Blood on Our Hands: Dealing Ethically With the Problems of Husbandry

One of the roles our farm has, rather unintentionally, taken on is as sanctuary (mostly temporary) for the unwanted roosters of friends and loved ones. First, there was Cora, who turned out to be Corey - and not permissable under town regulations. My step-mother relocated him here and found Eunice, a hen, and Corey lived a happy life on our farm for about a year, until he got aggressive and started attacking my children. After he jumped Asher, then two, as Asher puts (still with some satisfaction), "We ate Corey." There are far too many gentle animals in the world you can't keep to hold on to the mean ones.

My youngest sister keeps chickens also, and she and her husband bought a lot of chicks at a local auction that turned out to be largely roosters. So 7 roos came to our home, and not long after, were dispatched. Camilla, my friend Bess's chicken, suspected to be Camille due to some strange noises, came here too, but redeemed herself when she laid an egg, and got to go home and be Camilla again. My step-mother just asked me if I would take the chicks that are likely to be the outcome of a local school project in incubating eggs. I said I probably would, depending on the breed, but I admit, I'm tempted to ask in exchange to be allowed to come to the kids' class and talk about what happens to the chickens afterwards, because our cognitive disconnect about the future of animals is vast.

I see it when we take friends to Indian Ladder Farms, a local tourist farm. Every spring they have "baby animal days" and every year, the baby animals discreetly disappear at some point in early fall. We celebrate the arrival of the animals, but no clue to their fate is ever given. This, I think, is a problem. Most of us don't really grasp that the life and death of animals has a direct connection with us.

I am blunt to people who wish to bring me their roosters - I will keep them if I need a rooster, otherwise, they will be soup. Some people take me up on it, others are shocked and horrified that I reserve the right to kill their pet. They want me to be an animal sanctuary, not a farm. But that's not my role.

I think until recently a post with this title would be assumed by most people, who do not raise livestock, to have nothing to do with them. By this I mean that it is a fairly new (and fragile and has not reached everyone) realization that the husbandry of livestock has something substantial to do with the people who eat, rather than the people who simply raise animals. Now one partial answer to the problem of husbandry is veganism. Vegetarianism, as long as it includes milk, eggs and honey does not solve the problem. Veganism is one good solution. The other is a high degree of awareness of the realities of livestock, and a very conscious and careful eating of animal products.

What do I mean by "the problem of husbandry?" What I mean is that generally speaking, in the rearing of domesticated animals, one gender of the animals is more valuable than the other. Often, but not always, females are preferred, because they lay the eggs, give the milk, and can reproduce themselves perfectly well with only a very tiny number of male participants.

For sheep, for example, one might keep 20 ewes for every ram. For cows, it may be a similar number - or more likely, people use AI, and millions of cows may be fertilized by only a few hundred bulls. For chickens, a dozen hens to a rooster is the norm - although you don't need roosters at all and in many municipalities these are prohibited. In a few cases, males are more desirable - mostly for animals that put on meat fairly quickly, like turkeys. Or in some cases, they are equally desirable - meat hens may be sold to the broiler market while cocks go to the roaster market. Either way, in most cases, the lifespan of a female will be radically longer than that of most males.

For some of these creatures, there's a logical way of handling them - for sheep and goats, for example, the most sensible thing is to raise them on grass, which people can't eat, and then butcher them at the end of the season for protein that people can eat. Sometimes neutered animals are also valuable for pet or draft. But a problem occurs when people want more of one sex of an animal than another, when people lack the land or resources to feed out a male animal to butchering size, or when people are confronted with the necessity of eating male animals.

Alan, one of my regular readers forwarded this article to me from The Oregonian about the problem of extra roosters. With a resurgence of interest in backyard poultry, there is an increased demand for layer hens. But most municipalities do not permit roosters, so people are increasingly abandoning roosters that they get by accident (chicken sexing is not perfect), and hatcheries are euthanizing large batches of them.

"Our roosters are valuable, but the biggest percentage (of our sales) is hens," said Bud Wood, president of Murray McMurray Hatchery in Webster, Iowa. "Anyone who says, 'I only want pullets' -- the unwanted cockerels have to be put down."

McMurray shipped 1.7 million chicks last year.

Some of McMurray's unwanted males go to feed the raptors at a nearby sanctuary, Wood said. The rest are euthanized.

"We do the best we can," he said. "We destroy them very humanely; we use CO2 gas."

Two Pacific Northwest hatcheries also differed in their answers to the cockerel question.

Angie Dunlap of Dunlap Hatchery in Caldwell, Idaho, said the company runs weekly specials on cockerels and sells most as meat birds.

Gene Bunting, owner of Lazy 54 Farm in Hubbard, said that while some of his cockerels go to people in rural areas, where they are raised for consumption, a large percentage are put down with gas.

"For many of our breeds, it takes 16 to 18 weeks to get them to size, and they're still not heavy enough," he said about the difficulty of selling cockerels to meat customers.

The two hatcheries sell largely identical breeds and ship about the same number of chicks.

If we eat eggs, we are implicated in the problem of extra males. So the question becomes, what's the most ethical thing to do? How should we deal with the fact that roosters are intrinsically less valuable to us than the hens in many cases?

Now one possible answer to this, offered about the same article by The Matron at Trapper Creek is that people should simply raise double the number of chickens - for each hen, take a rooster and then eat him before he becomes a nuisance.

This is a potentially excellent solution, and the Matron is generally right. The problem, of course, is that it runs up against many backyard chicken keeper's presumptions - that they can clean up their project of producing their eggs and thus escape the responsibility of killing. I understand that some people don't feel they can kill, others have moral objections to doing their own killing. At the same time, however, I think it is important to remember that all livestock keeping is steeped in death. That is, if you avoid the subject yourself, you are still morally responsible for the conditions of life and the conditions of death of those creatures that live because of you. You can choose not to handle it directly, or you can, but you cannot say that you are not responsible.

