I didn’t sleep much last night. It had something to do with the little-too-much wine I had and a lot to do with the prospect of killing something larger than a bug on purpose for the first time. Our landlords/mentors, Bonnie and Erin had told us the day before that they were planning to butcher some chickens in the morning. The EARLY morning. We agreed to meet outside the garage at 4:45 to get to work. I set my alarm for 4:30 and tried to sleep. I nervously drank wine while cooking dinner (our wood stove cooking has leveled up but that’s a story for another time) and fell asleep soundly around 10. I slept deeply for a few hours then woke with a start in the wee hours of the morning. Once I remembered what was to come I couldn’t stop checking the clock.
I poked the home button on my phone throughout the night. The bright rectangle on the nightstand told me of the creeping hours but in the moment it felt as if time refused to pass. I finally fell asleep in earnest after checking my phone again at 4:03 this morning and had dreams of Bonnie and Erin wearing Scooby Gang outfits and carrying chickens in pillow cases. In the dream I had slept through it. I had missed the whole thing, oh what a shame! But the alarm rang and I pulled myself out of bed. Found coat and boots and laced myself up with deep cleansing breaths.
I have never participated in a butchering before. I have been a vegetarian since the age of twelve, but I didn’t do it for moral reasons. I didn’t like meat and there was a word other than “picky” for my set of tastes. In those early days not eating meat I felt like not eating meat somehow made me sophisticated or more intellectual than those around me and I was quick to adopt environmental reasoning for my voluntary restrictions in high school when they were presented to me. I don’t rule out eating meat in the future as long as it is raised how I want all of my food to be raised; with respect for traditional methods and care for the land in the future. So for all intents and purposes, on paper I am fine with this idea. I am fine with it. That was important for me to establish as much for me as for those around me. Erin did ask the essential question, why did I want to help if it was something I was opting out of. I thought it was important to understand. If I have chickens of my own I will have to butcher them at some point and I didn’t want there to be a block or an obstacle I thought I couldn’t get over. Better to do it now and know what its like than to try to do it on my own later with only a YouTube video and a library book as my guide.
When the fire was lit and water was brought to a boil we assembled the materials and went to pluck the first victim from their sleepy perch in the coop. We would butcher 3 birds today. The first to meet their end was one we could all agree on. The rooster was fairly new to the group. He had proved himself an abusive partner at the best of times but had lately started to hold the hens down by the neck and peck their heads into a bloody mess. He did this to poor Hattie in such a way that it started a whole group pecking party, getting the rest of the flock involved and putting poor Hattie in very real danger. She had to be separated from the group and we were all honestly worried about her head healing. With that in mind I tried to ignore the fact that we were going to chop his head off with an axe.
For those among my readers who have never participated in a butchering, I would like to lay out the steps. There were more of them than I knew of. For three chickens it took us about three hours, but I am sure Joey and my naiveté had something to do with that long time frame. But for the sake of instruction here is the breakdown:
- Get your chicken from the coop and hold it upside down by its feet for several minutes. Because their lungs are on the backs of their chest cavity this makes it hard to breathe and they will become semi conscious.
- Lay your chicken on your chopping block. A chopping block is just like a splitting block that has 2 nails driven in 3-4 inches apart and sticking ~3 inches above the surface.this holds the chickens head in place so you don’t miss.
- Bonnie and Erin cover the chickens eyes with a cloth so it doesn’t see the ax coming. We all agreed that while that may keep them immediately calmer, they all knew what was happening the moment we took them from the coop.
- A swift chop with the ax starts the hard part. Make sure your bleeding bucket is ready and near by because the body will continue to flap and convulse until all the life is drained. The blood sprays in horror movie splatter patterns and it takes determined force to keep the body in the bucket. Nothing like seeing someone you respect covered in droplets of blood, holding a headless chicken into a 5 gallon bucket, muttering “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry” at 5:00 AM on a Sunday.
- After the hard part is through, practicalities must begin. The bodies are dunked in scalding (but not boiling) water several times until the feathers are completely wet. This makes plucking easier.
