A little fair warning: My thoughts this time have to do with raising animals for meat, and might be disturbing to some. If you prefer to read about peaceful plant foraging instead, I’ll be ruminating (hee hee) on that later this week.
Check out our video of me feeding the calf. Sorry, you have to turn your head to the side to watch most of it. Taylor didn’t realize the camera didn’t correct for perspective, and I can’t figure out how to use our video editing software to edit it. Watch for her head-butting me for more milk and trying to suckle my knees.
Okay, so I’m a little obsessed with the calf. Maybe it’s the mother in me craving something to nurture. Maybe it is just because it is so novel to me, or because it is a challenge I am determined to work through. I have to admit, I was a little – no, a lot – intimidated by working with the livestock before coming here. I had zero experience with large animals, which have always struck me as unpredictable and emotionally volatile. And though the calf is still small-ish and cute, she’s strong and completely new and mysterious to me. Dog and cat psychology, I get. Cow psychology is brand new. How do you get a freaked out calf that was taken away from its mother to let a human touch it, feed it, brush the poop off its fur? How do you ween it from a bottle to grain? How do you introduce it to other animals? Its fun trying to figure these things out, and rewarding to master my fears and get an animal to trust me.
So I have to say a few words about the fact that I’m bonding with animals that are eventually going to be food. This is my first experience raising any food that wasn’t leafy and green. I had never been involved in the killing of any animal except euthanizing a pet cat (RIP Boo), and I’d certainly never eaten meat from an animal I had a relationship with. I helped take care of the rooster we slaughtered last week, but only for a few days, and there wasn’t much to endear him to me. And, the truth is, I don’t really have to prepare myself for the end of this calf that will become a cow that will become beef. This calf won’t be slaughtered for another two years. Though I hope H & M will be a part of my life long after our few months of living here, I don’t expect I’ll be involved much in the cow’s later life, or death.
So there is little I can authentically say about the emotional aspects of being so near to the source of my meat. I can tell you that, even though I think the calf is cute, and the chickens funny, and I want to take good care of them, it has not been hard for me to keep in mind their eventual purpose. This is made somewhat easier by the fact that cows, and chickens, are not companion animals, and are not especially smart. Unlike Gypsy-dog or our cat Rousseau, the calf has no light of understanding in her eyes, no desire to communicate, no drive to cuddle or work symbiotically with a human. At least, if those things are present, they are degrees less than what I experience with a pet. I don’t mean that we should be less compassionate toward the (apparently) less intelligent animals – only that I’m protected from close bonding by the lack of emotional give-and-take.
Nevertheless, if I were to be present at the moment the calf’s life ends, I’m sure I would feel sad. Certainly, if she were a part of my life for 3 years, I would find the task very difficult. I’m sure that this is the case for H & M as well. In fact, it may be their awareness of this fact that makes their approach to eating meat so humane. They have said that they believe animals survive by sometimes eating other animals. Yet they seem mindful that this requires a sacrifice, and they feel a responsibility to provide a comfortable life for the animals with as little suffering as possible.
The slaughter of the rooster was not an emotionally heavy experience, but it was full of reverence and gratitude. H was careful to use a gentle method of restraining, and killing the rooster that would produce as little stress as possible, for as short a time as possible. With utmost sincerity and compassion, H thanked the rooster for doing his job well (protecting the chickens), and we all marveled at the glory of his plumage and the formidable power of his dinosaur-like talons. Even if none of this made any difference to the rooster, it felt appropriate, like a prayer of thanksgiving and respect.
For anyone who is interested in the gory details of killing and preparing a rooster or chicken, the instructions we used were actually from The Joy of Cooking, Irma Rombauer’s classic. However, apparently you need to get a copy that was published before 1975, because the more modern versions don’t include instructions on animal slaughter – an interesting reflection of how our society’s relationship to food has changed over time. The older versions of the tome also include how to kill and dress rabbit and squirrel. We also used online instructions here and here to supplement Irma’s wisdom.
Once the feathers were removed, what remained didn’t even remotely resemble the formidable creature Taylor had battled with a broom in the chicken coop. Suddenly, it was like any chicken I might buy and dress for dinner. That makes the idea of eating the meat you raised yourself easier too. It just doesn’t look anything like the animal you had a relationship with. It looks like food. Except this meat wasn’t raised in an over-crowded, dark warehouse, stuffed full of antibiotics and growth hormones. This rooster had a fairly normal, comfortable, rooster life in the outdoors, where he could follow his rooster instincts, serve his rooster purpose.
And part of that purpose will be to sustain us, probably in the form of Coq au Vin.