Moreover, other, more plebian problems come with the idea of keeping roosters. The Matron argues that most roosters don't start crowing until 15-20 weeks, at which point they could be butchered. But many of my roosters have started crowing as early as 10-12 weeks, at which point most non-meat breeds are still pretty scrawny. We can and should start by reconsidering the zoning laws, however.

Moreover, it really depends on what you are feeding them. For those who rely primarily on purchased, grain-based feed from a feed store, you are converting people food (grains) into more people food (meat) at a not-terrific conversion rate. If you have a fairly large area where the birds can get as much as half of their food from grass, bugs and scrap, that's one thing. If you can arrange to provide food scraps (my co-author on _A Nation of Farmers_ Aaron Newton raises all of his chickens amost entirely on a local coffee shop's food scraps) beyond what you grow yourself - from neighbors, local stores and restaurants, college dining halls (Eric is working on this one at SUNY), then raising the males may make sense. But in the net, without these sources, raised entirely on chicken feed, it might be more ethical to euthanize them.

We've come a long way in recognizing that agriculture isn't something separate from us - that is, the things farmers do aren't the things farmer's do, they are what farmer do to feed us and our needs. We have come a long way in recognizing that if we do eat animal products, we must do it humanely and wisely.

But we're still a long way from fully grasping that agriculture itself is steeped in death, and that we can't escape that reality as long as we depend on it. We'd be steeped in death even if we were all to become vegans (which is unlikely in the extreme) as domesticated livestock breeds went rapidly extinct because there was no reason to raise them anymore, and we lost the sound and sight and relationship that tie us to these animals that we have chosen for domestication - and that chose us as well. Even if we were vegan we'd be steeped in death as combines behead rabbits and roll over the nests of ground nesting birds. We'd be steeped in death as we increasingly mined scarcer soil minerals that we used to get from animal manures.

The truth is, we can't get out of death - or its corollary, life. These animals we rear get to live because of what we eat as well. They get their day in the sun, their breeds continue and go forward because we eat them or their products. The truth is that there is no full escape from the problem of death here - there is only the careful consideration of the material conditions of both life and death.

The truth is that if something is going to die for me, I would rather do it at my own hands. I do not enjoy butchering livestock. The first time I killed a rooster I was weeping and my hands shook. But I also know that I can do it quickly, and painlessly. That my animals live a good life, unlike those raised by large industrial meat producers. That my animals do not suffer fear or anxiety by long periods of transport and waiting in slaughterhouses. We are not perfect - we too have ordered pullets before from hatcheries, and will be changing our practices. There is more to be done for all of us.

Reasonable people can reasonably disagree about what we should do. Most Americans eat far too many animal products to begin with. And even with a more reasonable diet, there are good questions to be asked - how do we minimize suffering? How do we balance our desire to be good people and to eat well? Should we be vegetarian? Vegan? Grow our own? Buy locally? Eat one thing but not another? All of these are serious and conscious efforts to find a way through a tough-to-navigate dilemma.

What I think is impermissable is unconsciousness. We are not allowed, ethically speaking, not to know that for every hen for our backyard, there was a rooster chick, euthanized and disposed of. We are not allowed, ethically speaking, not to have the ability to put down animals that are suffering, even though we'd rather have no truck with their deaths. We are not allowed to pretend that our diet doesn't leave us with blood on our hands.


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As someone who was trained at a land grant university how to humanely kill animals for food and how to properly cut up the carcasses into meat for people to eat, I have no ethical concerns at all about killing animals for food. I ensure that the animals are properly stunned and then exsanguinate them.

I personally am proud at the "blood on my hands" because I am providing a food source for people that safe, nutritious and palatable.


This is where my thoughts and prayers are now. I have ordered sexed ducklings - I want females. In part this is because they lay eggs. But largely it is because I am still coming to grips with what to do with too many drakes. For now, I have chosen to let someone else do the dirty deed. Lord willing, I will grow into the ability to face my part in the life and death decision making.

Drakes would be fine, except . . . they can kill ducks if they are too sexually aggressive. Having more than one drake for three females is, I am told, a recipe for disaster. Sexing small poultry is not easy, and I am still likely to end up with a drake or two, which will be acceptable with the number of ducks I expect.

What happens if I decide to incubate fertile eggs? Many birds are hatched with deformities, and breeders tell me that those must be culled - the technical word for killed.

If, (but more likely) when I must kill an animal that is too aggressive, or problematic in some other way, I pray that I will do it without anger, without cruelty.

I have also been thinking about the wild animals that undoubtedly will come after my ducks. Will I be able to dissuade all of them without using deadly force? Again, that is something I am pondering, and someday I will likely find out.

For almost 29 years I had a reptile that was an obligate carnivore. I had to have rodents for it to eat. Handing another animal over to death shook me, badly. But I remembered that in taking responsibility for the reptile, who had no choice in the matter, if I did not allow another animal to die, that she would starve. And that, given the situation, did not seem right to me.

From that has grown my understanding, and I think it would benefit many people to have that sobering realization, to let it sink in that for one or more to live, one or more must die. I sometimes imagine that sitting down to a meal, those who grasp the process that brought the steak or chicken & dumplings to the table would approach it with more reverence.

Thanks for posting this bittersweet truth.

Hi Sharon

You're so right about the way we hide things from children (showing children pet lambs, and not telling them what a lamb is reared *for*).

A brave head teacher in the UK was loudly and publically condemned in the UK for raising a lamb at school, sending it for slaughter and raffling the meat.

See here:

She stood her ground, but was vilified for it.

Death by gassing with carbon dioxide is humane? Our breathing is regulated by our carbon dioxide level in our blood. When that level rises, we breathe harder. When the level outstrips our ability to hyperventilate, there will be the real experience of suffocation -- to death.

Has anybody watched these animals being 'put to sleep'?

By the way, the proper diet for chickens, which are predators, is bugs, worms, grubs, and other little critters. Frog eggs and tadpoles are real treats.

