Ed Ellingson's Blog

12. Animals are Important to Us.

There was a cartoon out recently that showed a school girl getting a live chicken out of her lunchbox, along with a cleaver, saying, “My mother insists that I only eat fresh meat” or some such line.  I enjoyed it, but wonder just what other people thought of it.  Were they disgusted or did they just think it weird?

For anyone who lived, or currently lives, without refrigeration, this concept is just a fact of life.  The way to have fresh protein is to have live chickens, ducks, and geese around, and you kill, dress, prepare them, and then eat them fresh.  Everything gets eaten pretty soon, so storage and spoiling simply aren’t a problem.  Rabbits, Guinea hens, and other animals could be added to the list, depending upon the culture.

As a kid, any farm I went to had a “killing place” where these animals were killed and bled out.  My grandfather had several funnels in a rack, and he could drop chickens into them head-first, so there head stuck out the bottom, and the slope of the sides trapped them in.  He slit their throats so he could capture the blood as they bled to death.  He had customers who bought the dressed chickens and the blood, although I don’t recall Grandma making blood sausage or anything with the blood.  At our farm we never saved the blood, so just chopped of the head and let them bleed on the ground.

The larger animals had to be handled differently before refrigeration.  A pig could be butchered in the summer if there was a large party that could finish it off, or I suppose, even a cow, but generally the large animals were butchered in cold weather, so you could eat it over a period of days or weeks, and not worry about spoilage.  The beginning of the winter season is noted in all the northern cultures as a time of celebration; think of having beef to eat for the first time in maybe six months, plus all the root crops that are recently harvested, plus the first batch of beer ready from the summer barley harvest.  This is the makings of a party!

People always seem to want to know more about what it’s like to kill, and then eat, a live animal.  I saw a survey from about 1990 that found that a very high percentage of the population, like 90%, have never dressed out an animal.  It’s understandable, of course, given our factory-based society where everyone specializes in just one small task, but also somehow sad that something as basic as our meat food supply is commoditized to simply a package you find in the meat section at your grocery store, and any connection is lost to the fact that it was once a living, breathing, eating animal.

Living closer to the land gives one a certain respect for life.   Animals are dying all of the time.  Children rarely experience the death of a human, people mostly die in a hospital or hospice, but on the farm, death is ever-present.  When you go out to feed the animals in the morning, it’s less than rare to find dead animals.  It’s one thing to find dead birds, or rodents or insects, but it hits closer to home to find a dead pig, something that’s very close to the size of a human, an animal that you fed and cared for.  The parallel with human life is hard to ignore.

At a young age we developed an understanding about life; that we’re born, we grow, we propagate, and we die.  We humans are at the top of the food chain and have the tools and means to control the lives of other animals, and with that comes a responsibility to treat them well.  We feed them well, make sure they propagate successfully, and give them the best care we can, mostly so they grow well and provide the power, for draught animals, or the food, for the others, but partly because of the responsibility we have to them.  They provide us food and work, and we treat them with compassion.

Butchering was always a solemn occasion. We’re taking the lives of these animals so that we can live.  We know that we’re all going to die some day, and for ourselves we hope that when we go that it’s fast, and for whatever time involved, that it’s painless.  Butchering was therefore well planned and moved as quickly as possible.  Good practice calls for cutting an artery and letting it bleed while the heart is still pumping; this clears as much of the blood out of the system as possible.  Death is therefore not instantaneous, but was always made as short as possible.

I recall a few times when animals were trapped in fires and had to be shot.  If a barn was on fire with animals enclosed inside, you’d think that if you simply opened the gates, released stanchions or holding devices, and opened doors, that the animals were simply march out, nice and orderly, like a schoolhouse fire drill, or maybe stampede out in a big rush.  It doesn’t work that way.  Cattle caught in a fire become terrorized, and basically immobilized with terror.  A farmer might save a few cows by wrapping their heads so they can’t see the fire, and coaxing them out, but it takes time, and the fire doesn’t wait around.  It quickly moves into a situation where it’s unsafe for people to go in, and the animals are bellowing in pain and terror.  The compassionate thing to do, the only thing to do, is to end their suffering as quickly as possible.  I’m brought to tears recalling a time that we saw smoke from a neighbors barn and drove over as fast as we could, and hearing the last of the rifle shots ringing out as the neighbor put his dairy herd out of their misery and the barn became engulfed in flames.

One very foggy morning we were driving past a neighboring farm and I saw a sight I’ll never forget.  This neighbors cattle had gotten out, and some were on the road.  In the heavy fog, a car had come along and hit some of the animals, breaking their legs.  Now, if you or I were to get in an accident and break a leg, we’d know to lie still, maybe crawl to get to a safe spot, wait for help, and understand that with proper care this can be set and cast, and will heal.  Cattle do not understand this.  They try to stand up and walk on their broken legs, and when they can’t they try harder.  The pain must be unbearable.  They become terrorized and try all the harder, flailing their broken limbs in a frantic effort to escape.  I don’t think I can adequately describe just how awful it was.  I can’t believe that there’s anyone out there who would see such as situation and not say, “We have to put them out of their misery.”  I was just starting to think about where to get a gun, when the farm owner pulled up in his truck and jumped out with a pistol, and quickly shot each animal in the head.  I also can’t describe just what a relief it was to have that suffering ended.  I’m sure everyone there felt the same.  I can’t imagine that anyone would feel differently from me, if they were there to experience it.


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