A few weeks back, I attended the slaughtering of the pigs raised on the farm where I worked for two months. For those two months, I fed these pigs most days and referred to all three of them by name. Then I found myself cutting off their skin with a knife.
There were about fifteen people in attendance. Most people had very defined roles, including two guys who clearly did this for a living. They were the pros. The plan was to shoot the pigs in the head with a gun, one at a time. The pros did this by laying out a harness/lasso-like rope amidst a pile of food, and when the pig chewed the rope into its mouth (since pigs eat literally everything), the pros yanked back. For some reason, when this occurs, pigs purportedly stand entirely still, feeling no pain, only a moment of confusion, allowing for a clean shot to the head to ensure no mishaps.
Though many people undoubtedly would read this as ‘inhumane’, in reality, it’s the quickest way to kill the pigs, the way to make them suffer the least amount possible.
The buildup to the first kill was eerily quiet, anticipation hovering in the air. Stations were set up–the shooting station, a tarp across the lot to receive the blood, a skid-loader to eventually raise the carcass, and a station with chains and hooks to hold the cut meat. Tables were covered with aprons, guns, and a thirty-pack of Pabst Blue Ribbon. I figured I’d watch from a distance so as not to screw anything up. My intention was to see more clearly what it takes to bring meat to my plate, as I have eaten meat my entire life. If it disturbed my depths, perhaps vegetarianism was in order.
Several people sat around a fire, and one woman lit Palo Santo and offered up gratitude for the pigs’ giving their lives. One of the pros was talking enthusiastically about how much he loves Arby’s sandwiches. A friend of mine in attendance took me aside and showed me his gun and taught me how to use it, should the situation arise. The other pro was showing off his own gun and delineating the difference between two types of bullets. “This one is used to wound a human,” he said of the bullets with lead. Of the bullets without lead, he said, “These are for killing a human.” I thought, Aren’t we just killing pigs?
Out of nowhere, Ben indicated the time had come. We all traveled to the pig pen, where the three pigs lazily grazed, as they always do, seemingly unaware of anything out of the ordinary. We all just stared at them a while. One girl pet the closest pig, while another guy, a chef, said, “This is the closest to God we will ever get.”
The Arby’s-loving butcher addressed us all seriously. No more jokes. No more laughing. “Heads on a swivel,” he said. “Anything that can happen will happen. There’s gonna be a lot of blood. Be prepared.”
The big pink pig, pictured above, was the first one chosen. The two pros and Ben, the resident farmer and owner/raiser of the pigs, remained at the pig pen, while the rest of us were instructed to remain at a distance, prepared to act in any way necessary. We could hardly see what they were doing, but it seemed they were trying to move the pig to a place it did not want to go. In the end, they had to do the shooting in the pen, which meant they then would have to drag the body about a hundred yards to the tarp.
There was a great silence, and then the pop! of a round fired.
An instant later, Ben and the two pros were dragging the pig across the dirt. Several people ran over and assisted. The pig’s body was convulsing. Blood spurted from a hole in the center of its head. It was laid on the tarp, and while four men held down its flailing body with all their weight, one of the pros cut its jugular with a serrated blade. Then he got to hacking at its neck with a butchers knife, raising and slamming the blade over and over until the pig’s head was completely severed. Before I realized what was happening, I was staring into the pig’s billowing bloody innards along with the stunned people beside me.
The woman who had lit the Palo Santo held a sauce pan beneath the severed jugular, receiving quarts of streaming blood and mixing it with a wooden spoon to prevent coagulation. She was collecting it for making the freshest blood sausage possible.
The pros started cutting the skin around the hooves and instructed others to do the same. Several times, the Arby’s-lover said, “It smells delicious!” For fifteen minutes they, along with a few others, cut the skin and peeled it back from the fat and muscle, removing it like a tarp. I was amazed at how this layer of flesh was so familiar, yet what it contained was so unfamiliar. The pro said, “Let’s take a look at our anus.” They peeled back the rest of the skin. It looked like a costume being removed.
As I watched them go through these incredibly complex steps, I realized how little I knew about the meat I buy at the stores. I had known it conceptually before, but now, it was a reality. If it came down to it, I would have no idea how to prepare this meat myself. I would be helpless. For years now I had assumed the conviction that the closer one gets to the source of meat, the more moral the act of meat consumption becomes. Though that may seem ludicrous for the implications of engaging in such bloody actions many would deem ‘savage’, the conviction solidified with each passing moment.
As the chef and his brother treated the skin, the others raised the carcass on the skid loader, hanging it by the legs from chains. As they cut into its belly and removed its intestines with meticulous precision, I spoke with a fellow about yoga and mindfulness and the strange developments of this spiritual journey. Once the intestines were removed and no fluids released to harm the meat, the chef sawed the carcass in half down the center. I helped a few guys carry the heavy cuts across the farm to the hanging station, where we fed the slick legs through hooks that fit perfectly between two bones.
Then it was time to move on to the next pig. This time, I watched from right up close. Even after all we had just done, she gave no indication it was afraid or uncomfortable. She bundled over to the pile of food with equal enthusiasm as she always had. When they guys yanked back on the lasso-device, she squealed a few times. Then, the bullet fired, and she collapsed to the ground.
I helped cut off her skin. I did not feel emotional attachment, despite that I had fed her and called her by name for months. I did not want to watch her suffer, and I am glad I did not have to. This was clearly the most ‘humane’ way to raise and kill pigs possible. They lived peaceful lives, were regularly fed farm fresh food, and felt little to no pain through their lives. As I cut the skin, searching for the fine fibers to release the connection, I realized this was no longer the living pig I had known. No longer was this pig ‘she’; this carcass was ‘it’. As a farmer in the group pointed out, “Within a few minutes, it’s just meat.”
As we removed the skin, the chef cooked up the fat that had clung to the first pig’s skin on an outdoor disk cooker. Garnishing the sizzling meat with fresh sage, he served it for everyone to try. It was undoubtedly the most delicious meat I have ever tasted.
After they cut out the intestines of the second pig, I decided it was time for me to go. As I left, I glanced over at the third pig, who lay in a pile of mud, content as could be.
I have continued eating meat. However, I have decreased my meat intake, for I have realized it has been unnecessarily excessive. I have made more conscious efforts to purchase meat from animals raised in quality conditions. I will continue doing this. It matters for my health, for the health of animals, and for the health of the planet. I am tremendously grateful for the lengths to which Ben and his crew went in order to provide their CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) members the most humanely raised meat possible. I’m thankful I had this opportunity to form a more intimate relationship with what I am supporting each time I choose to consume meat.