Apr 27, 2009

Learning About Myself

This is going to be a tough one to write, but I think it needs to be said. I'll also warn you that if you're easily offended, are a PETA drone or a vegan you need to stop reading now. Also, if you're of a gentle heart or disposition I'll say up front that there are going to be some passages of a graphic nature. You've been warned.

(sorry this is so long, but I need to say this. All of it. Irr)

In the chicken-keeping world, unlike China, roosters are just about useless. A single rooster can protect and service (yes, I used that word) up to ten hens. Further, a hen will lay eggs regardless of the presence of a rooster. I'm surprised at how few people know that, but it's true. You don't find roosters in the big industrial chicken farms, they're simply not necessary. Unless you want baby chicks a rooster is only good for looking pretty, crowing before dawn and in some cases protecting the flock. My local co-op will sell you all the chicks you want, and will exchange any that turn out to be roosters for another chick, they're that unwanted.

As the flock out here grew, we ended up with four roosters. For a flock of thirty hens four is a shade much, especially when two of the roosters were being fairly rough on the hens, and when you consider that we don't want chicks, just eggs. So, as you may know, I've been planning on killing the two rough boys. But, like most plans, it kept getting pushed aside for other more important things.

Oh, I asked around about it, I wasn't idle. My mother recalls her mother shooting chickens destined for the table with a .22 rifle. My grandma must have been one hell of a shot. My maternal grandfather was, I'm told, too gentle-hearted to kill the chickens. I guess I come by it honest. I learned about neck wringing. I learned about chopping off heads. I looked with disgusted eyes at the myriad of chicken processing items I could buy as a small-scale farmer. I learned how the guts were to be removed, and how you process a chicken.

What I didn't learn in all that studying is how hard it is to actually do, emotionally and physically.

In the meantime the 'favourite' hens were getting more and more torn up. If you've never seen chickens have sex, it's like most birds--the male grasps the back of the female's head in his beak, just below her comb and holds her in place while he climbs up on her back. Now, the hen is genetically predisposed, when she feels a rooster digging his claws into her back to squat down on her belly and spreads her wings to give him a flat place to stand. So when I say the favourites were getting torn up I mean that almost half of my hens have no feathers on their backs and the backs of their heads are bare as well.

So, no escaping it. Too many roosters.

You know me. I save spiders. I cherish beetles. When I see a dead squirrel in the road I hurt. The decision to kill two roosters was a tough one to come to, but I determined that if I was good enough to eat meat at my dinner table then I needed to be man enough to kill and prepare an animal that I raised from it's first days. Plus, it was becoming necessary: my hens were being hurt, and they produce our food. We arranged to have a friend of Mrs. I's over, a lady who was raised around hard core country folk and knew how to process a bird. She couldn't, however, help with the killing. Too gentle-hearted.

When Sunday rolled around and the friend arrived it became too late to back out. We all walked out to where the two roosters had been segregated into the smaller yard. Mrs. I and I walked in, Mrs. I who is faster on the draw than I caught one of the two, and that's when the difficulties started. Mrs. I was going to go first, but when she wrapped her hand around the rooster's neck she realised how thick it was, and that it was going to take more strength than she had. A few more minutes of indecision on both our parts and she was too overwhelmed to try, so it fell to me.

The sun was beating down on my head--I'd lost my straw hat somewhere in the yard. I remember how calm I was, how detached. I knew I was about to kill a living thing, but I knew it needed to be done. I held the rooster under my left arm, keeping his very sharp claws out of harm's way. I remembered that you had to swing the bird at least once, to gather momentum, like the fall of a man being hanged--it's not strangulation that kills, it's the neck breaking when the rope pulls taut. I knew I had to whip the bird's head back sharply at the last second, at the bottom of the arc and that would do the trick.

So, not thinking too deeply about it, not hearing the other chickens, I did it. I swung him around twice, a pell-mell of flapping wings and struggling feet. I could feel his neck muscles, far stronger than I would have thought, and the softness of his windpipe, the downy feel of his neck feathers. At the bottom of the second arc I pulled back sharply, hoping desperately to feel some definitive snapping sensation. Nothing, just a horrible twisting. The force of the bird's body being stopped that suddenly pulled its head clean out of my grasp and he hit the ground with a clumsy 'whump,' then began to flop around, wings and feet straining, beating at the ground, beak opening and closing, no noise coming out. I panicked, not sure if I'd done it right, if it was just hurt or actually dead.

I knew for a fact that autonomic reactions in chickens is very common, hence the "chicken with it's head cut off" saying. Simple systems go slowly. I picked it back up and tried to wring its neck the way you wring a dishtowel, twisting, but again, I never felt anything break, just a tension of skin and muscles and that soft give of esophagus. I twisted desperately, certain I'd done the deed, and let the body fall from my hands.

