"May all your animals live a glorious life, with just one bad day" - Joel Salatin
I've been repeating this to myself a lot lately. Our dear hogs were sent off to the butcher a few days ago and I'm still trying to sift through my emotions. On one hand, I am excited to pick up our order of delicious ham, chops, bacon and sausage. We worked hard caring for these creatures and I'm eager to receive our end of the deal. But on the other hand, I have to admit I'm sad. We raised these hogs from babies, and while we never allowed ourselves to get really attached to them, we certainly felt affection for them. From the day they arrived, we made it a point to go in the pen each day with them, to scratch their ears and talk to them. They were never elevated to "pet status", but we cared for them and were emotionally invested in them. We named them, for goodness sakes. In fact, my husband insisted on naming them. Names have power, significance. Names are a constant reminder that these are creatures who deserve respect and dignity.
Awwww! Look how cute they were! Pearl was always the most curious one... Little Rose and Ned were more subdued.
We received countless questions along the lines of "How can you do that? Raise them, love them, and then eat them? Don't you feel guilty?" "How can you eat something you have looked in the eye?" The message I get is: "If you love animals so much, how can you bear to eat them?"
Don't get me wrong. I love animals. In fact, I could easily say I'm obsessed with them. For as long as I can remember, I have always wanted to make animals a part of my life. As a child, my occupation choices were "zookeeper" or "veterinarian" -my life revolved around learning as much as possible about animals. I was in 4-H. I adore animals and enjoying all aspects of caring for them (I don't even mind cleaning up poop).
Part of loving animals, though, is realizing that they are indeed animals, not humans. While I firmly believe animals have feelings and emotions, I also believe they don't process thoughts like us. We must be careful that we do not elevate them to human status - there is danger in humanizing animals ("Charlotte's Web" anyone?!? I'm dreading reading that to my children, even though it's a great book). The Bible clearly states in Genesis that mankind is to care for creatures of the earth, to rule over them. God put us in a position of authority over creation and it's inhabitants and He expects us to treat them with the honor and respect that they deserve - it's a command, not a suggestion!. I don't know about you, but to me, the word "rule" implies "to care for", "to protect", "to treat fairly and justly". What a noble task God has given to us!
Speaking of children, I want to state that we have always been completely honest and open with our children when they ask questions about where food comes from. They have the right to know the truth. As we drive by the industrial egg layer operations, I tell them what goes on in there and why we don't buy eggs from those places. My 6 year old son helped my husband butcher our rooster. When we brought the pigs home, we allowed our son to name one of the piglets. Then we sat down with him and explained to him that we were going to take very good care of Rose - we could love her and pet her and bring her treats. But one day we were going to butcher and eat her. He was silent for a moment, wheels turning in his little head. Then we informed him, "that's how we get sausage and bacon." He perked right up. "Ok!" It made complete sense to him - we take care of the pigs and then they will take care of us in return by providing meat. When other children come visit our farm, I don't beat around the bush. We're not doing our children any favors by allowing them to keep believing that meat magically appears on the grocery store shelves. We must teach them the truth about food.
Pearl, Ned and Rose in their final moments... relaxed and stress-free
We are fortunate that there is a mobile slaughtering company in West Michigan. We hired Keith DeYoung, of KDY, Inc. to come to our farm and handle the process (he handles the killing, skinning, eviscerating and then delivers the carcasses to a USDA approved processor, who transforms it into hams, bacon, sausage, etc.). Our other option would be to find a way to load up the hogs in a trailer and ship them to a slaughter house alive. We were reluctant to ship them, as any deviation from the hogs routine is extremely stressful for them. I could not imagine the terror and stress they would experience, being transported in a strange vehicle and herded into a slaughterhouse. People have been working hard the last few years to make the slaughter house experience as stress-free as possible, but like I said before, any deviation from routine can freak an animal out. I couldn't bear to do that to our dear hogs. We've also heard that stressed animals don't taste as good. Any hunter out there will tell you that a deer that is shot and runs for a while doesn't taste as good as an animals that dies instantly. Lactic acid is pumped into the muscles of stressed/scared animals and taints the flavor of the meat.
Pearl, our curious and mischievous girl
Keith arrived with his specialized truck, drove right up to the hog pen and got down to business. The mood was somber and serious. The air felt heavy as I realized the gravity of the situation. I could scarcely breath. These hogs would be sacrificed for us. No there was no joking, no chit-chat, no laughing. Keith loaded up his rifle and it was over quickly. My hogs felt no pain, no fear. I had tears of relief in my eyes, thankful that our hogs maintained their dignity until their final moment. There is nothing glamorous about killing animals, but Keith did it respectfully and honorably. I am grateful.
I made myself watch the entire process from beginning to end...and no, it did not make me want to be a vegetarian. On the contrary, it filled me with awe, reverence and thankfulness. I will never, ever take meat for granted again. I have witnessed first hand what it takes to get meat from the farm to our plates. Friends, meat is a precious, costly resource (financially, physically, emotionally), which should be consumed thoughtfully and with joy, not with indifference or ignorance. Be grateful. Life is precious - another living, breathing creature of God died so that you could eat and grow strong. I have looked my meal in the eye, cared for it, loved it... and I appreciate it all the more for it.
I would be lying if I failed to mention that my emotions fluctuate wildly moment by moment. One second, I'm grateful the hogs are gone. They were an enormous amount of work for me, as I was feeding and watering them 3-5 times a day. I was ready for a reduced work load and our reward of delicious meat. Then the next second, I glance out my kitchen window, looking for the hogs as I did all summer long... and realize they are gone. A strange sensation fills me... sorrow? Regret? Guilt? I don't know what to call it. We went into this hog raising endeavour knowing that we would eat them. We tried hard to not get attached, but of course we did.
Where do I go from here? I'm not sure... I find comfort knowing that our pigs lived a fabulous life, well fed, happy, comfortable, loved and cared for. As Joel Salatin says, we did our best to honor the "pig-ness of the pig", making sure that they were allowed to engage in the very activities for which God created them. They were allowed to root in the dirt, wallow in mud puddles and roll in the grass. My husband says they "won the pig lottery". I'm not sure they could have had a more glorious life.
The bad day is over. We enjoyed raising hogs and are already planning ahead for next year (speak up if you want to buy a half or whole!). I will watch the slaughter again and pray that I never lose my reverence and respect for their sacrifice. It was powerful, indescribable. I wonder how our world would be different if everyone had to look their meat in the eye before they ate, if they realized how sacred the act of eating another creature is. It's easy to forget you are eating a living breathing animal when the meat comes chopped, frozen and in a shiny package. I'm not trying to turn you off from eating meat - I'm simply trying to drive home the idea that meat is to be honored and respected. I see the $1 burger as an insult to the animal that died so we could have cheap "meat" (I question how much actual meat is in those pink slime infused, chemical and preservative-laden atrocities called "burgers"). Eat meat. Eat good meat. Eat meat from animals that were raised humanely, by people who care for their animals. If possible, look that animal in the eye before you eat it. Your life will be forever changed.... and you will be stepping into that role of "ruler" that God intended for you.
If you are grappling with issues of eating meat, there are several good resources out there to guide you. Check them out. If you have read another good book on the subject, please share with me!