"United we bargain, divided we beg."

Friday, August 13, 2010

Question for People Who Kill Their Own Meat

I've posted before about butchering our animals. We butchered quite recently. I've posted about my feelings on meat eating in general, and also about eating our own animals (Too Many Roos, and Musings on Meat (WARNING - GRAPHIC PICS)). The question has come up (to put it mildly) as to how we should treat this issue as regards the kids?

My husband is from Mexico, and his family raised chickens, ducks, and pigs for meat. Homero cannot remember a time when he wasn't aware that the family animals were killed and eaten. But he does remember a specific occasion, when he was about eight years old, that his mother was preparing for a fairly large party, a party that required the demise of more than a few chickens. Up until that point, his job had been to catch chickens and bring them to his mother, who would stretch their necks. This time, when he brought her a chicken, she already had one in her own hands and said "Andale, hijo! Matalo!" Which means, "buck up, kiddo, and kill it already!" That was his introduction to killing chickens with his own hands. He doesn't remember this incident as traumatic, but the fact that he does remember it clearly shows it made a serious impression.

Homero also told me the story of his younger brother's "pet" duck. Now, Mexicans don't have farm animals as pets. In fact, they barely have pets at all. Seriously. I know there are a few here and there, but I feel totally confident in saying that in general, dogs are guard animals; cats are rat-catchers; burros are pack animals; and everything else is food. Little brother's duck was never ever going to live out it's life as a pet. Little brother was aware of that. But on the awful day that the duck appeared on the table, little brother said he wasn't going to eat any and went and sat in his room. Now understand, in my husband's family when they were children, meat was a treat eaten once a week or less. Little brother sat up in his room fuming for several minutes before his stomach won over his conscience, and then came down and ate the duck with tears streaming down his face.

When this story was told to me, everyone laughed uproariously, including little brother (now thirty-some years old.). I don't doubt for a second that little brother had strong negative emotions at the time. But in that world, the death of animals for food, including those who had been known by name, was simply a given fact of life, not something in the least open to debate. All children had to confront the facts of life; it was understood to be unpleasant, but not traumatic in any lasting way. Children, like little brother, who had trouble were teased and cajoled until they got used to it.

In my own family, there is a famous incident that all three of us kids remember vividly - the day Dad killed the rooster. We normally didn't eat any of our animals for food. I think mom put the kibosh on that idea. But we had a rooster who was vicious and attacked us kids, so Dad decided to kill it. He further decided that all three of us children had to line up and watch as he laid it on the chopping block and chopped off its head.

I remember the bright blood fountaining out of the stump. I remember the headless body flopping about. I remember being terribly excited and also kind of scared. I don't remember much after the body stopped flopping. Did he cook it? Did we eat it? Can't remember. As an adult, I don't think Dad made the right decision, but I understand why he did what he did. I do not feel traumatized, though I was the oldest child (maybe seven?) and it's possible my younger siblings received a more severe and lasting shock than I did.

Among the people I know who raise their own animals for food, there is a wide range of opinion on when and how to introduce children to the reality. Should they be totally shielded even from the knowledge that meat comes from dead animals? Should they know the generalities but be shielded from the process of killing and butchering? Should they be fully included in the whole process, from raising the animal to eating it? And what ages are appropriate for different levels of involvement?

I think our position is probably clear to anyone who reads this blog - we hide nothing from our children, but neither do we force their participation. Our children are currently five and a half, almost seven, and sixteen. The sixteen year old is a vegetarian. She has tried many different ways of eating ethically, including killing a chicken herself with her own hands. After much thought and serious consideration, she has decided not to eat meat. That's absolutely fine with me and I respect her immensely for doing the necessary work to arrive at her decision. Our smaller children know that we eat our own animals, and they were peripherally present when we butchered - that is, they were running around doing their own thing and not paying a whole lot of attention but if they had wanted to stop and watch they would have been allowed to. C., our friend who did most of the work, has a seven year old son who physically assisted him with the actual killing of the animal. Homero was impressed and proud of the boy, and said something to the effect that someday his children would be helping him.

So far, our smaller children don't have the mental or moral maturity to evaluate killing and eating the way they will one day have to. When that day comes, we will try to help them through it compassionately and factually, and explain why we eat the way we do, according to their ability to understand. Until that day, we want their default position to be that raising, killing, and eating animals in a natural, healthy way is absolutely normal, and that there is nothing frightening or repugnant about it.

