A Day at the Slaughterhouse

When I moved to the country, I wanted everything–vegetable garden, fruit trees, flowers, and animals. Especially animals. Some of the animals arrived unbidden, like two half-tailed kittens that someone dumped across the street with an open can of cat food. Others I researched and then searched for.

I sought out a family whose sheep won top prizes at local fairs. These people were as crazy about animals as I was. I went back to their farm again and again. I asked a lot of questions–about food, shelter, fencing, bedding, types of wool, ease of lambing, veterinary care, disposal of sheep that get sick and die. Then I bought three sheep.

“What do you do with them?” everyone asks me about the sheep. I know they mean “You don’t eat them, do you?” At first, the answer was no. I even stopped buying dog food with “mutton by-products.” And so my little flock grew, with new lambs each spring. I thought I could manage up to 20 sheep. But I soon realized that 5 or 6 was closer to what my pasture and energy could handle.

From the beginning I hadn’t ruled out eating the lambs I raised. I had eaten meat all my life. Where was the logic in buying meat that had had God knows what done to it when I had healthy lambs in my backyard? In my third summer of raising sheep, with my two adolescent rams mounting everything that moved, the time had come to face the question dead-on.

Roger Jackson became my henchman. He kills animals for a living. On Labor Day weekend I took three sheep to his slaughterhouse. I made three trips, each time with one bleating sheep stuffed into a large dog crate. In the slaughterhouse, I saw carcasses hanging and guts spilling, heard animals screaming, smelled rusty blood and chain-saw exhaust. The place has just two rooms: a killing room and a cutting room. Nothing’s hidden. No one asks “May I help you?” Customers are expected to pick their way among heads, pelts, and unidentifiable gore on the floor and interrupt the killing or cutting in order to state their business.

On my first trip, I found Jackson sawing a hog in half. He pointed me toward a young woman with bleached, permed hair and a Guns N’ Roses T-shirt, who was making change over a carcass in the cutting room. “She’ll show you where to put him,” he said.

Then Jackson’s daughter, Wendy, came out, and I unloaded my first 6 month-old lamb. My other sheep had names from novels (Celie, Lucy, Codi) and from public-radio newscasts (Nina, Cokie, Boutros), but I’d named him Dinner and his twin brother Lunch. I treated the others like pets. I fed them dropped apples. I scratched Boutros’ back until his eyes rolled in an ecstatic swoon. But I had barely handled Lunch and Dinner.

Unused to the halter, Dinner dug his hooves into the gravel. “Don’t pull his wool or you’ll bruise the meat,” Wendy told me. He bucked, and I yanked him toward the pen. Once he was in, an enormous ram kept humping him. Dinner bleated continually.

“How do you want him cut up?” Wendy asked.

“What are the choices?”

She pulled out a big piece of butcher’s paper and scrawled my name and number. “Boned and rolled, steaks, chops. How do you eat?”

I didn’t eat much meat. I wasn’t sure I’d be able to eat this meat at all. I couldn’t answer. “Why don’t we give you a variety? That way, when you come back next time, you’ll know what you want.”

The question of what to do with Codi, one of my ewes, had been gnawing at me for months. The previous spring she had rejected her twin lambs. She’d butted them when they’d tried to nurse. She’d have killed them if I hadn’t taken them away. I’d tried to get enough milk-replacement formula into them, but one had died the first night, in my bedroom. The other had struggled on, unable to stand. For a couple of weeks I had taken him out to the barn several times a day to force nursing. With furious tears, I’d tied Codi to a fence, held her head with one hand, and tried to hook the lamb up with the other hand, mindful to keep my own baby upright in a backpack. I’d also tried rubbing him with a newborn lamb to fool its mother into adopting him, a technique I’d read about called “grafting.” Nothing had worked. He’d become a sweet bottle lamb, following me around like a puppy and leaping in the air whenever I came home. Everywhere I went, he was sure to go.

I couldn’t breed Codi again. I had put up a few signs, but no one wanted a ewe who couldn’t be bred. She infuriated me–but she was like family, and she trusted me. I knew that any real farmer would “cull” her.

Jackson told me he’d pay 15 to 50 cents a pound for an older ewe, depending on how much was fat. He eyed Codi and pronounced her worth 28 cents on 130 pounds. His big fingers fumbled with a calculator. He did the multiplication twice: $36.40.

“Can you make it $40?”

“No, that would be 31 cents a pound,” he shot back. “I might lose money at that.”

