I must warn you: the following account is fairly graphic and may upset some readers. Please stop reading if you find butchering or blood offensive!
I killed 2 young roosters tonight. It was a primordial, gut wrenching, deeply profound experience. Hours later, I still feel greatly saddened by the deed. I feel relieved to have done it after many months of knowing I was ultimately going to become a chicken butcher. I eat meat, and if I am going to look myself in the eye and continue to do so while professing to be a conscientious consumer, it has become essential for me to have more of a hand in the process of bringing food to the table.
Our chickens are not being raised for meat, and I’ll likely wait for the Zombie Apocalypse before I intentionally raise animals for food. We are raising a self sustaining laying hen flock. This means the young roosters must be culled, before they fully mature. Otherwise we would have a heck of a lot of rooster fights on our hands, we would be allowing them feed that might deprive others, and our coop would rapidly become overcrowded.
I had decided to go through the process of butchering from beginning to end. To the purpose of maximizing the resource, the roosters should be done in as soon as they have nearly reached full growth. If they are going to be good eating, it is essential that they are killed before they reach sexual maturity.
I did not feel ready for this… But would I ever? All of the chickens are mostly really sweet tempered at a young age. I spend many minutes every day just watching their antics. The pent-up exuberance when I first open the pop door to let them out of the coop in the morning. Once the immediate crazy hunger of first morning is sated (I always bring scratch that they gobble up speedily), they engage in mock battles and race around the chicken yard, sometimes even catching flight for a dozen yards or so. These birds have a pretty good life, as far as chicken lives go.
The chicken I buy in a grocery store likely lived 8 weeks or less, in closely confined quarters. That big juicy breast meat came off a bird that probably could barely walk by the time it was slaughtered. It definitely could not fly!! In contrast, my birds spend every day outside, they get to scratch and dig for bugs, and I feed them fresh greens and organic feed every day. They are actually pretty spoiled. Killing them was so intense it was almost.. Or maybe it was… A religious experience.
For the past week I have been getting ready. Although I have participated in chicken slaughters as a kid growing up, I have never purposely killed an animal myself. As a teenager I went deer hunting once and had a clean shot at a deer, but could not bring myself to take it. My purpose then was not strong enough. My purpose now was just about ready. I had to do this, to take responsibility for my own sustenance, to gain a full, first-hand understanding of how meat comes to the table. No, I am not ready to harvest all of my own meat. But every bite I take henceforth, will be properly revered, knowing the sacrifice that is made to provide it.
I have studied the books, web pages, and YouTube videos on the most humane way to do the deed. As a kid, it was a simple matter of holding the head down and then quickly chopping it off. Death was almost instantaneous. But imagine the slaughter yard, where 30- 50 birds are butchered in one day. Each new chicken sees the scene and becomes terrified. So instant death that is a complete surprise is just a little better.
I settled on a killing cone, a metal cone that the bird is placed in upside down. Being upside down causes blood to rush to the head, sometimes knocking them unconscious, but at the least making them kind of woozy. I also decided to do the deed at night, while they are naturally docile. And while the other birds are sleeping, because I did not want to cause a full scale panic.
When Patrick came home from work today I was finishing the hand made killing cone and I told him today was the day, that 2 roosters would be killed. He nodded, and then got a little quiet, and walked over to the chicken yard and stood there watching the birds.
I came over and gave him a hug, saying, ” are you sure you are O.K. with this?”
“Yes… It’s just that they are so sweet at this age.”
We agreed that I would do this alone, because he was not really ready to make that big a leap into the more hardcore aspects of homesteading. I completely understand, and have zero resentment. I have had plenty of time to prepare myself, plus I had the childhood experience that somewhat prepared me. Patrick works a full time job, thus cannot go full immersion as I have done.
So.. Killing cone was done, and hanging above a plastic bucket to catch the blood. I had a big pot of water heating to dip the birds for defeathering. Two just sharpened knives rested on the large granite cutting board next to a vat of ice water and another bucket for the feathers and guts to be collected. It was 8 pm, and the moment had arrived.
The chickens were all sleeping and had gone to roost an hour before. The first rooster barely stirred when I lifted him from the roost and took him away from the coop. I held him close to my chest, and I could feel his heart beating rapidly. I knew it was going to be hard, but at this point, I was nearly in tears. I was about to make the ultimate betrayal. At least this killing would be done with love.