Obviously, there are many ways to approach these issues. I'm curious as to how your family does it. If you raise and butcher your own meat, would you please take a moment and let me know how you do/did handle introducing your children to it?


Jerry said...

I appreciate your apparent interest in truly considering this issue. More people should follow your lead.

I think there definitely tends to be a cultural aspect to this. Cultures that are closer to the hunter/gatherer model, I think, tend to be more matter of fact about introducing children to this aspect of the cycle of life.

Personally, as you probably know, I grew up eating almost totally off the farm. As such, like your kids, I was aware of that time of year when chickens were slaughtered, was generally somewhere around when the slaughtering happened, and could be immediately present if I wanted...and sometimes I did want. I don't remember being pushed towards taking part in the killing. As I recall, the first lives I took were in what felt like self defense as I was being attacked by a rooster. I actually took out probably 5 or 6 aggressive fellows before I got old enough to drive them off rather than thumping them hard enough to kill them.

But to my own feelings on what you have asked about...

As you might guess, I am all for looking for balance in this issue. Death is a natural part of life, carnivores eat meat which must be killed, herbivores eat plants and are often eaten by carnivores, we are omnivores that must kill to live whether the life taken be plant or animal or fungus. I believe kids should be raised with awareness of these facts. I don't believe in being callous towards the taking of life, however, and as I have grown I have realized that there is no hierarchy of importance of life form...meaning that it is as significant to end the life of a plant or a fungus as it is to end the life of another animal.

As for pets, I appreciate and enjoy the companionship of friendly animals but I think we can get a tad overboard with this, like many things.

Jerry said...

I should add that I know earlier generations in my family would have likely been more matter of fact about animal slaughter and were likely a lot more direct about involving their kids in this harvest process, like all other farm processes.

Penelope said...

Even though we have talked numerous times about where meat comes from, and are careful to call beef "cow" and pork "pig" and such, selah (4 1/2) came home from school a few months ago totally incredulous that her friends told her that chicken soup has real chickens in it "how can that be mama? Real ones that walk and poop?!" I was surprised that she hadn't already understood that when we (I thought very clearly) said that. It made me wonder whether or not we should be letting her eat meat yet. As a vegetarian with a meat eating husband, my position was always that the kids could eat meat (with my complete respect and blessing) when they understood it and made the choice. I have also talked to them about the fact that for our "life force" to be sustained we have to consume the life force of another, be that carrot or cow. However I do feel that untill they are old enough to grasp some of those ideas they should be fairly well shielded from the nitty gritty parts (the killing and butchering). We made some mistakes in starting our farm that I wish I could undo, mainly that when we first got goats I didn't think that there was any chance in hell of us ever butchering one, so those first ones were named and considered pets, especially by the children, eating pets is WAY different than eating animals raised for meat, and in my opinion a cruel and potentially devestating introduction to the idea, and therefore something that I feel they should be absolutely guarded against knowing anything about. Even though I am a vegetarian, I firmly believe that raising and eating meat is a crucial part of a sustainable future, and I want them to be totally comfortable with it, that much more reason to shield them from anything that might make eating meat not feel good.

Penelope said...
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Penelope said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Penelope said...

Sheesh, I'm sorry, I had trouble with that, it was totally not my intention to post that more than once!

Penelope said...

I wanted to further add that as we approach the time to slaughter the first animal that we (meaning Marcus, and the kids if they want to) will eat, the unnamed buckling born this spring, we have been thinking a lot about this subject, and how to deal with it with the kids. They have always known that the table is this animals fate, but how we will talk about it when it happens and particularly how we will honor it's having given us it's life and make it a sacred experience is still something we don't yet really know, only that that will be of the utmost importance.

Aimee said...

I very much agree with the idea of making slaughtering a ritual event. For many people, I suppose that the blessing at the dinner table fulfills that function. But I think a prayer, or a moment of silence, or whatever ritual a family comes up with is appropriate to the time of slaughter. Luckily, this impulse is (or was) pretty much universal, so there ought to be many many different traditions to learn about and choose from or adapt.

el said...

