotional state before the interaction begins. Which explains why, when people began arriving, cheerful, and excited to start the day’s work, I, having just witnessed the death of a pet, began to feel more and more overwhelmed with every arrival. What was worse was that I didn’t feel comfortable enough to be vulnerable in front of the group, and to express my sadness, and so the band of friends was generally jovial and proceeded to help with the butchering process as if nothing was amiss at all.
I carefully washed the carcass, holding back tears as we got ready to dip the pig into boiling water, the first step in removing the hair of the animal. We soon learned that we knew very little about what we were doing and that there were a lot of improvements we needed to make the next time around. And I learned that while losing a pet of sorts is hard anyways, proceeding to mutilate the animal makes the experience much worse. What I really struggled with was the lack respect for the animal. Looking back, it now makes logical sense that this piece of meat was nothing more than just that to our friends, just as it should have been. But for me, I needed it to be and it should have been a somber event, where I could begin to mourn the loss. Instead I tried to bury me feelings and view the situation objectively. I pretty much failed at the second part.
That was a miserable day for me. The whole process is miserable work to begin with and to add to my frustration, we failed in few key steps that we had never attempted before, and I felt unheard and brushed aside the whole time. Our failures were understandable, given that we usually butcher fur-bearers or poultry, and it’s a whole different beast; literally… Unfortunately every failure was made more painful because I felt that I had not only betrayed but failed an animal that trusted me. I unsuccessfully tried to eat some of the meat that evening when everyone had left. It made my stomach turn. An unexpected side affect to butchering animals was that I’ve found the consumption of meat fairly difficult in general, for quite some time. Now, in February I am finally beginning to grow comfortable with it again by forcing myself to eat it regularly. I call it ‘emersion therapy’.
For months this struggle with eating meat and my intense negativity towards raising large meat animals caused an area of tension between Nicholas and me. He was concerned for my health, since I was replacing meat with more grains and it was obvious that I was not getting nearly enough fat or proteins, but he also felt my resentment surrounding the area of butchering and raising livestock. That may seem like a small thing for most couples, but raising livestock and butchering has become a large part of our lives, and is something that Nicholas is very passionate about. It is central to most of our life’s plans and goals, and he felt that I had suddenly changed all of my opinions on the subject and no longer wanted to support him in his passion. This of course is not what I wanted, but I was struggling much more with the trauma of that slaughter day than he knew, and I finally had to be honest with him. It felt like I cried buckets the day that I finally ‘confessed’. I told him of all of the sleep lost, the nightmares, and all of the regret that I felt. I opened up about every struggle, and finally let down my tough farm woman façade. There are a lot of aspects of farming where I can handle more than most, but being honest with my husband about what I cannot handle was one of the best things I’ve done this year. It was hard for him to understand. He had to be patient and take my word for a lot of things that he just didn’t get, but he listened and that is what I needed. For instance, I find that the pets in my life are truly enriching, and when I try to be objective about animals being food I end up missing out on the true friendship and beauty that some animals have to offer. The duality of animals is something that I cannot quite grasp; that some are dear friends and some are dinner. Trying to accept one role while excluding the other resulted in a totally unsatisfactory experience of life for me, any way I looked at it. Nicholas is able somehow to be good friends with our dogs, and enjoy the horses, but has no qualms with slaughtering other animals. I am learning that I their roles in our lives are more complicated than I believed before. Thankfully, since the lines of communication have opened up between us, and I have been open with myself and others about how hard it was to butcher Bacon, I have come a long way on the road to healing, and eventually, hopefully, acceptance. Nick has been so supportive, being willing to change future butcher plans to help me ease into the lifestyle in a way that will strengthen and encourage me, rather than traumatize me.
I don’t think that separating one’s emotions from one’s food by continuing to eat commercially produced meats exclusively is the answer. I don’t think it ought to be the answer for most people, but more importantly, I don’t think it’s the answer for me. I believe in what we do, that our meat is healthier for us, and that our animals live good happy lives while they are on this earth. It is important to me that I experience all that is sacrificed in order that I may live, so that I can learn to make better use of what is given to me, and to not waste resources in arrogance and ignorance, thinking not at all of the life that was. I want a life lived with respect and gratitude. It may get easier over time, simply because I will get used to it, and my bonds with future animals may not be so strong; I might learn to separate myself from them to begin with or my sensitivity may dull. I suspect there will be a mixture of these things over time that will make the process a little less painful. But until I get there, I need to come to a place where I can accept what it is we do as omnivores. I need to let myself grieve the animal on slaughter day, and I need to ensure that I’ll have the privacy to do so. If you also struggle with the execution of this difficult skill in your journey to a sustainable lifestyle, take heart. You aren’t the only one who finds it hard at first; in fact I believe the trauma of turning pet into meat is a fairly common struggle. It is important to give yourself permission to care, give yourself space to mourn, and give yourself the time to become accustomed to this way of life, which has become so foreign to most of us, but should really be natural to all of us.