It’s a question I receive all too often, talking about my experiences raising animals or even some other aspect of rural living, such as preserving or cooking the meat. People are always astonished that I somehow manage to raise animals for several months (or years) and then am able to kill them.
The question, for me, is one rooted in misogyny. My partner (a male) never gets this question, while I — female — am constantly bombarded by it. “How can you be so heartless?” “Don’t you get attached?” That’s a topic for another time, but in short, no, I am not heartless, I love my animals, and by the way, men are allowed to have compassion for animals, too. Oh, and women should be allowed to provide food for themselves. Just a thought.
Instead of being annoyed or offended that my morality is being called into question, I’ve come up with a few poised, calmly delivered responses, which I’ll detail. The fact of the matter is that it usually doesn’t make sense to argue with people who refuse to understand this way of life. And in all fairness, it’s not for everyone.
For nearly five years as an adolescent and young adult, I was an ardent vegetarian. I eventually added fish, then other meats, back into my diet. At the time, I was suffering from severe and debilitating migraines, and it seemed time to make some sort of — or any sort of — dietary change. I cut out meat, and the headaches went away practically overnight.
In doing so, I was cutting out a major component of the processed foods in my diet. Growing up, I typically only had access to meats from the grocery store instead of fresh from the farm. My parents had no objection to this; the fact was simply that as a two-working parents household, neither had time (and fairly so) to raise and then slaughter their own meat.
When people used to ask why I was a vegetarian, I rarely had a good answer. It was the way I had chosen to live, and really, I didn’t like meat all that much. I had no connection to eating meat, and had no desire to do so. Plus, it made me sick. So it was with great hesitation several years later that my now-fiancée convinced me to try fish that we had caught together. Then game. And eventually I transitioned back into meat.
When we decided to raise our own animals, I never once thought I would have trouble doing so. And I don’t. Yes, the animals are cute, and yes, you get attached. But as Americans, we have a woeful separation between what’s on our plate and what happens in reality. And that’s part of the reason why I remained a vegetarian for so long. I had let my dietary choices be guided by apathy instead of a conscious appreciation of what I was putting into my mouth.
I sometimes hesitate to share the thoughts that follow with my friends and family. Typically, I don’t need to. Most of those within my inner circle understand and appreciate my opinions on agriculture and I don’t need to soapbox. However, for those of you who have encountered less-than-warm receptions upon explaining your point of views, the following information may help.
I have a strong Native American heritage, and that often guides my viewpoints on raising animals. Most Native American tribes believe in the reciprocity of nature, of the reincarnation of souls and the need to respect every living creature that steps foot on this planet. To some extent, that is echoed in my own philosophies on raising animals.
Now for those of your naysayers who are vegetarians, who do not eat meat at all, then the argument is entirely different. This argument is strictly for those who eat meat, but have qualms about your ability to raise meat and then butcher it yourself. This concern is usually out of some misguided notions that involve a skewed idea of where food comes from.
Factory Farms vs. Free Range
When we choose to raise animals, my fiancée and I make sure that absolutely every aspect of their lives is comfortable and high-quality. We allow our chickens to free-range, giving them access to the finest feeds and plenty of space to roam. They are chickens in their most natural state. When we raise pigs, we gave them nearly a full acre upon which to roam and root and do pig things. We allow our animals free access to feed and water, and it’s easy to see that they are happy.
But here’s where people get things wrong. They forget the reason why they are raising these animals, and they become pets. They become personified. If you are raising animals for subsistence, you cannot do this. You must remember that, at the end of the day, they will be food. Some people say that you shouldn’t name your animals, or you shouldn’t spend any time with them, or you’ll become too attached and won’t be able to kill them. I don’t know if I believe that. I say you should do what feels right to you, but just remember at the end of the day that they will be food.
There’s nothing heartless in that. Refusing to believe in this process is a refusal to believe in the reciprocity of nature. One thing lends to the life of another, and then another. Although some may argue that humans haven’t evolved to eat meat — which is a separate argument altogether — those who recognize that we are omnivores must come to terms with the fact that their meat comes from somewhere.
That somewhere is often factory farms who don’t treat their animals half as well as small family farms do. Animals are pumped full of high-hormone, highly processed feed, and kept in tight, cramped conditions. Then they are killed. That’s all there is to it.
Whenever anyone takes issue with my ability to raise an animal for seven months, to love that animal and care for it, and then butcher it, I invite him to do some research on larger farms. Likely, that’s all it takes to end the conversation. We have become disconnected with what life is all about. We don’t care where our food comes from because we just buy it in bulk at the grocery store. We don’t care what animals are really like because we see pictures of them on our cell phones and aren’t they cute? That’s not life. That is fiction.
The ‘Most Humane Endeavor There Is’
Some people take more persuading. “How can you spend months loving that animal, and then kill it?” Today, we are bombarded with images of animals as cute, fluffy little creatures who want nothing more than to make humans happy. That idea itself is a naive notion. Treating animals as pets or as “cute factories” is more disrespectful than eating them. Let them exist in their natural state. Let them be animals. Believe it or not, it’s possible to care for an animal for months — years — and then eat it. It’s life.
Raising your own animals is the most humane — and most human — endeavor there is. What other creature, in nature, would rouse themselves from a dead sleep at 3 o’clock in the morning to repair a fence to ensure that another species was protected against hungry roaming coyotes? What other creature, in nature, would drive half an hour round trip just to ensure that another species has nutritious, delicious food at all times?
To be clear, I don’t take any pleasure in butchering. None at all. I think it’s easy to think, as an outsider whose boots have never felt the mud of a pig pen, or whose hands have never felt the grainy itch of a hay bale, that slaughtering an animal involves running into a pen and blasting away with a shotgun or slicing and dicing aimlessly while the poor animal runs wild trying to escape. That’s not at all how it works, and you, as a homesteader, likely know that.
The process of slaughter is a painful one, and not just for the animal. I refused to butcher a chicken until I had seen my fiancée do it dozens of times, not because I felt bad for the chicken, but because I wanted to make sure I knew exactly what I was doing so as not to cause needless suffering.
In Native American tradition, they follow two principles: be thankful, and don’t be wasteful. I adhere to those two principles as well. When I slaughter an animal, I am thankful for its contribution to my life. I don’t waste a single scrap, making soup from bones, rendering lard from pig fat to feed my chickens, spending hours to ensure that the taking of a life was not done in vain.
You might get called a hippie. I have, many times. But it’s worth it, even if to only feel a greater connection with the food you are putting on your plate. That connection is what life’s about, and with it comes a greater appreciation for every single aspect of your life, along with a renewed thankfulness for your own life and an understanding of how the world works.
So if you still find yourself bombarded with criticism or questioning, you don’t need to grow hostile or agitated. Just turn to the commentator and say, gently, “That’s just life.” That’s all there is to it.
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