butchering wilbur
January 23, 2012 7:03 PM   Subscribe

How do small farmers not become sentimental about killing the animals they've raised and nurtured, even though they've done it expressly for that purpose?
posted by crunchland to Pets & Animals (35 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
Maybe they don't name them?
posted by Fister Roboto at 7:12 PM on January 23, 2012

I have friends with a small hobby farm, from whom I've purchased beef on occasion. They don't get overly sentimental with the cattle. Neither do we, for whatever that's worth. I met these steers. Our kids got to bottle feed them. Now half of one of them is in the freezer. To the extent that they receive names, their names are food: Chocolate, Big Mac, etc.

They don't really act very much like pets, either, so it's not like one day you've got an full-grown Black Angus licking your hand and the next day it's in the kill chute. These friends have pets, too: dogs and cats. The pets are treated like pets. The livestock are not treated like pets.
posted by jquinby at 7:18 PM on January 23, 2012 [2 favorites]

...and by half of one of them, I mean the beef, not the children.
posted by jquinby at 7:19 PM on January 23, 2012 [44 favorites]

My grandparents and uncles are/were farmers. I work in a field where a great number of my colleagues grew up on farms. The answer is Practicality, mostly. "The hogs don't get slaughtered, my family doesn't eat." Also, nowadays unless you're on a super small-scale DIY farm, you are shipping the livestock off to a slaughterhouse. I imagine the abstraction eases concerns if they exist. To the slaughterhouse worker, they are simply widgets on a (dis)assembly line...and again, if I don't (dis)assemble the widget, my family doesn't eat.

With respect to Fister, that wasn't my experience. Plenty of the farm animals were named as my mom retells stories of childhood. Sometime she and her siblings would "adopt" a calf or bull (from afar) and name it. Sometimes that bought it a longer lifespan, sometimes not. I'm sure there tears. But they lived through it, and developed normal loving relationships with people, pets, yadda, yadda. My mother is actually a vet, and goes to extreme measures to save animals' lives. This isn't any reaction to her childhood; she often recommends putting animals down, as well, in lieu of a life of neglect or potential abuse going through the "system" of animal control or good intentioned but poorly managed non-profit adoption agencies.

This is purely my own attempt at pragmatism, but I also feel (seeing it myself though not directly participating) that there is a sort of functional grace you could bestow on farm animals. They die to nourish people and be converted into many useful substances. There are many among us that will never make even that basic a contribution in our lifetime. I signed up to be an organ donor with roughly an equivalent mentality. ::shrug::
posted by keasby at 7:19 PM on January 23, 2012 [2 favorites]

jquinby said it best: Pets are treated like pets. Livestock are not treated like pets.

I grew up on a small farm with chickens and cattle. We had one chicken that we were fond of, because she was an interesting breed. She stayed alive as a layer. The rest of them eventually became fried chicken, and I helped through the whole process. It didn't bother me.

Pets' injuries or illnesses, on the other hand, bother me a great deal. I could never be a vet, because my heart would break every day. It's just compartmentalization, I suspect.
posted by ThisKindNepenthe at 7:23 PM on January 23, 2012 [2 favorites]

Building on Fister Roboto's comment:

From a book of children's writings called Don't Get Perconel with a Chicken, collected by H. Allen Smith, published in 1957:
A second-grade teacher in Milwaukee greeted her
children at the beginning of a new term with an as-
signment to write a composition on "something im-
portant you learned during your vacation." Among the
essays turned in was the following:



By Eloise Coleman

On my vacation I visited with my gran parents in
Iowa and my gran father learned me dont get perconel
with a chicken. My gran father has a few chickens and
one was a chicken I got perconel with and gave the
name Gene Autry. One day my gran mother deside to
have stood chicken for dinner and says Orf you go out
and kill a hen meening my gran father. I went with
him and low and behole he took a pole with a wire on
the end and reeched in the pen and got Gene Autry by
the leg and pulled him out and before I cood say a
werd he rung his neck wich pulls off his hed and he
flops around on the grond back and forth without no
hed on and I cryed. He was a brown one. Then he
scalted him in hot water and picket the feathers of and
saw me crying and says dont ever get perconel with a
chicken. When we are at the dinner table he says it
again so I ate some, a drumb stick. I dident say any-
thing but it was like eating my own rellatives. So dont
get perconel with a chicken, also a cow if you are going
to eat it later on. Also a caff.
Full text of book here.
posted by The Deej at 7:25 PM on January 23, 2012 [31 favorites]

I guess not all of them do?