A really great article. I appreciate that you don't exempt anyone, including vegans, as there is no such thing as a "death free" diet. The fact that we "can't get out of death" is something that I've always suspected, but never really been able to verbalize. You've given me much to think about. Thank you.


I have gassed broiler sized chickens with CO2. They are placed in a box and the gas is turned on. I do not know that it is the most humane method. Cervical dislocation is instantaneous death as is decapitation. But many people prefer that the animals are stunned prior to death. Other methods of stunning are electrical. These electrical impulses render the animal unconscious but also trigger muscle spasms which lay people equate with consciousness.

Yea yea yea. Hands hell, try washing it out of your ears.

I grew up in a neighborhood where every house had a lot of heavily landscaped and manicured acreage. At one time there were more Rolls Royces per capita in our township than any other neighborhood in the United States. My father charmed his way onto the city council and granted himself a collection of variances before they discovered his secret.... Dad was green before green was keen.

Dad hired a tractor and plowed half the yard for organic kitchen gardens, the rest was in fruit trees, berry bushes, a dove cot, a dome geodesic greenhouse, the apiary, rabbit hutches, herb beds, iris islands, lily beds, roses roses roses etc..

Having brought every inch of his own under cultivation he talked the hilarious old bavarian neighbor into, first goats, then chickens.

They had none of the 100 chicks sexed. He just took them all and planned for a massacre two and a half months along.

When the day came for the murder of 50+ fryers he revealed his master plan.

The key to the operation was the gigantic over reinforced carousel clothesline welded together from steel gas pipe by Uncle Vernon with the intention that it support the weight of a dozen or more rowdy kids at a time.

Additional troops included my mother and the long suffering good natured bride of the hilarious old bavarian (she had previously ordered the execution and BBQ of Beardy Bill the goat when he found her butt an irresistible target so Dad knew she had a taste for death ) and various other inductees at steaming, plucking, scalding, dressing and packing stations.

He would decapitate the full fifty in rapid succession, suspended and inverted to achieve the minimum pain and maximum efficiency.

What Dad failed to realize is that the incredible simplicity of the feathered dinosaur nervous system would result in uniform flapping.

The carousel clothesline began to spin.

Oh god did it spin. Every kid for a mile or so had arrived early and had found a good spots to watch this curious performance. They were now filled with deep regret for having chosen the front row because they were being sprayed with Satanâs own sprinkler system. They were hoping to see something gross and when they ran home screaming and looked in the mirror did they ever.

Blood was everywhere. Years later when my sister and I watched the prom scene from âCarrieâ we just looked at each other and nodded. Been there, done that.

My mother fielded screaming calls for days from helicopter country club moms and no matter how many times we washed the white wirehair terrier (best day of her life btw) she was pink and stayed pink for a month.

I know where food comes from.

I love fresh free range bug eating chicken but I still get a little jumpy around carousel clotheslines.

By Prometheus (not verified) on 25 Jan 2010 #permalink

I love your last comment - "What I think is impermissable is unconsciousness." If you are willing to eat the meat, then you should be willing to consider where that meat comes from. If thinking about the death of a chicken, or the fact that chicken wings used to be on live chicken, makes you not want to eat that meat, I consider that a good thing. Any other way, you're just lying to yourself, and that's never a good thing.

I have asked vegetarians on several occasions what they use (or imagine being used) for fertilizer for growing their food. Most have said animal manure or organic fertilizer (which can contain processed manure). To me, that seems to be a fundamental contradiction in their principles.


When blood carbon dioxide levels increase beyond a certain point, with a consequent decrease in blood oxygen, the animal simply loses consciousness prior to dying. It would be the same if you purged the animal cage with nitrogen or argon.

Excellent post. My in-laws were raising chickens (among other things) for a while; they had to stop because of a couple of injuries and other circumstances which made it impossible to properly care for them. They had a decent distribution of both genders, though they didn't use the roosters for stud. They raised them until they were big enough to eat. But they live well outside of town; they can do that.

It made me realize another thing: chickens are MEAN. I'm a city girl. I knew about the gender problem, but I didn't know that much about the actual animals themselves. I didn't know how they could brutalize one another, even in a free range situation. I tend to feel that if you are keeping someone or something in confinement, you are responsible for whatever happens to them, even if it's something inflicted upon them by others in your confinement. (Or perhaps "especially", since they wouldn't have met their attacker otherwise.) So even if we resolve the problem of male chicks, there is blood on our hands. I do not believe there is a perfectly noble solution to this, but I agree very much with you that it is important we all understand it.

Hmm....I am suddenly reminded of the people who complained about Royal Caribbean docking in Haiti, not only to deliver supplies but to continue previously scheduled leisure trips. Many criticized them, saying how could you relax so close to devastation? How heartless could that be? But then I read a remark by an ethicist, pointing out that having a good time 60 miles from Port-au-Prince really isn't any more despicable than having a good time thousands of miles away in Hawai'i. After all, the Haitians are suffering either way; vacationing farther away just means you're more insulated from the horror which you are ignoring while you are having a good time.

I think by having others slaughter one's unwanted cockerels (whether one is an egg farmer or, by extension, an end consumer picking up eggs or cooking hens), one is like a vacationer in Hawai'i. One can feel all noble because they aren't partying next to devastation, but the devastation is still real and still unrelieved by oneself. One can alternately feel guilty about it, but that's silly too. Better to know the truth and come to terms with it, because then there is the best chance of actually changing it in a realistic way.

Side-note: some animals of unwanted gender wind up at rendering plants. This is another area where people are not at all aware of what's going on. Either they refuse to look at the horror, or they see the horror but refuse to see the needs that these plants satisfy -- or how vast are the products that depend on them.

By Calli Arcale (not verified) on 25 Jan 2010 #permalink

While driving intentionally erratically and too fast back from the slaughterhouse where I had watched my childhood friend "Buddy the Calf" being disassembled and loaded in the station wagon my Dad announced,

"Boy Prom, I sure hope we don't get in a bad car accident because the surgeons are going to try and stuff Buddy back into us!"