He pulled out two twenties. Neither of us had change.

“Because you’re so cute and young and vivacious,” he said, “here’s $40, but I don’t do that all the time. I’ll get it out of you next time.” I took the extra $3.60–not one of my prouder moments. I drove away, listening to Codi’s distinctive deep bleat ringing out above the barnyard noise.

I didn’t breed my ewes the next season. But my business with Jackson wasn’t finished. A scene in the movie Roger and Me had stuck with me. The filmmaker returned to his hometown of Flint, Michigan, and documented what happened after the General Motors plant shut down there. One woman raised rabbits for a little income. As she answered questions, she cuddled a white bunny. Then she offered to show how she kills a rabbit, broke its neck, and proceeded to skin it. The Cambridge, Massachusetts, audience groaned and laughed at her. Their squeamishness disgusted me. I hated it in myself.

Both sets of my grandparents slaughtered steers, hogs, and chickens on their farms. My parents grew up not just knowing, but also seeing, that hamburger comes from cows, bacon from hogs, drumsticks from chickens. If they had felt any squeamishness, it was squelched early on. But not for me. The disembodied act of buying meat in a supermarket felt completely ordinary–until I started trying to make the pieces of my homestead fit together. Something didn’t feel right about dropping off an animal, then picking him up in little packages.

I wanted to know how my animals were turned into meat. Jackson agreed to let me watch him work. I arrived on a Thursday afternoon when he was slaughtering hogs, many for pig roasts the following weekend.

Jackson killed two hogs before I could figure out how he did it. He herded another one from the maze of pens outside into a red steel chute. He wrapped a chain around the hog’s right rear leg, then lifted the front wall of the chute enough to shove the hog into the room. He pushed a switch that hung from the ceiling. A hydraulic lift hoisted the big animal. Its free leg thrashed. He lowered her, slowly, headfirst, into a barrel. Then I saw: Just before her head disappeared, he stuck a knife in her throat. In and out.

The conversion of a hog into meat was routine and quick. Jackson and his employees killed and cleaned animal after animal, with the same competent ease they might use to move pallets around a warehouse. Jackson told me that watching the first one is the hardest. It was true.

Once the hog was close to dead, belly twitching only a little, Jackson swung it into a large vat heated by gas jets. He let it soak a few minutes, then rolled it onto the hog dehairer. The racket was terrific. A rotor spun the hog and flicked bits of hair into the room. Already, the dead animal looked like meat.

Jackson got the next hog, and an employee named Reg took over. Reg hooked each rear leg tendon and hoisted the carcass again. He slit the belly. The intestines popped out and slithered slowly toward the chest. He tossed them in a pile on the floor. Reg then sawed the length of the backbone. Steam rose from the animal and the chain saw. He hosed down the carcass, then his own hands and brown rubber apron. The air in the killing room was heavy with moisture. A customer came in for his meat, and Jackson opened the freezer door. The room filled with knee-high fog, as in a dream scene in a play.

The frozen meat I later picked up from the slaughterhouse looked sterile in its white paper. I stared at it, trying to remember the animal it had been. The next evening five members of my family sat on the screened porch for our first lamb dinner in years. Five sheep crunched grass nearby.

“What do you do with them?” I thought of the thorn bushes that had overrun the property before I had gotten sheep, the wool-filled comforter on my bed, the sweaters I’ve knitted, the manure that feeds the garden and orchard, the visual pleasure of sheep grazing. And now, this meal. We don’t normally say grace, but that night we spontaneously fell quiet for a few moments.

Eating a lamb named Dinner wasn’t hard at all. It’s what I’ve been doing all my life. The hard part was taking him to the slaughterhouse and watching Jackson do his job–my job.

I’d always felt that arguments like the one Dick Gregory makes in his essay “If You Had to Kill Your Own Hog” had merit: If we human beings understood, firsthand, that eating meat meant that someone had to slit an animal’s throat, hang it, and chop it into pieces, we’d all become vegetarians. I was prepared for that to happen to me. Instead, I came to believe the opposite. It is only because we are so far removed from the process that we can ask whether humans should kill for food. If we had grown up seeing animals slaughtered, if we depended on the animals we hunted or raised for our survival, if we had to kill our own animals for meat, no one would ask the question.

From Tikkun (March/April 1999). Subscriptions: $29/yr. (6 issues) from Box 460926, Escondido, CA 92046.

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