When my mother and her brothers were little, my grandpa decided that he was going to raise rabbits for meat. He bought a bunch of them and set them up in the garage. When it came time to slaughter them, all the kids went outside to watch. My grandpa, who is a pretty imposing fellow, picked up the first rabbit and a knife. He stood there, contemplating the rabbit, for several seconds. Then, his eyes welled with tears, he put the rabbit and the knife down, and went into the house without saying a word. The next day, the rabbits were given to another, less tenderhearted soul and nobody ever mentioned them again.
posted by easy, lucky, free at 7:36 PM on January 23, 2012 [4 favorites]

One of my favorite bloggers is a knitwear designer/knitting instructor who lives on a sheep farm. They make a living selling wool and lamb meat, and during lambing season a lot of her content is pictures of cute lambs, about half of which will be slaughtered in time for Easter. Most of the farm-related posts are here - there's a lot to wade through, but some really good stuff (especially during lambing season in January).
posted by muddgirl at 7:39 PM on January 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

I asked this very question of a friend of mine who raised sheep and pigs in 4-H. She said that it was hard but that she was consoled by the knowledge that her animals had had the best life they possibly could have.
posted by corey flood at 7:45 PM on January 23, 2012

My grandparents had a small-scale free range poultry farm, and said above, the birds are not treated as pets.

This doesn't mean all critters are treated dispassionately. A pheasant showed up once out of the blue, decided he liked the place, and he was treated somewhat like a pet, or rather as a distinguished guest.

Geese, on the other hand, are on the opposite end of the spectrum. They're assholes, and deserve to die.
posted by UbuRoivas at 7:46 PM on January 23, 2012 [6 favorites]

I did some reporting on this for a local magazine a few years ago and interviewed a few small-scale farmers in NH and ME.

Most said a version of "we don't get attached" that you see here, but something they also expressed was a sense of deep intimacy with the animals. Though they aren't pets, they are what's getting you up before dawn and keeping you up after dark. You wash them, feed them, tend their illnesses, birth their babies, and are generally up to your elbows in their...bodies and their stuff of all kinds. They aren't pets, but they're not machines either.

You're aware of the investment you've made - what it cost to purchase them young, if you did that, to buy their feed, to get the vet out to see them. You're aware of the hours of labor you've put in, laying down their bedding and raking it up to replace it again, shoveling their feed, walking them out to pasture and back, disentangling their breach birth in the middle of the night, weaning the runts or the young ones whose mother died. Everyone is aware that the only reason they spent that money, the only reason they stayed up those nights, is so they can reap the reward of their efforts. They know the only reason the animals even exist is that food husbandry is bringing them into existence. They have been birthed, raised and cared for, from day one, to be food, and to help the family survive. They have tremendous value and represent a huge outlay of money and labor. That is such an integral part of household economy and family survival that the value of the animals as products is never far from farmers' minds.

They have a lot of respect for these animals. But respect is not the same thing as romanticization. They admire their animals, see their beauty, understand their different personalities, but don't wish they could stay alive forever. They have sometimes even seen old animals who were not slaughtered and don't like what they see of farm animal old age - not so un-cruel either, for animals who were not bread to be hale and hearty into their teens and twenties.

These farmers felt it important to keep their animals clean, to reduce their stress when they were about to be slaughtered in whatever ways they could, and to make their slaughtering quick and as painless as possible. They believed in what they were doing and found that being present and willing to deal with life and death in its time made their own lives feel more meaningful, made them more conscious of the natural cycles we all move through.

