Note: This article contains descriptions and images relating to the slaughter of a chicken (for the purpose of consumption) that some readers may find graphic.
“I’m going to kill you.”
I look into the chicken’s eyes, searching for some understanding, but he seems bored by my mouth sounds. After 10 minutes of chasing him around the pen and now with my hands around his legs, I was expecting a little more drama from him — but the only anxiety is my own. Am I really going to cut this poor bastard’s head off? What the hell is wrong with me? For Christ’s sake, I started the year a vegetarian. Now I’m on a farm in Maryland about to kill an animal in cold blood. I’m a sick, sick man.
I glance over at the chopping block.
“We just sharpened the axe,” Kasey*, the farmer, tells me. “We were cutting up a sheep right before you got here.” She raises all manner of beast and fowl, and probably isn’t used to seeing more fear in the slaughterer than the animal he’s holding.
“It’s a lot harder to kill the cows,” she says in an it-could-be-worse way. “They look at you all sad with those big eyes.”
My stomach churning and chicken in hand, I slowly walk over to the axe.
Every time someone eats meat, he or she's signing off on a slaughter.
But six months ago, I was as strict a vegetarian as you could find. I ate plenty of eggs, but was vigilant that nothing killed would enter my body, not even candy with gelatin or cheese made with rennet. It wasn’t for my health or the environment — meat just grossed me out. All I knew was that I couldn’t kill an animal. If something inside me rebelled so strongly against the act, what right did I have to enjoy its consequences?
But after five years of tofu and beans, I finally caved. Borne in part from a desire to experiment with low-carb diets but mostly because I was tired of being weird, I threw myself back into beef, bacon, and bird. (My first meal back was with a group of friends and a very rare steak, which I promptly threw up.) I enjoyed meat, but it didn’t make me feel any healthier or stronger, and I couldn’t shake that nagging feeling: If I can stomach meat, I should be able to stomach slaughter.
When Mark Zuckerberg resolved to personally kill all of the animals he ate in 2011, it drew a baffling amount of controversy. Words like “disgusting” and “sociopath” were thrown around by ever-eloquent Internet commenters. But (perhaps surprisingly) the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) said they respected “the fact that Zuckerberg isn’t hiding his head in the sand and pretending … what he is putting in his mouth was not once a live, feeling animal.”
The billionaire replied that his goal was to become more thankful for his food, describing how a pig roast he had with his friends inspired the resolution:
A bunch of people told me that even though they loved eating pork, they really didn't want to think about the fact that the pig used to be alive. That just seemed irresponsible to me ... trying to ignore where it came from.
Dan Barber — a chef, amateur ethicist, and one of Time’s most influential people — applauded Zuckerberg, calling the decision to kill one’s own food “an incontestably moral act… if it’s done respectfully.” Tovar Cerulli, author of The Mindful Carnivore, put it more simply: “I just want to eat with my eyes wide open.”
Of course, killing one chicken doesn’t come close to Zuckerberg’s commitment, but that isn’t making it any easier. Nearing the chopping block, I look at the bird I plan to eat and draw some comfort from the fact that he’d been raised on a beautiful farm with plenty of exercise and fresh air.
“Factory farming is a disgrace,” Kasey says. “If we’re giving them life, it should be a happy one, right? Battery hens are a completely different industry. It’s day and night.”
I hold the chicken in place and pick up the axe, but I can’t finish the job. I count down from three to one, but although the blade is heavy, I can’t let it fall.
The chicken, meanwhile, isn’t struggling with this at all. He's lying patiently and seems resigned to his fate, as though this were all part of the game. But of course, I’m anthropomorphizing a bird. It doesn’t think like that, it doesn’t reason. It’s just a bird.
It’s just a bird.
Headless, he twitches, and I’ve killed an animal. I expected it to be more momentous, but there was no squawking, no plume of blood, no fanfare. The world is just as it was.
This single slaughter hasn’t made up for all the animals I’ve ever eaten, but I do feel different afterward. My modern life is so far removed from our history of killing our meat and foraging for food, but slaying that bird has made me feel more connected to the food chain than I ever have before. I’ve taken part in something that humankind, and nearly every species on Earth, has always done. It feels primal, infinitely distant from my life of supermarkets and skyscrapers.
“I feel more connected to the animal this way,” says Kasey, reading my mind. “It’s the circle of life. This is tradition. It’s important.”
I understand. Slaughtering livestock for food isn’t a sign of sociopathic or violent tendencies. Shrink-wrapped meat is a pretty modern development, after all. For most of our time on Earth, eating meat has meant killing an animal. Eating meat always means killing an animal. These days, we just hire a hitman.
That feeling of connectedness only grew as Kasey walked me through the butchering process. I saved the bird’s heart and liver, and quietly resolved to eat more organ meats. Don’t the animals deserve to have as little of them wasted as possible?
After an hour of “processing” my bird, I realized that my time on the farm had reinforced how tragic factory farming is and how disrespectful it is to the creatures we’re consuming. I couldn’t imagine killing an animal that had never felt grass beneath its feet or wind in its face. But of course, I don’t have to kill my own meat.
None of this is to say that it’s impossible to eat ethically (however one might define that), nor does it mean that because we’ve always done something, we should continue doing it. Eating is an enormously personal act, and everyone has different standards of what’s acceptable — what I was really trying to do was to examine my actions and their consequences.
In the end, humans are apes, livestock are prey, and we’re all sacks of rotting meat. That doesn’t mean we’re not creatures of beauty, but the idea that “we are what we eat” never felt more true than when I took my first bite of that chicken. Watching the life leave his body, seeing the food in his intestines, tearing feathers from his skin, and chewing muscle off his bone were powerful reminders of what lies beneath us all.
My time on the farm drove home the reason why eating is so intimate and why mindful eating is so important: Every piece of our body is made from things we’ve eaten. Most importantly, that includes our brain cells and (perhaps arguably) our thoughts. Our souls are made from our food.
Thoroughly understanding and appreciating our food — and the role it plays in our lives, both individually and as a society — is incredibly important if we want to know ourselves. That’s not to say we all need to take a trip to the slaughterhouse. But, in my opinion, it means we should try our best to eat with our eyes open.
*Name has been changed for privacy.
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