- Plucking is as easy as grabbing a handful of feathers and pulling against the grain. Often you don’t even have to pull and you can just rub against the grain and watch the feathers roll off. No matter how much you want to wear gloves at this stage I wouldn’t recommend it. It is a lot harder to feel what you are doing. You can use needle nosed pliers to remove pin feathers you cant get with your hands. Lots of pin feathers is a sign the chicken was in a molt and you should have waited a couple weeks but….can’t be undone.
- I have been told this step is optional, but was a favorite of Bonnie’s family while she was growing up in Eastern Oregon. Chickens do have fine hair on their bodies in addition to feathers and although you probably won’t notice it when you eat it, you can use a low, open fire to singe it off. Hold the plucked chicken over the flame enough to singe, but not enough to cook the skin. Make sure not to drop it in the fire. Oops.
- Now the real work begins. First thing done is to remove the feet. Find the ankle joint and bend it back so you can see it clearly. Using butcher’s sheers or a sharp knife cut around the joint until the bones are visible. Break the joint backwards and cut the remaining connectors.
- Cut the scent gland off the back of the tail with your knife or shears being careful not to burst it. This is the little lump over the tail and can be easily removed by cutting into the back fat around it. This part can e discarded.
- Gutting the chicken has many steps. For the sake of my sanity and level of knowledge I will list the what and not the how. I have been told there are many helpful videos on YouTube for this part of the process.
- cut open the neck skin and loosen the esophagus and crop, breaking membranes as you go.
- slice a 3-4 inch hole under the ribs and reach your hand into the cavity.
- Scoop out to internal organs from the back, breaking membranes and trying not to damage or burst anything.
- Harvest edible organs: liver, heart, gizzard. Be careful not to burst the bile duct.
- Cut the intestines free by cutting a V around the cloaca and pull the whole thing out.
- Make sure you got the lungs and kidneys.
Now that the practicalities are dispensed with we only had the reality of the morning to grapple with. I will be honest, I balked at scraping the organs out with my bare hand. Joey stepped up to the plate and did our assigned chicken up like a champ. I had to take a lot of deep cleansing breaths. Although I feel like a lot of people may have a similar reaction to the events of the morning I found myself asking why. Of course I didn’t like the idea of unnecessary violence, but was I ok with violence we were the one’s deeming necessary? Apart from the rooster, the other two chickens were killed for logical reasons. They were not laying, they took up resources and didn’t give anything back. Although some may find this unfeeling, it is a reality of farms across the country. When an animal outlives its useful potential it is removed from the population. It is made useful again in the form of meat. I can appreciate that. I know that farms are not animal sanctuaries and that everything serves a purpose. But if it was up to me would I have found those chickens another purpose?
There are other things that a chicken can do. It can fertilize a garden plot, scratch up an invasive grass species, take care of a bug problem, and I am sure much more. But are those things worth the weight in organic chicken feed we are using to keep these old gals alive? The rooster was easy, he was a problem and we removed him for the good of the flock. The other two were removed not for the good of the flock but for the good of the farmer. In our growing knowledge of what it means to run a farm, we are seeing more and more decisions that have to be made for that end.
But no farmer we know relishes a slaughter. Even when the animal is causing problems or hurting others you are sad to see them go. Bonnie and Erin take time to thank the chicken for its life and for the sacrifice it will unknowingly be making. When we told our farmer friend Kevin about our morning he said he can rarely do more than one at a time and be ok with it afterwards. That inner struggle and putting the reality of the farm and the farmer above the life of a chicken that is not necessarily doing harm, but is not doing any good either. We get to make these decisions for the animal kingdom but would consider them out of the question in a human context. Imagine if you could be killed for not adding to society. Having to prove your worth every day to keep your life. That is the burden put on many of these animals without their knowledge or consent. We give them good lives as long as they benefit us but then take that life for our own gain when the tables turn. While that seems inhumane, it is good to note that these are not people. They are not even wild animals. These chickens were hatched by humans from other chickens hatched by humans from other chickens hatched by humans and on and on ad infinitum. We created these animals out of their wild ancestors for our benefit and have used them for our own needs. As long as they are well cared for during their lives and not made to suffer unduly at their end, are they not simply giving back what we have given them? Life for life? Sustenance for sustenance? All these questions swirled in my head as I drifted to sleep knowing that for the first time since we moved to Veneta I would not wake to a rooster crow the next morning. And I was a little happy I would be left to sleep.