Its meat, we're meat and everything from a tiger to a daisy lives at the expense of something else. As humans we at least do our victims the courtesy (usually) of killing them before we begin eating them.

Every garden begins with a little ecological Armageddon.

When people have too much distance from death they deprive themselves of fully knowing the expense and ethical obligations of their continued existence.

By Prometheus (not verified) on 25 Jan 2010 #permalink

No option to give the rooster back?

One of ours was rehomed with a friend since we had two brothers- he had become aggressive when they attempted to collect eggs from broody hens and they killed him. Sadly we didn't find out until a while afterwards so we didn't get a chance to take him back, and we were devastated since he had been one of our favourites (the parents chose which one to keep). You know, the kind that follows you around the garden, the great big rooster that you confidently hand to the 3 year old neighbour's child to hold, who you could turn upside-down or sit on your shoulder without fear so long he knew you or whoever was with you.

Oddly enough I wasn't at all distressed at the deaths of other roosters and hens, just the ones I liked. Anyone else have similar experiences?

I agree wholeheartedly that if you're willing to eat meat you should also try to make sure you know and face up to the consequences of that.

What about capons (castrated roosters, the steers of the chicken world)? Nobody has mentioned them, but I do still see them for sale at the grocery store, so somebody is producing them. Wouldn't you avoid the crowing/aggressiveness problem then, long enough to allow the rooster to get to a decent eating size? While it is not likely that urban farmers would want to undertake the castration process themselves, maybe that part (and the actual butchering) could be hired out by the squeamish. I understand the thinking behind the do-your-own-butchering, but I don't actually see an ethical problem with a family hiring a chicken butcher, any more than I see a problem with a family hiring a plumber or an electrician. Probably there are not rooster castraters listing in the yellow pages at the moment, but if we want backyard chickens to work out, maybe this is yet another form of skills/infrastructure which we need to develop.

#14 tarynkay

"Wouldn't you avoid the crowing/aggressiveness problem then, long enough to allow the rooster to get to a decent eating size? While it is not likely that urban farmers would want to undertake the castration process themselves, maybe that part (and the actual butchering) could be hired out by the squeamish."

Capons have a nice temperament but the process of making one is dangerous because it is an unanesthetized internal surgery and a lot of birds die (bleed to death).

In the end, unless you are addicted to schmaltz, it is a lot of pain and a lot of risk to the animal for very little return.

If you are squeamish about butchering an animal then you probably shouldn't be raising/eating it.

By Prometheus (not verified) on 25 Jan 2010 #permalink

"The truth is, we can't get out of death" -

I will contend that the way you state that illustrates a big part of the problem. And Sharon, I know you're aware of all this- but I think that does show how deep the training goes; that even you would automatically state it that way.

Why would anyone WANT to "get out of" death?

My question there is going to sound strange to many readers here- of COURSE death is something to avoid! That's what we learn in this culture-

It's not what all cultures teach, of course; though we usually find that totally incomprehensible. It leads to insane (and I mean that word) statements like "Orientals don't value life" - an utter slander and miscomprehension.

I tend to wonder if the broad acceptance of a religion that promises immortality- if you deserve it- also automatically degrades the value and understanding of death.

Even the statement "death is part of life!" - misses the point. No, it isn't. Both are part of the whole. If you value only life- you're not actually comprehending the real world.

Many, if not most, hunter/gatherer peoples have traditions of thanking their non-human brothers and sisters when they take their meat. Our usual sophisticated view of that is scorn at the primitive pretense. Which is a desperately naive reaction. In their world, there truly is no conflict between respecting the rabbit, or duck, or deer; and killing and eating it.

It IS possible for us to arrive at something similar- as Asher seems to be learning.

Are there any species where preemptive sex selection is practical?

I'd assume that any species with temperature dependent sex assignment would be fairly easy with quite basic hardware, albeit only useful to people dealing with crocodiles and lizards.

In large mammals, where artificial insemination is practiced, does sperm sorting work out economically?

You cannot have life without death. I've never quite understood how people want only one side without its reciprocal - sad/happy, light/dark, life/death. In order to have life, death happens. Even the vegans are killing grains and vegetables. (There's actually a very funny song called "Carrot Juice is Murder" by the Arrogant Worms. I'm sure it can be found on YouTube.)

As a child, it confused me that no one talked about why the baby animals weren't around the next year. Shouldn't there be adolescent animals the following spring? All those baby chicks at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago - where do they go when they stop being cute and fluffy?

Just for this, I'm tempted to start an unwanted rooster farm - call it the Cock Ranch.

we had 6 backyard chooks (we are not allowed to keep roosters) we killed and cleaned our first chook this weekend. They have stopped laying, and we had already killed one which was obviously ill and being pecked by the others. Two other we found dead. we decided to despatch the others before they got sick and died too. We were planning chicken soup - unfortunately the chook we killed was ill too (I discovered when gutting - so we are not eating her).

One question Sharon: Do you isolate the chook for 24 hours without food so the crop is clean? she looked very sad - i was thinking overnight would be sufficient - what do you do?

It was good practice though - i was suprised at how quickly the chook went from a pet with a name, to something we would buy at the butcher, and how quickly we (and the children) accepted that. I was able to give them a quick lesson in biology - this is the heart, lungs, intestine, and I discovered what the gizzard looks like!

My husband did the killing, I did the plucking and cleaning. Neither of us were very happy about it, but I was surprised at how easy I found my bit - I would definately raise chicks and eat the rooster next time.

one child (our potential vegan!) was very upset about the whole thing, the other two much more sanguine. the eldest (10) helped us. After talking to the 8yo about what we were doing, I came out to find the 5yo sobbing, i cuddled her and tried to talk t her about feeling sad about the chook dying and she sobbed: 'it isn't that - daddy wouldnt let me watch'.

