This is a story about an article I wanted to write, but never did. One titled “Why I Kill.”
When I lived in Vermont, my husband and I went in with some neighbors to raise and slaughter a hundred Thanksgiving turkeys. I had been vegetarian since I was a child, because I loved animals, but now, as an adult, I wanted to find out if humane meat was possible. I planned to write the article after we were done, explaining why I chose to kill the animals I ate.
All my life, when I have thought about meat, I've been very aware that it entails the death of a sentient being. That torn flesh and guts come with this. In that sense, I had always lived intimately with the gory reality of meat, so it didn't seem like such a huge step to become physically involved with it. Also, I'm constitutionally not squeamish; blood has never bothered me. So I knew I could do it. Some meat eaters who were my partners in this venture laughed, saying I'd run crying out of the room at slaughter time. (In reality, when that night came it was not me but one of them—new to farming and apparently new to the idea of all it entails—who couldn't take it and had to leave.)
On many small farms that advertise humane meat, at slaughter time, turkeys are stuffed upside down into "kill cones," with their heads sticking out the bottom, so they're restrained while their throats are slit. This is necessary because otherwise they flap their wings and struggle powerfully as they feel life leaving them. It takes a while. Of particular concern to farmers is that this wing-flapping can leave unsightly bruises on the carcass.
We didn't have kill cones, and had planned to restrain the turkeys with burlap sacks, but the birds were so strong that the sacks ripped immediately. So it became my job to wrap my arms around their bodies and keep them still as they hung upside down, bleeding out.
In a way I wish I could say that, like the squeamish meat-eater, I felt disgusted, or cried afterwards, thinking about what the birds must have been feeling. But I didn't. I knew exactly what I was getting into when I started. Maybe my crime was worse for that.
It's not that it didn't affect me. At the time, my infant son weighed about as much the turkeys (and, like them, was a few months old), and at night, lying next to him, I woke several times with a jolt, out of half-dreams that I had accidentally put him into the oven instead of a turkey. There was no guilt or sadness for the turkeys attached to these half-dreams, just fear for my son. There was the shock of wrongness too, of having crossed a line, broken a taboo, crossed out of the realm of the okay into some terrible other place.
But I was not in that terrible other place in reality. My son stayed out of the oven. I only killed the creatures who were supposed to be killed.
A few days later, when I got my hair cut, the hairdresser in our tiny rural town asked how it had been, slaughtering all those turkeys. "It really wasn't that bad," I told her. She laughed and said, "Yeah, bet you didn't feel a thing." I had the feeling it was an old, familiar joke to her. We lived among hunters and farmers; her husband hunted, and was teaching their son to do it. I laughed too, recognizing the absurdity, but, as with the oven dreams, not feeling any real sense of guilt or sadness over it. I certainly wasn't asked to feel those things by anyone I met. Most people gave us the sense we'd done something good in the world, had come down on the side of morality: raising the turkeys in big pastures, where they tussled over crab apples, socialized, enjoyed the sun. We all agreed factory farming was bad, and our aim had been to do something different, better and kinder.
I thought afterwards that we had cause to feel good about it. We'd gone through with what we planned. None of the messy business of butchering had even bothered me: plucking feathers, pulling out guts, cutting up body parts. I almost wondered, as I did it, if I were deficient in some way, so little did it disturb me.
But one thing did stay with me. As I played the part of a kill cone, my arms wrapped around those big bodies, holding the powerful wings closed as the warm, gentle birds struggled against death (what's the point of struggling when your throat is slit all the way across and all your blood is pouring down in two jets over your face to the ground? the futility of this struck me), I felt how how very much they did not want to let go of life.
When your body is pressed against another body, it leaves something with you. I felt how their lives were sacred, and we were taking them away.
At the time, it seemed a good thing that I had felt this. To have felt it was to have earned the meat I ate that Thanksgiving--after not eating any meat at all for over 25 years. I had honored the birds by feeling it. By helping to raise them and by experiencing their death along with them.
I didn't become vegan or even vegetarian again immediately after that, although I decided I would only eat animals I myself had raised. I killed several chickens over the next few months. But I lost the desire to write the article. I didn't want to keep killing. Over the next few years, the experience with the turkeys continued to work its way deeper into my soul.
I could kill. I had done it. I could close myself off to the horror of the blood and guts—that part wasn't even hard for me. But I had recognized and felt, next to my body, on my skin, inside myself, in some blunt way, the sacredness of life.
Having felt the birds struggle, I had to recognize that taking a life is a big deal. Dying is a big deal. Yes, even for animals—as we all know if we have been with a beloved dog or cat at their deathbed. It sounds so simple as hardly to be worth saying. And it is. But I knew it then, in a way I hadn't before. Or maybe I was forced to recognize that I had always known it.
I saw that while I was free not to honor that knowledge, free to kill and eat any creature I wanted, as long as they were members of species our culture deems killable and edible, I was also free not to.
What is legal and sanctioned, even by our heroes, our parents, our religious leaders, is not always the same as what is moral. Many of the greatest crimes in history have been legal and socially sanctioned: slavery, the actions of the Nazis, and countless other forms of rape, subjugation, genocide and torture. This is not something that was only true long ago, when people were misguided, or is still true but only for people who are obtuse and different from us. It is true now and here and always. And alongside that rests the truth that we are given the freedom and the responsibility to decide for ourselves what is moral, what widens our circles of mercy and compassion, what nudges our world away from suffering and towards love.
The only way to do this is to look with our own eyes, and feel with our own hearts. If you kill an animal, or even watch a video of one being killed, and feel violence is being done, feel sadness or compassion for the creature being deprived of his or her life—or if you can't even watch because you are afraid you'll feel those things—then listen to that. Honor that. You can. You're free to choose.