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Homo sapiens is an omnivore. Our teeth say so. Eating meat is what archeologists might call “natural.” So, I like to eat fruits and vegetables and I like to eat animals too.
Don’t get me wrong. I cried when Bambi’s mom was shot. But I also think venison stew is delicious. And, though I have never spoken them out loud, the sight of a bird invariably leads to thoughts such as, “What would that taste like roasted?”
I know I’m not the only one with these secret musings. My stepmom once confessed to a vivid fantasy of herself leaning against a black rock in the Scottish peatlands, chomping into the neck of a live, wriggling bunny rabbit.
Balancing regard for life with my carnal desires has always been a bit of an issue for me, one that resulted in the philosophy “If I’m going to eat meat, I should be prepared to kill it.”
Note that I only had to be prepared to kill it; I didn’t actually have to fulfill the act. And luckily, this distinction seemed unlikely to be tested, as my university’s residence did not allow home butchery.
All of that changed when I bought a hobby farm with my husband, Tom. We were soon out at an animal auction, buying $3 chickens with pretty feathers.
We named the first ones according to London Tube stations. Paddington and Victoria were lovely birds with fluffy bottoms. Paddington had gorgeous, smokey black and malachite tail plumage. Piccadilly, Blackfriars and Waterloo followed.
Then we bought a trio of white leghorn girls; they went at such a good price, you see. We were a little concerned about whether they were our type, being a battery hen breed, but Henny, Penny and Jenny were full of personality. We won’t forget the sight of the three of them cresting the hill behind our house, hop-running as fast as their legs could go, the red combs on their heads bouncing above the long grass as they followed us out into the field.
And the eggs, you’ve never tasted such eggs, with yolks bright as marigolds from their diet of maggots and lawn grubs.
But, alas, chickens do not lay eggs forever. So, one night, Tom and I did what the books said to do. We snuck into the henhouse with a flashlight, gently picked each bird off its roost, flipped her over and had a good luck at her anus.
“Does she still have pucker?” we asked each other. It was hard to tell. We picked the old gal who looked most dried up, and destined her for chicken pot pie, a family favourite.
I was all set to help with the slaughter. At least she would be dying quickly, after a pleasant existence, rather than in the jaws of a coyote or succumbing to pneumonia – the more “natural” alternatives.
“Right, you hold the end of this string,” Tom instructed. Seemed easy enough. He looped the other end, about 10 feet away, around her neck. “When I put her on the chopping block, you hold firm. Just enough to stretch her neck out.”
“So you don’t miss,” I confirmed. “And in one fell swoop it will be over. Quickly.”
I was nervous. I could not look. But I heard screams of panic and thrashing wings for a few seconds before the thwack. I was an accomplice to a chicken murder. But just that once. Killing things is remarkably hard to do.
The experience changed me. And the dozens of ducks, pigeons and the occasional grouse that I’ve plucked and roasted since then have not hardened me to it.
I have had to renege on my philosophy: I cannot kill an animal, not even a bird, though I suspect that if I was starving, I could manage a wild turkey. (I’m not starving, as Tom likes to point out every time I eat a butter tart.)
I still partake in meat, and I’m still conflicted by it. But I no longer pretend I can be directly involved in the killing or gutting of any domestic fowl. It is hard enough to pluck them.
I have also had to admit hypocrisy, because I will occasionally enjoy pork tenderloin, even though I won’t allow Tom to raise pigs again. They are too smart and too cute; eating a hand-raised piglet would be like eating my dog.
However, I still believe there is something wholesome about eating an animal you knew in life and, even by proxy, know the circumstances of its death. There is a relationship with the animal; its life was taken in order to give sustenance. I’m not sure respect is the right word; perhaps reverence is more apt. Eating meat you’ve raised makes sitting down to a dinner of plastic-wrapped grocery-store sausages seem like getting married to a romantic comedy: You might get a semblance of the experience, but it’s devoid of the reality.
My teenaged son has been taught in science class that the overconsumption of meat is a significant contributor to climate change. According to academic articles, our diet is unsustainable and too reliant on animal protein. Livestock production accounts for more greenhouse-gas emissions than transportation, and meat consumption around the world is on the rise.
Perhaps the thing to do is add a field trip to the slaughterhouse to the elementary-school curriculum, though I suspect that would be considered uncivilized (as opposed to buying meat packaged so it is no longer recognizable as a once-living creature), not to mention the resistance that the idea would get from the agricultural sector.
However, as with so many aspects of life, I do think it is not enough to know where our food comes from; to truly appreciate it, we have to experience it first-hand.
Judy Wearing lives near Kingston, Ont.
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