Phisrow- there are fish where all are female; except the local "alpha". When a male is removed, the female at the top of the pecking order becomes male; all others remain female.

Sharon, you should breed chickens to do this. :-)

Greenpa - I should have said "responsibility for life" but the reality is that I don't think that it is necessarily bad to want to get out of death - I think that's one possible response to something that doesn't seem like a lot of fun to many people (a la Woody Allen "I don't want to achieve immortality through my work, I want to achieve it by not dying.") Obviously, that doesn't work - it isn't an option and even if it were, we wouldn't want it (see the myth of Tithonus or Tennyson's poem on that subject), but I don't think it is bad culturally to wish to avoid death in many respects, as long as it doesn't become pathological. As Tithonus and the Egyptians prove, there can be longings to avoid dealing with death - these are normal. It is what you do about the reality that you aren't going to get out of it that is more problematic.


Aw Crunchy, gotta love ya...irreverence is such a gift.


By Sue in pacNW (not verified) on 25 Jan 2010 #permalink

I was watching a program about livestock theft/killing/illegal meat sales and I was very disappointed when they showed the cleaning and cutting up part but not the part when they shot the cow. I'm very squeamish about guts but not at all about quick animal deaths - though if it was a pet I think it is natural to be sad.

By Katherine (not verified) on 25 Jan 2010 #permalink

Greenpa and Sharon -

personally I am trying to embrace death. I choose to eat meat, which means I choose to kill. I also choose to provide each animal I kill with a reasonable length of high-quality life before I kill it - practically speaking that means I kill young adult animals who have lived a free range life during which they have been allowed to forage and breed and generally act like the animal they are - be it a chicken or a pig or a goat.

Is this easy? No. I don't have any philosophical problem at all with raising and killing animals humanely - but my stomach doesn't seem to have got with the program yet. I still have a hard time enjoying the meat I raise and dispatch myself.

As far as the deeper philosophical question of death-avoidance or death-acceptance, I lean towards acceptance because it sure as shit is going to happen to me one day, and I'd like to make my peace beforehand. Luckily, I have an example to follow in the cultural practices of my Mexican husband. The Mexicans have a wonderfully sanguine (if I may be allowed the pun) attitude towards death which I found again and again to be instructive.


It took us a year or two after moving to the farm to realize exactly what you write about here. And then it took another year or so to work our minds around killing our own roosters (and old hens.) At first, it was so intense and even, dare I say, gross that it was nearly more than we could handle, but we slowly worked our minds around the whole process.

After a while, we got into the swing of things and even started helping some friends kill their birds (for a cut of the meat.) It turns out that my husband is good at the quick dispatch and I'm good at the gutting. (When butchering a mass of turkeys during a November freeze, it actually feels really, really good to put your frozen hands into the warm body cavity of a bird.) Now we also kill our own deer and are starting to ponder pigs.

I think that it's a natural reaction for folks not raised around butchering to have your stomach turned by the first endeavor, but I highly recommend sticking to it. It's actually amazingly empowering to be able to "make" your own meat, to know exactly where it came from. Just don't name those chickens!

(Prometheus --- your story was hilarious!!!)

Still laughing @ Prometheus' dad's invention. I first read that at work, and I'll have you know the IT department did not find my request for a new, non-coffee-splattered keyboard at all worthy.

I'm sure it seemed like a good idea at the time.

This is perhaps one of the most sane discussions I've seen on a blog. Truly clearly expressed, reasonable opinions.

I have hunted and fished my entire life, being one of the closest things I did with my father. It has never bothered me to kill a fish or bird, knowing that I will eat it. I have yet to kill a deer or other large mammal, but if I needed or wanted the meat, I would not hesitate to do so. In fact, relative to industrial beef, killing deer is vastly more humane. Both my sister and my partner are completely anti-gun/anti-hunting, and I have always found that to be incredibly hypocritical, as both eat beef, lamb, and chicken.

Killing animals is messy and perhaps brutal, but very few people can face that fact. Plastic wrapped beef, put it in your grocery cart, slap it on the grill, cut it up and scarf it down, and easily ignore what happened before the plastic.

i love this post and love your blog.

people need to understand that if you are not an autotrophe with your own chlorophyll (or chemosynthesis ability) you MUST kill something to stay alive.

i have no problems with people choosing a vegan lifestyle, but i get annoyed when they start preaching of the "no kill" moral superiority of it.

do they not know plants are also alive? and, as you wisely pointed out, if they are consuming any plant products produced by large-scale farming and harvesting -organic or no- they are responsible, by way of creating demand, for the animal field deaths of birds and small mammals and uncountable insects and reptiles directly killed by farming machinery and practices, or indirectly by displacement when their habitat becomes a large-scale industrial farm.

we cannot escape the fact that "life feeds on life" unless the life referred to is capable of transforming sunlight or chemical energy (like chemosynthetic bacteria) directly into bioavailable energy.

NO human can live without killing something, even if that only means plants and insects. so the best we can do is try to make the deaths that feed us quick and humane. no one lives "death-free", not even the most careful vegan, "cruelty-free" is the best we can hope and strive for....

I became a vegetarian the instant the farm manager at my high school handed me the bag of killing tools.

He was very understanding about it, and commented quietly that he respected people who refuse to eat meat, and he respected people who kill their own animals, but he couldn't respect people who insisted that someone else do the killing.

I think people would eat very differently if more people actually participated in agriculture. I don't think it would cause many people to become vegan or vegetarian, but I'm sure we would have less livestock, and that our livestock would be happier.

Sharon; "I should have said "responsibility for life" but the reality is that I don't think that it is necessarily bad to want to get out of death."

I think it's likely we're mostly on the same page, of course. And I don't have anything against the normal urge of an organism to preserve its own life, if reasonably possible. We wouldn't last long, if we didn't have that. :-)

I guess what I'm aiming at is that present culture allows too many to slip too easily and too fast into "death is bad."; which is not a true statement. And from there it's a very easy slip to "death is evil", and "death is always horrifying."