When I asked one of the farming women the question "What do you say to people who say, I can't understand how you could eat an animal you raised," she said something like "What I can't understand is how people can eat an animal they didn't raise. I know everything these cattle have ever eaten, every medicine they ever received. I know they walked out to our fields every day and ate fresh pasturage. I know they were warm in the winter and never had to endure dirt, sores, or violence. I know we treated them well, raised them with a good life, and when we eat them we give thanks for how they gave our family this gift of independence and survival. Sop I don't understand how people can eat animals they have no relationship with, because I know they can't be sure of any of that."
posted by Miko at 7:51 PM on January 23, 2012 [45 favorites]

I grew up on a small farm. We raised chickens, pigs and cattle. Some of them had very distinct personalities and most of them had names, but that never stopped us from eating them. We knew that was why we were raising them.
posted by DaddyNewt at 7:56 PM on January 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

Back home on the ranch, my father wouldn't let me raise a calf for 4-H. He said that it was encouraging me to make a pet out of livestock, and it would only end badly, and he was right. We never named animals destined for the stock yards or the sale barn. But when you've got 100,000 acres and a lot of cattle--they all look the same, especially on a cold winter morning.
posted by Ideefixe at 7:58 PM on January 23, 2012

I think the issue is one of intent. When you raise an animal with the intent to slaughter and eat it, you just aren't going to form the same bond you would with, for example, a pet.

When I was a child, we had a heifer every year that we kept for the spring, summer, and fall, and then had butchered. We always named them and ended up spending a fair bit of time feeding them and so on. Even when I was quite young, it was always clear to me that the heifer was there to become meat, and that was that.

I'd even turn the question around as an answer: Small farmers do not become sentimental about killing the animals they've raised and nurtured, because they've done it expressly for that purpose.
posted by ssg at 8:14 PM on January 23, 2012

And then sometimes there's a steer where the sentiment is roughly equal, and you know that if he had a chance he'd take you out. (best sausage ever!)
posted by sammyo at 8:15 PM on January 23, 2012 [3 favorites]

I've just been reading James Herriot's books, and it seems like it's mostly practicality in the small farmers who are his clients. Many of the stories do revolve around a farmer who has a favorite, but the favorite is most often a dog, dairy cow, or sometimes a farrowing pig. He ruminates occasionally on doing veterinary work on animals intended for slaughter, to make them as healthy and happy as possible, and on how farmers and vets shouldn't get attached but sometimes do.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:16 PM on January 23, 2012

I think the answer's in the question.


On preview, what ssg said.
posted by perspicio at 8:19 PM on January 23, 2012

I grew up in a small town farming community, and I had pet lambs that ended up on the dinner table.

It wasn't until recently that I could see how you COULD get sentimental about animals being killed for food (or at all, really).

I think it's all about knowing right from the start that that is what will happen. I mean, you don't go around being upset about the way the birds singing outside your window will die by being eaten by cats or foxes, or getting run over, or (maybe) of old age, right? You don't cry when you step on ants. This is because these ways of dying are expected parts of these animals lives and this knowledge forms part of your basic understanding of them.

The same thing is true of farm animals.

That's not to say that farmers/kids in country towns don't feel upset if they see an animal SUFFERING. While it is suffering. That is hard to watch, and there is no reason to try reasonable means to avoid it. But it's different from either knowing that the animal will probably suffer at least a bit one day in the future (cf. my birds example above), or watching it die a quick and relatively painless death now (cf my ants example.)
posted by lollusc at 8:27 PM on January 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

I grew up on a small-ish farm [500 acres] and I can still remember the first time I connected the animals that lived on our farm with their fate as meat products. It was as shocking seeing all the blood and guts as it would be to city folk I imagine. Then you kinda get used to that reality and it becomes a matter or routine I suppose. We've been known to sit at the dining table looking at a fat steak and saying 'oooh, is this Sooky?!'

