Thou Shalt Kill

Not reworking the Ten Commandments here, just making a statement of fact. If you raise animals for food, the inevitable day comes when you have to start moving them from the pen or pasture to the plate. If you don’t raise livestock, but you do eat meat, you are also involved in the process. This doesn’t make you a murderer, or even a sinner. You are in the company of respectable people including prophets and the God who gave the commandment about not killing.

Nevertheless, taking the life of an animal is a solemn and sobering experience for many people including me. I would sooner shoo an insect than swat it. I have been known to carry spiders and hornets outside and set them free rather than executing them with a rolled up newspaper or a boot sole. (I am not so considerate with mosquitoes and flies.)

Harvesting the meat crop is a dreaded day. I’ve never gotten over reading Bambi and Black Beauty as a child. But it has to be done. “Time to cowboy up and get to the business at hand” I reiterated the words of wisdom I have poured out over the years on our children, and myself., “The issue is not that we kill them, but how did we care for them while they were alive? If we pen or cage an animal we are responsible to provide its needs. Code of the west, take care of your animals first and then yourself.” And, “If you can avoid it, don’t name food.”

I killed my first goat with a 30.06 hunting rifle borrowed from my neighbor. That was a black humor ballet. Maybelle our goat was bobbing and weaving on the end of a short rope. I was holding on to the rope with one hand and trying to aim the hefty rifle with the other. I figured I had one chance in three of hitting the goat. The other two targets were my foot, and the United Airlines flight from Denver passing over. I shot lucky, dropped her instantly, breathed a sigh of relief, and decided never again this way. Too loud, too violent, too dangerous.

I read up on how the Old Testament priests sacrificed their animals. To them it was a religious rite. They honed their skills and their knives. I liked that approach. Even today Jewish butchers are legendarily efficient because they only get one pass at the animal’s jugular vein. If they take more than one stroke, the meat is no longer kosher and has to be sold on the gentile market for less money. . So I bought a very sharp knife, and the next time straddled the goat, held it’s head under the chin. Goats do not like to be held by their main weapon, the horns. I thanked the animal for the sacrifice it was making, and cut its throat in a stroke. The goat dropped to the ground. No struggling; a couple of reflex twitches, and it was all over. It was a quiet and sensitive, even sacred moment. That’s how I slaughtered the doe goats from that day. The big bucks are a different challenge. They are contentious and can be dangerous with their horns.

For chickens, we have metal cones, shaped like a megaphone. We put the chicken inside with its head hanging out of the small opening. This has proved the least stressful on the birds and on us. Chickens are reactionary creatures. If one freaks out they all do. They even freak themselves out. If they see their wings flapping they figure “Why would my wings be flapping if there wasn’t something chasing me?”

But with their wings tucked to their sides by the cone they relax. A sharp knife cuts into their jugular vein without causing them pain. As the blood supplying oxygen slows, their brain shuts down, and they quietly go to sleep. If you do it right, they don’t even flinch. It is the most gentle way to kill a chicken.

Nevertheless, Saturday I was dreading the experience. I went jogging as usual in the morning. My route takes me through the cemetery where my first wife, Diane is buried. It is in the foothills near our house, a peaceful and beautiful location with a spectacular view of Utah Valley below. As I approached Diane’s grave a picture entered into my mind. It was not a vision, but it was a very comforting scene. Diane who loves animals was standing in a beautiful meadow with blue sky above and a few puffy clouds. Appearing in the distance was a bird. It was soaring like an eagle. It floated down and landed on her outstretched arm. She laughed, petted it, and set it down. It began to forage and frolic in the lush grass. But it was not an eagle. It was a chicken. One by one the others arrived as we sent them on their way from this imperfect world we live in. The birds had filled the measure of their creation, and were now donating their bodies to feed us while their spirits swooped off to chicken heaven. That’s a scenario that works for me.

As for the goats, I was talking to my young friend Samuel Thrupp who had helped milk Daisy, one of our goats. She got too old to milk, but I couldn’t bring myself to slaughter her. ( See advice above, “Don’t name food.”) Finally stiff, old, and rheumatoid, she wheezed her last through fluid filled lungs. I didn’t do her any favors by procrastinating her trip to goat heaven.

I told Samuel that Daisy had gone to her reward. A man passing heard our conversation and later asked with a grin “What is a goat’s reward. No question about that one. I told him, “Goat heaven is a green pasture, a bubbling creek, grass to graze, and trees to browse on, and fences you can jump over or wiggle under, tether ropes you can untie you’re your teeth, corrals in which you can explore, and always find an escape route, bottomless grain barrels you can pry open with your horn and feast to your fill. And most of all, an owner who doesn’t get bent out of shape if you do all these fun things. That is heaven for a goat.