There are lots of folks with those basic reactions- all death is horrifying - and to be avoided at any cost.

Which is seriously unbalanced and unhealthy.

But I do expect to put a reasonable amount of effort into not getting killed tomorrow. And possibly an unreasonable amount into preventing Smidgen from killing herself. :-)


That was the funniest thing I've read in weeks! Thanks for the laughs; you rendered the scene so well, I could imagine it as though I was there.

By Edward Bryant (not verified) on 25 Jan 2010 #permalink


I think that when I took on livestock - or pets - I took on the responsibility to defend them. That means predators are a problem. One that I deal with as quickly as I can, it isn't humane to leave the livestock in my care prey to foxes, possums, etc.

I only see one use for live traps - to be able to trap something where a dog or cat might be at risk. Because there is no wildlands or neighbor's land any where close to me where any predator could be turned loose - that I would not be guilty of malicious mischief in the eyes of the law, or possibly destruction of private property. Varmints are harmful. And they do *not* forget how to raid livestock.

I don't go looking for snakes and such. But mice in the house or barn face traps and cats, and few possums have survived being caught in my chicken house. I like having snakes around - the bugs and mice they live on make snakes quite valuable. But if I find one in the chicken house - that one didn't survive, either.

I tell people quite honestly that I only eat animals I know.
They say "oh, how can you eat the ones you know? how awful! I could only eat animals I don't know!" (yeah, these are not farm people)

It's an easy answer. The animals I know led good lives, with lots of grass, freedom to move, and were killed quickly and with as little stress as possible by a very nice man, our local butcher. Or, for the roosters, by my husband (who is quicker and surer with the axe than I am, although I do the rest of the job). Industrially raised meat has been through heaven only knows what kinds of trauma ... and I am fortuante enough to have access to meat we raised (or to get it from farmers I know personally), and that just seems better in a lot of ways.

Not everyone has that option, I know, and I am glad I do. For those who must buy their meat from others: meet your farmer. Buy meat from someone you trust to have 'done the right thing' by the animals who end up on your plate.

Thanks for telling it like it is, Sharon.

I have always found that people who have experience of wildlife and farming understand the process of where our food comes from. Too many people today, buy frozen, plastic wrapped packages of steak, pork or chicken from the supermarket and make no mental connection to where this actually came from.

I understand vegetarians who object to the factory farming methods so common today and I agree with them but I do not understand meat eaters who don't want to think about where their chicken stew came from.

My 22 yo son recently invited a friend and his girlfriend over to hunt rabbits on our land. While the guys were out hunting I asked the girlfriend how she cooked the meat and she confided to me that she didnt eat it because she couldnt get past eating bunnies.

While the boys were out cleaning the rabbits they caught, my husband happened to walk into the garage and was horrified to find the friend only took part of the meat and tossed the rest as waste. He banned the kid from hunting on our land again after giving him a lecture about respecting the animal and the ethics of hunting. He was so angry he muttered all afternoon and it didnt help that I told him the girlfriend wouldnt eat the meat anyway...

I once horrified a teenage friend of my daughters by pointing out that the roast she was eating with so much gusto was actually a muscle not unlike the muscle in her thigh. It was the last time that kid came to dinner.


I was thinking about this issue last night, and a couple of thoughts ran through my mind.

1. I am reminder of the American squeemishness with anything related to messy things, especially death, blood and guts. These are natural and normal aspects of Life, and real life is messy. Americans has sanitized the mess out of as many things as possible, from the nature of our food (it doesn't magically appear in syrofoam containers) to what we do with our dead. Every time I have been at a funeral, the deceased looked like they were alive in Technicolor. Not to mention that they had been prepared so that they would never rot.

2. I worked in medical research for many years, which required working with animals. I was a very good killer, very quick, efficient and thorogh. Many might find that odd, but I believe it was for a worthy cause and I was going to make damn sure that there was no suffuring caused by my squeemishness or carelessness. Many people are outraged about animal research. They think the animals are being abused and wasted. I have never observed that. All the animals I worked with were maintained under the best conditions possible, treated humanely, and caused as little suffering as possible. Further, they were never wasted. As much was learned from them as possible. Even surgeons used the bodies for practice, because using a tinny body for practice makes you much better on a human. These animals were bred and raised for research. Is that so different from raising animals for food? I find it very irritating that some people condemn medical research and then turn right around and claim the benefits of it (e.g., any kind of medical test, surgery, drug, etc. was first learned and developed using animals). How different is that from the vegetarian or vegan who wears leather shoes, coats or belts?

Don't know the answers. It just makes me wonder.

Wonderful post, Sharon. I've enjoyed reading all of the responses, and everything has really made me think.

Years ago I worked on a living history farm. We raised three piglets every year, and when the kids would coo and ask their names we always had the same answer: Bacon, Ham, and Sausage. We would then talk about the need for raising meat on the farm, and that if they came back in December they could watch the process at a special after-hours event (we didn't want to scar any kids who happened to wander in!) The meat would be cured in the cellar, and would hang there and we would eat it in our meals all year.

I was raised on a pseudo-farm (we rented the house but didnt keep animals or work the fields) and learned to butcher deer with my dad, watched my cats die by car on the road or getting into the fan of the truck. Dad would protect house and farm with his shotgun, and I watched many a nuisance animal die by his hands. As a kid I wanted to go duck hunting with him, but Mom wouldn't let me - she thought it would disturb me too much.

Mom remembers chickens hanging upside down on the clothesline, and occasionally running headless through the backyard after her mother had beheaded them. I don't think my dad ate storebought meat until he grew up and left home.

I'm now a vegetarian, and have been for nearly 12 years. I have problems with industrial farming, and prefer not to encourage it with my dollars. I keep toying with getting chickens or ducks, but I'm at a loss as to how to humanely kill them, or even whether I would want to. I find it easier and more comfortable to eat no meat, while aware it is not "death-free".

