The Ethics of Eating Animals
Two days ago, I took the lives of six innocent creatures.
I hung them upside down from a cone nailed to a tree and I slit their throats, allowing them to bleed out into a bucket positioned underneath.
Update 11/2017: I have covered this topic in much greater detail in episode #25 of the Good Life Revival Podcast, which you can stream or download HERE:
These were the roosters from our most recent flock of chickens, twelve weeks old, hatched and raised from birth by Brooke and me.
This wasn’t my first experience culling chickens – that took place back in January of this year, when it came time to cull the roosters from our initial flock that we started that previous fall.
It’s never easy, and yet with each bird I assure myself that my skills are improving – the cuts are cleaner, the blood flows more smoothly, and the birds feel little pain.
But I feel the weight of this mortal responsibility bearing down on my shoulders throughout the whole the process, and I always struggle with one fundamental question:
Am I doing the right thing?
I was primarily a vegetarian, sometimes a vegan, until age 22. The family legend has it that when I was a baby and my parents would spoon-feed me food with meat in it, I would spit it out every time until they just gave up.
By the time I was old enough to describe my preferences, I had already developed a very strong bias against meat. Before I had any grasp of the ethics of eating animals, I was simply disgusted by the look, taste, and texture.
In my teen years I became very socially and politically conscious, and the idea of vegetarianism as a social movement was something I could easily rally behind. Raising and killing animals for meat, no matter how it was done, was simply unethical, as far as I was concerned.
We don’t need to eat animals, so why should we? And this point of view was only strengthened when I began to learn about the abject horrors of industrialized farming – if that’s how we humans have to raise animals, I reasoned, then we just shouldn’t be doing it at all.
In college, as I became more interested in health and nutrition, I reached a point where I could not escape the fact that if I wanted to maximize my potential for personal fitness, I needed to incorporate some meat into my diet – trust me, tofu just doesn’t cut it.
So I started gagging down boneless, white-meat chicken that smelled like shit (because it was soaked in shit) and tried to convince myself that it didn’t disgust me.
Then I tried eggs, and though I was terrible at cooking them, I slowly developed a taste for them. Then came beef, and I was pretty surprised when I found that I didn’t have much trouble forcing it down my throat at all; in fact, I kind of liked it.
Then I traveled to Alaska for a summer where I tasted fresh-caught salmon, halibut, deer, and moose for the first time, and I enjoyed each one more than the last. It seemed to me that there had to be some means of procuring meat that squared with me ethically, but I wasn’t sure what that might look like, and I still felt conflicted about my meat consumption.
The realm of permaculture offered some clues, and showed me how livestock animals are not just useful but actually crucial to agricultural systems because of how they are able to manage and remediate the health of the soil beneath their feet.
Humans – and all other animals, for that matter – can ultimately trace their health back to the soil. The problem, then, lies in how far our so-called “conventional” systems have skewed away from what’s reasonable, rational, and sustainable.
A corrugated metal barn with no windows housing a thousand chickens stripped of their beaks and standing up to their thighs in their own wastes will never lead to healthy food, healthy people, or a healthy planet.
But a properly managed, rotationally grazed pasture can produce the healthiest and most ecologically sound food known to humankind.
The real difference between these two strategies is that one sees the animals solely as commodities, while the other sees them as an integral piece of the agricultural ecosystem, being sustained by – and offering sustenance to – all other creatures in this interconnected web.
Joel Salatin speaks of “the marvelous pigness of pigs” as a way of recognizing that all living creatures deserve the freedom to express their true nature. In a 2012 interview with Tampa Bay Times, Salatin explains:
“A pig has a plow on the end of its nose because it does meaningful work with it. It is built to dig and create soil disturbance, something it can't do in a concentrated feeding environment. The omnivore has historically been a salvage operation for food scraps around the homestead. Now we lock all those pigs and chickens up in confinement concentration camps.”
I don’t share the evangelical beliefs that underpin Salatin’s thesis, but as someone who appreciates the teaching of Buddhism I recognize that there is no true difference or distinction between “me” and “the world around me”; all arises from the mind. How I treat the living things around me, therefore, is actually how I treat myself.
If I wish to be treated with respect, then I must respect all that I come into contact with. I don’t think any sort of religious understanding is necessary to arrive at that conclusion.
When Brooke and I moved into our first house together, the thing that we were most excited about was the opportunity to finally produce some of our own food.
I built a chicken coop in the backyard and we adopted some recently hatched bantam Silkie chicks so we could raise laying hens. That was our first flock of nine, of which six grew up to be roosters.
Once they were fully grown, we struggled for many weeks with the fact that our only option as city-dwellers with limited resources was to kill these birds, who by then were more like pets than livestock to us.
We culled the top rooster at dawn one frigid Sunday in January, then took care of the remaining five a week later, following many lengthy conversations about ethics and mortality and our place in the world relative to other animals. I concluded that if I had to take their lives, then the least I could do was make meaningful use of the bodies.
I tried to process the first bird so that we could eat it – or feed it to the cats, I reasoned, if we couldn’t stomach the thought of eating this Bird Who Was Our Friend – but I found myself struggling and making a mess of things due to a lack of knowledge and experience.
I abandoned the project when I couldn’t bring myself to reach up into the carcass and remove the guts. We built a bonfire in the backyard and burned the bodies.
Ultimately, the most upsetting part of the whole experience for me was not the killing; it was that nobody had ever taught me about the physical, mortal reality of being a meat-eater and butchering what you kill.
This sort of thing should be normal to me as an omnivorous animal, and yet I can’t even bring myself to eat the delicious animal that I raised and killed for myself?
What does that say about my relationship with the natural world and my capacity for survival on my own?
That last one opens up a whole can of worms that Brooke and I often struggle with: knowing that we are jumping into this lifestyle of homesteading as adults, can we ever hope to achieve the same sense of self-reliance as someone who was raised living this way?
Can we ever go “all the way,” so to speak?
I believe that our chickens have come to serve as a reminder both of how far we’ve come, and how far we’ve got left to go. Leaving the modern world behind is a process, after all, and we have to start somewhere.
Years from now we will look back on these initial tribulations and laugh; but I will never falter in my solemn pledge to provide the animals under my stewardship with the freedom to express their true nature. I determine the quality of their lives; they, in turn, determine the quality of my character.