Still the twitching, the stretching of wings and legs. I couldn't help it, I had to be sure, so I had Mrs I's friend get the shovel from the coop and I stabbed down hard at the neck, trying to cleave the head off. It didn't come, but I know for certain I broke the neck then, as most of the frantic activity stopped. I don't think Mrs. I was crying then, but she was close. For myself, I still felt...distant. There was blood smeared all across my palm. I remember looking at it, thinking that I needed to wash my hands when this was done.

I'm not sure where that calm came from. I know part of me was wildly revulsed at what I'd done. I'd just killed a living creature, killed it BADLY and was waiting for my wife to catch the other so I could do it again. I think the part of me that knew it had to be done had overridden the rest of me, making sure that I was going to do it respectfully, as quickly as I could.

Respectful. I was that. After the debacle was long since done and over I realised I should have simply used a hatchet, for it would have been far cleaner. I'd been lead to believe that the neck wringing was fastest and neatest (no blood, which I disproved) but I was wrong. Hindsight, always perfect. But respectful I was. I knew in my heart of hearts that if I was going to sit at my dinner table ever again and eat meat of any sort that it had come to me in a manner far less respectful to the animal than what I was doing. I love these creatures. I give them plentiful food and protection and shelter. I talk to them, give them treats (lettuce, fresh clover, leftover fruit) and they in return give me sustenance from their bodies. I knew that if I had to do this I had to do it right.

The second one was harder, sadly. Mrs. I had to turn away, and I didn't realise until much later that she was crying, shocked to it by what was happening. I told her not to look, and I tried the same technique, tried to spin him faster, give more of a sudden snap at the end. This time, probably due to the blood the bird slipped out of my hand. This time it was far more alive. Just that morning Mrs. I had been joking, after being stuck my briars while picking wild blackberries that the harvest demanded a blood sacrifice in return. The second rooster claimed the sacrifice--my left arm is covered in long bloody scratches from his sharp, kicking claws. Somehow I got him back into my arm and tried the twisting, wringing action again, hoping with a desperate strength to feel some sort of final crack, some indication, but again, nothing.

I twisted a few more times then dropped the bird to the ground, grabbing up the shovel and stabbing desperately at the neck, hoping to see blood, to see the head separate, but again, it refused to part. The autonomic twitching went on, but I knew it was over.

I picked them up, one at a time, saw the droplets of blood soaking into the bare brown earth. I carried them out, and we brought them up to the house to cut their heads off and begin the defeathering and cleaning. That's when the light came on and the friend asked if I had a hatchet and a block. I did, fetching them from the shed, making sure I had the sharp one. A block of firewood sufficed, and we laid the first rooster on the block. She pulled the neck straight, held the wings back and I chopped, hard. The head came clean off, and she held it up by its feet to let a few sluggish droplets of blood drain out.

When the second one's head came off, bright red blood flew. I can only surmise I broke its neck enough to paralyze it, not to kill it. I was mortified, but glad that it was over, and that if it had felt any pain it was gone now. The body jerked again in that autonomic reaction and a few bright drops spattered the left sleeve of my white t-shirt. The friend looked at me with wide, shocked eyes and said in a stage whisper "I don't think it was dead yet." I agreed, and before I could say it myself she said "Don't tell Mrs. I." I agreed, knowing that while I meant well Mrs. I is not a complete fool and would know, but I agreed nonetheless.

The two of them went on with the preparing--dipping the two birds in a boiling pot of water for a fast count of sixty, then carefully plucking the loosened feathers out. Splitting the back, removing the neat package of guts and lungs, intestine and liver and croup. Me, I got the lawn mower out and loaded it in the trailer and headed to the office to cut the grass and smoke a cigar and think about what I'd done. I left the blood-spattered shirt on as a reminder, not a prize. Nor did I take one of the beautiful black and white tail feathers to put in my cap. Again, I wasn't proud of what I'd done, not in the 'show off a prize' sort of pride.

I cut, and thought about what I'd done. I'd proven to myself that I could, in Garrison Keillor's words, "do what needs to be done." If it came to it I could raise an animal with the full knowledge that I was going to kill and eat it. I'd passed an important point in my life, in my progress as a man, as a human. I'd done something that used to be commonplace, and now is a rarity. I'd proven to myself that I was stronger than I thought.

Oh, it bothered me. It still does. The difference lies in the fact that I respect those animals for what they gave me. They gave me their lives, gave me their bodies so that I and my family can have meat on our table. Meat to help sustain us in health. Clean meat, meat that was once an animal raised with love and respect and care, not force-fed in a cage so small it cannot move, locked away from sunlight and fresh air. I don't think I would ever purchase or obtain the free roosters from the co-op simply to save myself a few dollars on chicken in the grocery store, but if it came to it I could do just that, and do it with pride, knowing that I could do what needs to be done. With love, with respect before and after, knowing that it will never be an easy thing for me to do.