I think it's a little more complex that simple compartmentalising of pets vs food. From my experience, these were blurred lines. There were dogs for inside the garden fence who were petted and nurtured, and dogs kept lean and hungry, that were chained up in a shed next to an old rainwater tank. They were strictly working dogs for whom angry sounding instructions were their affection. If they didn't perform during round ups they were shot. [Although, a long-serving bitch would be an honoured creature and I can recall my father crying when he had to put her down.] We had 'pet' sheep we reared if a ewe didn't feed her lamb. We also had pet kangaroos even though we ate kangaroo and shot them as pests. We hand reared heifers that we gave names and eventually put them on the truck to the slaughterhouse. There was always a bit of silence in the house as they mooed and groaned in the truck as it drove off. Sometimes there were tears but I have to say that the truck coming was better than having to witness the death of these animals. One of our 'pet' sheep ran up to my father as he was holding the knife, hoping for a pat. That was hard. Although, for me, once the head is cut off, it is mentally re-categorised as meat.

I suspect no one likes thinking about the reality of meat production but I am consoled by the humane way in which animals in small holdings like ours are treated overall. One short truck ride to a local abattoir, full of trained, local people we know [so they're not untrained assholes treating animals brutally], the use a stun gun, and hopefully no battering or electric prodding - this ending for a life of ample food and free-range experience for the year or two previous beats the hell out of more industrialised modes of meat production. [Live export for example is disgusting to me.] Miko's final quote in her comment above feels pretty true to me: I think my experience of killing and eating animals that we know personally is far better than what most people are eating without knowing a thing about the animals or their lives and deaths.
posted by honey-barbara at 8:30 PM on January 23, 2012 [5 favorites]

It comes down to practicality. If you eat beef, you know that you're going to turn Mr. Steer into hamburgers. Because it's your animal, you have the responsibility to care for him in a proper fashion. In turn, the animal provides you with healthful food. From the get-go, you select a beef calf with the conformation and muscling that will give you plenty of meat, you feed your animal for weight gain and proper muscling and fat layering knowing that will affect the taste, and you give consideration to producing your meat in the healthiest yet the most inexpensive manner. You're keeping the cost per pound down. Many of the folks I know name their beef cattle: Freezer, Himburger, Buffet, etc. and might even give them a few rubs and treats. But all along, the goal of creating quality meat is there, and there is a certain acknowledgement that the animal's life will be limited to the time when it can fulfill it's intended use. Mr. Steer is never referred to as part of the 'family'. You feed the animal; the animal feeds you.

With pets, the selection is for companionship, cuteness, loveablity, perhaps a bit of usefulness in the case of a guard dog or hunting dog. The pet is part of the family, will usually have its picture taken, and might even have its name signed on the yearly Christmas card. People 'waste' money on pets in that they will buy toys, fancy collars/leashes, treats, beds, etc. for their own and the animals enjoyment. The goal there is the forming of a strong bond, with closeness and longevity in the relationship.
posted by BlueHorse at 8:31 PM on January 23, 2012

I grew up on a farm. The cattle we raised, while we knew them, were nothing more than food or a paycheck to us. They aren't pets, they're employees. Some of them get promoted to Head of the Food Chain Division, some of them get sent to another branch of the company, where they will have their own successes.
posted by deezil at 8:33 PM on January 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

Our kids got to bottle feed them

This... I named my newborn "pet" calves "Jay" and "Son", then a year later I ate 'em.

Circle of life people, circle of life...
posted by jkaczor at 9:08 PM on January 23, 2012

Hey, it's the stet signal -- but I beat him here!

stet and I watched/helped with the slaughter of our three pigs today. I just finished my bowl of fresh deviled pork kidneys.

We *are* sentimental. They didn't have names -- except that the one screamed who a lot (for fun apparently) was called Screamy, and one was more timid than the others so that was Skittish, and the other was ... the other one. I fist-bumped them on their noses every day that I went to feed them; they knew what I meant when I put my fist out and they would put their wiggly (muddy) noses on me, on purpose. I fist-bumped each of them today before stet poured their last serving of grain and milk into the bowl so they would be easy to shoot. I am definitely sentimental.

We had a good, competent, experienced slaughter guy who was a really good shot (crucial) and was respectful and fast with the carcasses. I was really nervous and sad, and I'm still sad not to see them tomorrow, but I feel good about how it went down, ultimately.