I hugged the little guy one more time, took a deep breath and squeezed out a tear, then grabbed his feet and hung him upside down. He let out a small cheap, which just about broke my heart, and flapped his wings a few times, then went limp. It was almost as though he was offering himself to me. This rooster was the low one, the youngest and bottom of the pecking order. He had already had a rough time amongst his mates, so maybe death was better. Thinking this did not make it any easier.
I put the little guy headfirst into the killing cone. I think he finally realized what was coming, but stayed pretty mellow. I had a huge lump in my throat, butterflies in my stomach, and tears in my eyes. The moment had arrived, and I had a moment of panic… Could I do this? I knew I had come to far to go back, and there was no other option but to proceed. Hesitation would just make it worse.
With a deep breath, I picked up the large knife, grasped the roosters head to expose the neck, and deliberately sliced his throat as hard as I could. I actually sliced his head right off, and it dropped in the bucket with a thump. Blood spurted out from the just severed neck, a brilliant crimson red. It always looks darker on film, but this was almost neon bright. There was not much of it.. A cup, perhaps. The death convulsions were silent, and brief, then he was still.
My heart jumped into my throat and I experienced a wave of nausea. Was this how it would be every time? Goodbye little rooster. Your life shall not be in vain, and you will be celebrated and honored as you provide sustenance to my family.
All my apprehension did not adequately prepare me for the real thing. It was harder than I expected. Was it this hard for everyone, or am I just more sensitive than most people that do this? For millennia, humankind have killed animals for food. It is only in the very recent history of a species that the vast majority of us have become disconnected from the act of butchering our food. Unless you are a sadistic killer the task of butchering is not pleasant. I can understand why most would rather buy a plastic wrapped package than go through the experience.
But as painful as it is, I would make the same decision again. It is the right decision, one that brings me closer to reverence of the animals I have chosen to eat. Coyote, bobcat, raccoon, all would eat you, chicken, if I do not.
The hardest part: I have one more bird to kill. This one is much, much harder. He is a little bigger, and squawks as soon as I grab him, and struggles a lot. Again, I hold him to my chest, with tears in my eyes. I am determined to give him love before I end his life. He will die an honorable death, even though he is just a rooster. I will shed tears and offer a prayer. In my life, he will be remembered, unlike so many nameless faceless creatures that wind up in meat cases in Safeway, Costco, and all the other food factory sellers.
Again, I drop the bird into the killing cone. Again, a brief struggle. Even when he stills, this guy keeps his eyes wide open and stares right at me. So hard! I bite my tongue, grasp his neck, slice the head clean off as cleanly, quickly, as humanely, as possible. Again, the deed is done. I am not crying like a baby, I am a tough girl and strong. But I shed a few tears, and again offer a prayer to Gaia of thanks
The plucking and gutting are awful tasks that take three times longer than the actual slaughter, especially considering I hand plucked both birds. But they are not so hard; they are just the tedious part to the job. Stripped of their feathers, the roosters are really small compared to the plump birds I am used to picking up at the local grocer. These guys actually fought, ran, flew. I will eat them just the same, and they are young enough to still be tender.
As part of the circle of life, this slaughter is a milestone to me, but it pales to insignificance in the scheme of modern daily lives. Most chicken slaughters are factory jobs, the peak of efficiency and pretty low on the scale of humanity. My mini slaughter was profound to me, and will forever change my attitude about the morsels of meat I choose to eat.
7 years ago I ended over a decade as a vegetarian. I felt some shame in this change, but the experience of 10 meat free years gave me a perspective that I am grateful for. I honor and respect all the lives that end for my nourishment. I try to balance my intake of flesh, and remember with every meal how lucky I am for this sustenance. Meat is an easy diet for good health- good quality meat is incredibly nutritious and hard to match from the vegetable world. By learning how to butcher my own, I have brought myself closer to true self sufficiency, and closer to the spirit of life.
Will I do this again? I do not relish the thought, but I know that it is an important part of the lifestyle I have chosen. A few times a year, there will be roosters to cull. I could give them to our Mexican neighbors for cock fights, but a merciful death seems more humane than a life of fighting and likely a violent death. I hope it will be easier the next time, but deep inside, I know it will be just as hard for me, and it always will be.
The little guy after butchering.