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Food For Thought: Taking responsibility (vignettes of an amateur hunter and butcher)

Written by Scott Middlekauf on 23 February 2011.

Before the kill at butchering workshop at Evening Rain Farm.
Before the kill at butchering workshop at Evening Rain Farm.
I have butchered over 60 animals, and initiated many concerned vegetarian interns on my farm into the web of omnivorous life. As it turns out, many people crave the experience of "taking responsibility" for eating meat. The process begins by working at strenuous, physically demanding tasks for a month. This tends to develop a physical craving for meat. Then they see how our chickens live, foraging in the shrubs, eating insects, grass seeds, worms and so on, sleeping in the trees. Then I say, "Those two roosters are extra. If you want to eat one, I will walk you through the process." Invariably, the killing is the (emotionally) hard part, and the rest of the process is fascinating to them. I always offer to do the actual killing. Some people want to do it themselves, and some don't.
Scott (left) prepares for a clean dispatch.
Scott (left) prepares for a clean dispatch.
During the past decade, I have raised or hunted about 95% of my animal food. I eat meat (or eggs) almost every day. And every time, the ending of a life is an emotional moment. I don't break down in tears every time I hunt a pig, but I feel it. I can't explain. I spend much time making sure that I get a clean kill, usually a head shot. I let them go if I don't have a clean shot. Maybe I feel that they don't want to go, not ready to die yet. Perhaps I should ask for the animal's permission, like the American Indians do.

My first foray into butchering involved an animal that was already dead when I found it. It was 1985. I was doing an internship in a small town in Appalachia, and I was determined to learn how to treat a hide to use for clothing or shelter. It was deer season, and as I sat on my bed of dry leaves under a rock ledge where I slept, I set my intention and prayed that some local hunter would have an unwanted skin. About a week later, a pack of six stray dogs was wandering down our dirt road and paused half a day in front of our building. Late that afternoon five of them wandered away, leaving the skinniest one dead on the ground. The sign was obvious to me, and I spent many hours that night carefully and intensely removing the hide by kerosene lamplight. When I was finished, I had a hide on one side of me, and this naked dog on the other. I was occupied the next two days scraping, tanning, stretching, smoking this little skin. My fellow interns remarked on my dog smell whenever I went indoors for a food break. This solemn, ritual event was a marker in my life. I was learning how to provide my basic necessities in a direct relationship with nature.

A couple years ago, my stepdaughter adopted and rehabilitated a very old horse. As he emerged from his stupor of years of neglect, he regained a little too much of his stallion spunk, and we found it necessary to neuter him. Our vet wouldn't do it, for medical reasons, nor would anybody else, and eventually I realized that all eyes were on me. Since I have applied the knife to so many beasts over the past decade, my family thought I would be best qualified. Well, to make a mid length story short, our ex-stallion emerged from the process on all fours, after some panicky scurrying around by our homegrown medical crew, wielding ice packs, zip ties, and gauze. After the operation was deemed a success, I remarked," That's the first time I touched a knife to an animal with the intention of it surviving."

It reminds me of earlier this week: One of our interns was cleaning out some frames from our beehives. I went at it with my pocket knife, eating bits of leftover pollen, old comb with bits of dark, dark honey, some clear honey, and a whole section of still-living larvae. The flavor of the larvae was very pleasant and satisfying, but the thought of it was very difficult. I had trouble with the thought of it.

Scott completes the butchering process.
Scott completes the butchering process.
For some reason, predators, cats and most dogs seem to live completely in pleasure of killing. For humans, it is different. On matters like this, I prefer not to philosophize and theorize, but to stay right with my own experience. That said, I feel a rightness of my process of hunting animals and eating them. I love being a hunter. I deeply enjoy the hunt. I love dragging it home and cutting it up to eat later. I love the butchering. And, I feel remorse, fear, sadness when I witness dying. Not death. A dead pig doesn't bother me. But dying; the life leaving. I feel it when I see a mouse as it is caught in a trap.


Scott Middlekauf lives with his wife Karin Payne on their 22 acre sustainable farmstead in Kapoho. You can read their fascinating blog at EveningRainFarm.com.

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