I wouldn't say we make a ritual of it but we don't shield our daughter away from the reality of our animals' deaths at all. That wasn't always the case: she's 6.5 and yes I've been butchering for 4 of those years. She knows who's destined for the freezer and who isn't; we're, for example, keeping two of our home-hatched pullets (out of 18 birds) so she's lobbying for her favorites.

I will tell you a funny story, though. My mom was watching my daughter while I was killing some chickens. She obviously woke up from her nap (she was about 3.5) and toddled outside to see what I was doing without my mom's noticing. I had three big headless chickens feet up in the pot of hot water to pluck them, and out she comes. I stopped her by saying "You know your (other) grandma used to go to her grandma's house when she was plucking chickens. She said she always hated the smell of the scalding birds because it smelled like wet dog."

She's standing next to me at this point. She's not exactly agog but she's holding her nose and wincing.

"It doesn't smell like wet dog. And, are you going to take their feet off before we eat them?"

Obviously I don't have a problem with her.

But on another note: I found someone willing to do my butchering for me at $2 a bird. Can't beat that!

Andy Brown said...

My father grew up on a farm, but left it to be a teacher. I remember though several times in my childhood where the extended family would get together to butcher a few pigs. I remember it as great fun, with an uncle rendering the lard in a great cauldron, and us helping grandma making sausage, and trying to pin the pigtail on some unsuspecting aunt, and all the carving up of the carcasses. I learned more about where meat comes from in those autumn afternoons than any other time. But the slaughter had been done ahead of time by a local Amishman, so we didn't actually have to witness the blood and death part. So that stayed more abstract, which was probably fine by us.

I'm not likely to be raising meat animals soon, unless it's a few backyard chickens, but my oldest son is 12 and I'm considering doing some hunting with him, which is another way to show the death and gore that underlies an omnivorous diet.

Leslie @ Farm Fresh Fun said...

Just found your blog and am enjoying it. We share your thoughts and musings... Our kids have always known yet been allowed to choose what they feel comfortable with... We say a prayer of thanks and do our best to make sure our animals are raised happy n healthy and die swiftly and without fear. Still, it's an open conversation and we consider being vegetarian from time to time! Anything beats eating factory farmed animals or worse yet saying "I just choose not to think about it." THAT makes me ill!Thanks so much for all you share here.

~Tonia said...

My girls have been there since the time they were little 3-4yrs old chickens, rabbits,hogs,goats and deer butchered it doesnt seem to bother them and they have a rather morbid fascination with all the guts and how they work.. The older they get the more they help but as little ones they are just there
But we know from the start who is going to the freezer and who isnt! If they know from the beginning and not shocked to see their pet hanging there then its better that way.
Now that they are 12 & 13 if they start getting overly friendly with something intended for the freezer I remind them and its usually met with a Yes mom we know!

It also helps that their dad explains how to do things and nothing is treated cruel.

Garden Lily said...

I agree with your "compassionate and factual" approach. As an urbanite, I buy our meat in small prepared packages in the grocery store, but I hope I still instill in my kids a respect for meat, knowing that an animal gave its life for our meal. I have a lot of respect for people who raise and slaughter (or hunt - but I guess that's a different debate!) - it seems the "honest" way, to see the life and death consequences or our food choices. My closest to this was the day I captured and killed 6 crabs with my bare hands (which were shaking by the end!) and prepared a ginger-onion stirfry of crab legs for a group of friends. The crab was delicious, but I have to say I felt some sense of respect and responsibility which I had not felt previously or since.

AnyEdge said...

I also remember Dad killing the rooster, and no, it didn't bother me. A bit perhaps, at the time (I remember sitting up in the Crow's nest and feeling ponderous.), but nothing traumatic.

How do you tell kids? I am childless of course, but I often feel that we consider our children far too precious and tender than they are, but physically and mentally. They can do chores at 4. They can learn about death and food the same age I think.

AnyEdge said...

"...far *MORE*, *BOTH* physically..."

upinak said...


I think my Dad started me on a road less traveled. Fishing. Then we moved up to small wild game and birds. The up to large wild game (which I loved to watch) and eventually to a pig I was raising.

I have to say it bothered me, but when you raise it rather then hunt it and kill it, it bothers you. It always will.

I would say go for chickens first. Then move up.

Good Luck with your endeavor!