I guess I'm chickening out of the process. I want the eggs, but I don't want the responsibility of butchering the cocks or the old hens even though I know they are necessary. I don't even know how to kill a chicken humanely! But if I want to live more consciously, more aware of the world and my place in it, I need to learn, don't I?

"Are there any species where preemptive sex selection is practical?"
If we're gonna go for lizards, why not get a species that does parthenogenesis if you want eggs to eat?
Although, I just googled this. Apparently turkeys can do parthenogenesis- I wonder if we could breed them to do it reliably. I was just reading an article on evolution that suggests a self-perpetuating cycle in parthenogenesis. And they've been able to induce it in rabbits. Probably more palatable for many. Though I wonder why I haven't heard of many people eating turkey eggs.

"In large mammals, where artificial insemination is practiced, does sperm sorting work out economically?"
Well, I've heard you can do it with a centrifuge. I doubt it would be incredibly expensive.

I think that the whole "we have to kill creatures that *haven't* lead a reasonably long and happy life" is as much a fallacy as "we can get away without killing anything ever". (there are, of course, occasional exceptions; if you want to raise an animal to live a good life but it gets sick beyond the capacities of veterinary medicine, that is what it is. But that's a far cry from intentionally packing many animals into tiny places where you are just asking for endemic diseases.) You just have to be creative.
Or dedicated, as aimee and a few others describe.

*insert silly*
"people need to understand that if you are not an autotrophe with your own chlorophyll (or chemosynthesis ability) you MUST kill something to stay alive."
Hey! I'm working on cloning the Eulgena genes. I'm working on it!

"I want the eggs, but I don't want the responsibility of butchering the cocks or the old hens even though I know they are necessary."

I don't kill my old hens. They'll lay until they are 5 and after that they've earned their retirement. My birds, at least are excellent foragers, so they don't cost much to keep - all my hens are much cheaper than, say, a dog. I really enjoy them, and the older birds teach the younger birds how to forage. That's just me; I'm just saying you don't HAVE to kill your old hens.

The cocks, however, have to go. Here, anyway, they're nothing but a detriment to the hens. The hens don't like them and they can be brutal to the birds - pulling all the feathers off heads and backs and stressing the hens out. It doesn't matter how many hens per rooster, either, there are always a couple battered hens when there's a rooster about.
I've had a couple of roosters be the attack type, also. you can often find someone that will take the cocks off your hands (to eat).

You might be able to find some nice started hens....pullets that are partially grown-up. Just 3-6 makes a nice backyard flock with plenty of eggs for a small family....


Since we're telling anecdotes- (several of the above are totally priceless) - I'll share one.

I've been serious about this issue for a very long time. In 1968, I was in college, eating at a "co-op". I was a bread baker usually, but there was another job we were all expected to do if asked- once. Sunday cook. Our one professional cook had the day off; so we had to do it entirely ourselves that one day. The enticement offered was- "the" Sunday cook got to set their own menu. Pretty much anything.

So they got around to asking me; and I said "I'll do it if we can have roast suckling pig." Not standard college fare.

The committee thought that was a hoot- and said "sure!"

We weren't able to find actual sucklings, but one of our suppliers had several very small whole pigs in his freezers; around 40-50 lbs. We fed 90 people; so we went for 3 pigs.

Word got out of course, and the reaction was huge; as I'd expected. A lot of people were just horrified that they would have to look at the whole pig- then eat it. Which was actually 90% of my motivation (10% being wondering what the heck it tasted like) and I told them straight off- "I think if you're going to eat meat- you really ought to be able to look it in the eye, first. I'm Sunday cook. That's my choice." And I smiled.

It was made a little more difficult by the fact the school had a lot of Jewish kids; and while very few kept kosher (not in the co-op, for sure) many of them were still just a little queasy about pigs.

The upshot was - lots of noise and noisy discussion, and about 1/3 of the house "signed out" for that meal- i.e. declared on record they were going to be eating elsewhere. That was done a lot- if there were 4 people signed out, that meant 4 could also sign in.

So; 30 signed out- and we had 60 who wanted to sign in.

It was a great meal; lots of fun, a little rowdy. A 40 pound pig tastes like- pig. And most folks - then- had no real trouble facing the food. But 1/3 is a big number.

Brilliant post.

What I think is impermissable is unconsciousness

Yes, that and willful ignorance or denial of what it takes to generate the things that you make use of. Whether that be food or advances in medical care.

How many small rodents and birds die when a field is plowed for vegetable growing? Let us not forget them either.

By DrugMonkey (not verified) on 26 Jan 2010 #permalink

I'm not vegan or even vegetarian, and this is a factual/bio question, not an ethical one: how does raising bees force the farmer/beekeeper to do sex selection? I thought the bees took care of that themselves, by producing almost entirely sterile female workers, and only a very few fertile insects of either sex.

Thanks Drugmonkey!

Vicki, I don't think I said it did, did I? I mentioned honey once, in terms of not being able to escape death, but I don't think I said that bees were sex selected. But if I did, I apologize. My mention of honey was simply intended because we do kill some bees (ideally few, but it happens) in the process of managing them - sometimes we kill a lot of them - there are indications, for example, that trucking bees around for pollination purposes does considerable harm and leaves us with a lot of dead bees.


Good article and comments.
Hunting stuff follows, advocating involving kids.

In the old days (70's) we (I and friends) were vegetarian, not cause we didn't want to kill things, but because we didn't want to participate in the wastefulness and pollution of usual meat production. Yup, it was Diet for a Small Planet time.
I started to kill (not harvest, not catch) the rather abundant whitetail deer, but initially had some difficulty with the warm and somewhat human-like mammals, not that I think fish are broccoli with eye-balls - some are worth the very sky itself to me. I give thanks, and make very real and local environmental promises, and try to further that tradition, which seems completely absent in some circles.
I highly recommend offering to let youngsters help with butchering. The dissection of deer never fails to impress - incredible athletes, amazing adaptations in every inch, every joint, gland, and organ the work of ages, and leading to hundreds of questions. They won't get that in school easily.