This is basically the first time we've had someone else do our critters for us. We raise, process, and sell 200-300 chickens and turkeys a year, by hand -- that is, we do it ourselves. These were our first pigs, but we've done sheep and goats for ourselves, and stet has helped other friends with their slaughter for personal consumption.
We don't send anybody to a factory or a plant. We sell directly to our end customers, which is legal in Washington with the proper permits (easy to get). I guess we are a "a super small-scale DIY farm" but part of the reason we do what we do is that I believe that sending the critters away -- the act of the travel itself -- is stressful and generally bad for their quality of life as well as the quality of the resulting meat. This limits us -- we can't legally sell to restaurants, for example -- but the critter's life is the point.

And as corey flood said, "a friend of mine who raised sheep and pigs in 4-H. She said that it was hard but that she was consoled by the knowledge that her animals had had the best life they possibly could have." -- this is totally true. This is huge. We raise our critters on pasture, always. We do keep our broiler chickens and our turkeys in chicken tractors, because the farm where we raise them has a lot of eagles and osprey, and when we balanced the benefit of them being fully free-range vs the danger they'd be in (and, yes, the financial losses we would face), we couldn't make the math work out. (There's a whole nother post to write about farm animals' role in improving the soil, but that seems irrelevant here.) We medicate them when they need it but not when they don't.

We keep our herds/flocks really small for many reasons, but not least is that it means we know the individuals, and so we can keep an eye on them every day, and know how they are doing as individuals, and therefore treat them individually when they need it but avoid blanket application of antibiotics (for example) to the whole herd. Yes, this also ultimately means we know them as individuals too, and we feel it, when it comes to slaughter day, whether or not we're the ones wielding the knives/guns. But I guess what I'm trying to say is that that's built into the process. We make the choices we make for them, and feeling sad is an outcome of that, but the positivity of the whole rest of their lives, and our experience with them, is the main goal. Even though we're sad today.
posted by librarina at 9:47 PM on January 23, 2012 [9 favorites]

My mom grew up on a farm, and she and her sister named the animals, and later ate them. My mom said her sister would cry, and not want to eat Bessie, but that she herself just didn't think about it.

I get that. I used to kill rats for a living, as a technician in a research lab. They were pregnant Sprague-Dawley (white) rats, bred to be docile, and they were sooo sweet. So I'd pet them (if no one was looking), tell them they were cute, and then kill them and harvest their fetuses' brains. Old people with dementia are less cute than Sprague-Dawley rats, for sure, but our lab existed to help people.

Once they sent us not-pregnant rats by mistake, and we actually felt really bad about having "sacrificed" the rats for no reason, no science, no benefit to humanity. That was the only time anything like, "It was so trusting and sweet, and I butchered it," ever bothered me.
posted by pH Indicating Socks at 10:22 PM on January 23, 2012 [3 favorites]

Building on what others have said, I think for me as a child there were two things in addition to the blurry 'not pet's thing. One, if you farm animals, they will be dying pretty regularly with or without your hand. They get sick. They get stuck in the mud. They eat something they shouldn't, get taken by single, hawks, whatever, or they simply disappear and you never know until you stumble across some moss green bones years later in the scrub. As games are full of life, so too are they full of death, and slaughter is just bother flavour. Two, it is farming, and it might be helpful to think about farming crops for instance. The purpose of wheat and corn is to be harvested; as a farmer you are shepherding those crops to literal fruition, and you care for animals just like you care for a Peachtree or field of potatoes. That may sound very cold to those outside farming, but what im saying is you do care for the plants and the animals both, but it's a different type of caring, a Lind of stewardship o suppose that is also connected with caring for the land overall. That's how it was for me anyway.
posted by smoke at 1:00 AM on January 24, 2012 [2 favorites]

Sorry, read dingo for single, and farms for games. Damned phone.o
posted by smoke at 1:03 AM on January 24, 2012

I'm with librarina and smoke; to keep livestock is to accept responsibility for an entire life, as well as for its impact on the land, the time and labor it requires of you, and for whatever is left after you end that life. It's duty and logistics and doing right by the animal, and that frame--including the sure knowledge that I am going to eat an animal--enables me to respect and care for it without loving it.