I've gained by my actions. I gained a better understanding of what it means to be human, what it means to kill something so that I may live. I gained an understanding of the mountain of animals on which I stand, animals who gave their lives so that I could eat, so I could grow and thrive. I gained knowledge such that I won't ever look at a pork chop or a hamburger patty or a fillet of fish in the same way, either. I'll do so with a deeper understanding of where I stand. I'll do so feeling that life's blood on my hands, and I'll eat it with love and respect for that sacrifice.


Gordo said...

Dear Lord, Man. When the powers that be come to their senses and allow us to have a few birds in the yard, I know I will be in exactly the same situation.

I only hope that I manage to handle it with something approaching your example, my friend. I don't think taking a life, any life, should ever be easy or routine. It should be something approached with deliberation and a sense of gravity. Exactly as you approached these.

Stucco said...

You know, many times you can "hypnotize" the chickens with a line or a crack in a chopping block. I use quotation marks because I've no idea what is happening medically, but they can by some weird way tricked into holding still with their heads down, then WHACK! Use a hatchet for Christ's sake, eh? That swinging around business is for cats. (That's for meno's amusement, doncha know?)

Good on you for killing your food. It's important to connect with what's happening. It doesn't happen too frequently here, but the family can get emotional about me killing lobsters. I've no compunction about killing an animal to eat. I'd walk out into a pasture with a hammer if it meant having a steak for dinner. It's the people that kill and DON'T eat the kill that I find troubling.

Batgirl said...

I hated watching the roosters be killed growing up. I hated even more when they would chase me with their heads cut off. *shudder* I'm certain that if I needed to I could follow through, but I hope I never need to. Of course, I still go fishing and eat crawdads, so I'm feeling a bit like a hypocrite. I suppose the idea just feels different when it comes to something I thought was cute at one time.

Nancy Dancehall said...

You did a hard thing. Thank you for telling it to us so beautifully.

What Stucco said about killing for pleasure rather than sustenance.

You do this because you want to feed your family, and protect those poor 'favorites'. You understand what you're doing and why, and receive no pleasure in the act.

I'm sorry it went so badly. You've learned though, and when you have to do it again, you will do it right.

Mickelodeon said...

*big hugs to you*

Clowncar said...

We use lethal injection on our roosters.

We used to use an electric chair, but our neighbors felt Old Sparky was cruel and unusual.

Unusual, granted.

meno said...

Stucco is a bastard, and i mean that in the nicest way. :)

I know that at this point in my life, i would have to become mostly a vegetarian if i had to kill my own meat. I have no problem with fish, but having not been raised on a farm, i do not think i have what it takes to butcher a pig or a cow or a sheep, and probably chickens too.

I agree with you that we need to be mindful of our food, so i understand and appreciate what you did and how hard it was.

Nicely told too.

Irrelephant said...

Gordo, it was a hell of a thing, but after a few days to let it settle in I still feel I did the right thing.

Stucco, in the heat of worrying about how to do the deed I thought wrong. *S* Next time, if there is one, I'll use the blade.

BG, raising them yourself does make it a hell of a lot tougher. If it'd have to be one of the few chickens who have enough personality to be named...I don't want to know if I could do it. *s*

Thank you, Nancy. I know I could have done it better, looking back, but that's how we learn, right? By making mistakes.

Mix, *big hugs* right back.

You need a beating, Old Bean. *lol* Oddly enough, I toured Angola Prison in college, got to see the basis for The Green Mile and even stood on the concrete floor where the real Old Sparky used to stand, then walked the twenty or so paces to where the generator used to be.

Thank you, meno. I wasn't sure if I made much sense--too much emotional load still attached during the telling. I'm with you on fish--I think that not seeing them interact with anything but the air and our fishing line it's hard to make any sort of attachment. Quite the contrary when you raise the critters in plain sight.

Scott from Oregon said...

I had the same trouble killing a rabbit. I just got the weird redheaded kid from the other block to kill them for me.

Rayne said...

When I was growing up we had a small family farm. We always had chickens and just one rooster. One year my mother decided we were going to raise 'stewing' chickens. This was the first time we ever butchered anything. We waited inside while my stepfather chopped their heads off. I remembered it took forever and when he finally called for me and my brothers to help with removing the feathers and all from the six corpses, he had tears on his cheeks. He handed me the livers for my mom and when I brought them in I was shocked and disgusted at her ghoulish delight to have fresh chicken liver. I told her about my stepfathers tears and she called him a baby and said to 'just ignore it'. I never really cared for my stepfather, he was a mean drunk, and was often drunk, but I felt so bad for him that night. And for the chickens. And for us. My brothers and me.
It was a bad night.
I'm sorry you had to experience this in such a rough way, but, glad that the experience has added to you and not taken away.