Beekeeping often requires killing some. Re-queening generally involves sending the old queen to Honey Heaven; you can get a swarm of robber bees or hybrids mated from wild bees that are too hot to work with; at the very first hint of certain diseases, you're better off killing the whole hive and burning your equipment than trying to cure it. Some breeds with otherwise good traits will go out of their way to produce extra queens (e.g. Russians) that must be destroyed or you'll have swarms all over the neighborhood.

People tend to dismiss PETA as a joke organization because it takes such a hard line - ie, it doesn't hurt a chicken to lay eggs, or a cow to give milk, or a sheep to be sheared, so why not use those animal products? The fact is, though, as your post points out so well, any exploitation of animals necessarily involves a cruel and arrogant disregard for animal life (spare me that 'ethical killer' self-justification) that most people simply refuse to think about.

But we're still a long way from fully grasping that agriculture itself is steeped in death, and that we can't escape that reality as long as we depend on it.

Then perhaps we should cease to depend on agriculture. In the long run, any method of food production which compels the land to give more than it would naturally is unsustainable. Unfortunately, people refuse to think about reducing the human population to sustainable levels, in much the same way as they refuse to think about what crimes have to be committed to produce the food they buy at the supermarket. Uncomfortable truths are rarely popular.

By mad the swine (not verified) on 26 Jan 2010 #permalink

We are that kind of town-bred country folk
that say, when asked, oh yes, we do keep stock ...

then gently turn the subject to one side.
Some will persist; they want to know the worst.

"If you," I tell them, "want to do this, understand:
sometimes one has to steal the place of God."

... our Khaki Campbells and Anconas come by mail
in lots of twenty, every second year.

When small, they're silken, breathing toys,
and grow to be what could be called our friends ...

But half are drakes. In high summer, I
don my most solemn face, and tie with care

my long blue apron on. I wrestle to the barn
our butcher's block, and like some surgeon

spread my glittering tools nearby. The axe
is first, and as its blade ascends,

I feel a panic rising in the eyes
hidden beneath my unrelenting hand.

I'm glad the roosters you get are eaten and not wasted. That's just crazy killing all those animals and dumping them; for large enough numbers like unwanted roosters you'd think they might go into pet food or something. I've eaten my share of chickens that have annoyed me and eggs from wild ducks that are so stupid as to leave their eggs unattended too much. Male cows are great to roast while they're still young. :)

I wouldn't encourage calling a rooster a 'roo' - that's Australian for kangaroo. Roos are edible, but I'm not crazy about them.

I like the young animal pens - at least kids have an opportunity to learn what their food looks like while it's alive even if they don't learn anything about raising the animals. I think it's pretty stupid not to tell the kids about what happens to the animals; they might grow up thinking they're all pets living in some sort of paradise. Then again I'm an old fogey who's been raising and killing chickens and cleaning my own fish by the age of 8.

By MadScientist (not verified) on 27 Jan 2010 #permalink

@rork: That's funny - my earliest lessons in comparative vertebrate anatomy involved butchering animals. It was very practical; the more familiar you are with the anatomy, the better you'll be at cutting the animal up into nice pieces (also better at killing the animal humanely).

By MadScientist (not verified) on 27 Jan 2010 #permalink

Poor Australians have a lot to put up with on my blog, not least that I'm going to go on talking about "roos" because that's slang for rooster here. Someone once bugged me to switch to calling "canning" "bottling" too, and I had to tell them that that means something else here. Ah well.

Mad the Swine, we've entered into territory where we're unlikely to agree. I don't think animals and humans are equivalent - any end to our reliance on agriculture in under two centuries gradual population stabilization would be mass murder. It takes a surprisingly long time to do managed population decline, not to mention the human rights issues. Your "kill the humans, not animals" theory just doesn't hold water for me - it requires that we give animal life the same status as human beings.


Thanks for clarifying on the bees. So, trucking bees around to pollinate can be hard on the bees, but the hypothetical farmer who has a few hives to pollinate her own fields and collects the honey isn't causing that sort of problem.

(I don't argue with vegans on this one: I just point out that if they want a tasty, genuinely vegan sweetener, maple syrup is a fine thing.)

Yes, there are almost always some bee deaths involved in honey keeping, but most serious keeper try hard to keep them to a minimum. And yes, maple syrup is good, as is sorghum. In fact, the honey is often sort of a by product of the more central thing - that we need the bees for pollination.


Thanks Sharon for articulating so well one of the realities of raising farm animals. I was raised on a dairy (cows) farm. I watched as my father sold off the male calves, knowing their upcoming fate. I had conflicting feelings about it then, as I do with my roosters now. I knew it was not practical to keep them, but felt sadness that their fate was the dinner table. Then I had this dream (don't laugh, please). In this dream, I saw the animals. They communicated to me that it was an honor to be raised to become food. Also, they "said" that they knew their fate when they came into this world. Since then, I have had a greater reverence for domestic animals and less revulsion for butchering when appropriate. Perhaps, it was just a way for my sub-conscious to ratinalize the act, But perhaps not.

Your story was so funny, I spit wine on my computer. Wish I could have met your dad, he sounds a bit like mine.

This post was thoughful and considered. Thank you. As a back-yard farmer who tries to eat as local as possible we have considered raising and butchering our own roos (and keeping the hens for eggs) but so far have just passed the roos off to a friend who eats them. My two young children are raised to know the actual name of the meat they eat (this is beef, it is cow meat, etc.) and we don't pull punches about the fact that life consumes life. So far they don't seem too traumatized.

I am wondering: why does Murray McMurray not offer the cockerel chicks for free+shipping & handling? That might be cheaper than gassing them...or maybe there is still not enough demand?

Thank you-