I also have house cats, every one of which has always been a rescue. They were born somewhere else, cared for or sheltered by someone else in their early months, and come to me in process. Yes, I take them to the vet, but they basically integrate themselves into the house and family, and curl up with us at night and I cry like hell when I finally bury them.

Contrast turkeys: We have to order them months in advance;, build a pen with a warming light; pick them up at the post office as three-day-olds; feed and water them daily and check on them (and the ambient temperature!) every few hours for weeks; protect them from predators when they're older; construct a shelter; run to the feed mill; fill the waterer every day or three; hope that they don't get sick or escape. When slaughter time comes, we have to find and set up our equipment; segregate the turkey(s) for 24 hours; kill the birds; scald them, pluck them, eviscerate them; bury the bits we don't use; store the birds until we can cook them; cook them, serve them; spend several days making and canning turkey stock. The time and work and planning involved are demanding, and have to be fit in around everything else that's going on, but everything that we do with our turkeys begins with, and revolves around, the knowledge of their temporary status. We have a duty to them to give them good lives as animals while they're with us; we are stewards of their lives and deaths.

This line, from Terry Pratchett's "The Wee Free Men," sticks with me. It is from a character who's the wise woman of sheep and the keeper of their hills: “We order the time o’ their birth and the time o’ their death. Between times, we ha’ a duty.’”

I do the duty with care, with attention, with thoroughness, with respect, without loving, and do right by my creatures' whole lifespan.
posted by MonkeyToes at 5:13 AM on January 24, 2012 [4 favorites]

My grandfather wasn't a preacher, but he could have been. He could say grace with the best of them.

When one of the animals on the farm became dinner, he always made sure to thank the animal at the table. Since bringing it to the table had generally involved three or four days very hard, loathsome work, it wasn't a grieving time.

Sometimes the little ones would cry, so they had to eat in the kitchen. The rest of us just exchanged glances and dug in.
posted by halfbuckaroo at 5:25 AM on January 24, 2012

Thoughtful humor

And more delicious Dale-ness

And that's my feeble, second-hand contribution to a tremendous thread.
posted by Lesser Shrew at 8:11 AM on January 24, 2012

Response by poster: I asked this question yesterday because I had just finished watching an episode of Victorian Farm, specifically the part where Peter decides that with one of their larger pigs getting ready to give birth to piglets, there won't be enough room in the pig sty for their other pigs. So he chooses the fattest of his Tamworths, and leads it off to slaughter. Just watching that segment just killed me. I've thought, at various times, of setting up a rabbit hutch and doing a little DIY meat production, but every time I get to thinking about the logistics of it, I just can't bring myself to the harvest part. I can pick a tomato without giving it a thought. I can boil a lobster or a clam, too.

I once was in this big huge grocery store outside of Cincinnati, buying groceries to feed my extended family, and they had huge fishtanks of live fish. And I just couldn't bring myself to ask the fishmonger to catch the swimming tilapia for me, even though I knew it would be the freshest fish I could possibly buy.

And yes, I know that when they're in the little styrofoam trays, or lying in ice in the case, I have no problem buying, preparing, and eating it then.

So what I guess I'm getting at is that it's just something you get used to over time.
posted by crunchland at 8:47 AM on January 24, 2012

I think one thing I've learned about small farms from reading about Leyden Glen farms is that a lot of (successful) small farmers grew up on farms. When you've been watching animal birth, predation, and sickness all your life, slaughter for human consumption can just becomes part of the circle of life.

And the people who don't absorb that lesson don't become farmers.
posted by muddgirl at 8:55 AM on January 24, 2012

And you can't save any animal from death (not even yourself). You can sometimes choose when and how it comes, but you can't prevent it from happening in the grand scheme.
posted by Miko at 8:57 AM on January 24, 2012 [3 favorites]

For what its worth, most farm animals make terrible pets. I've deleted iPhone Apps with more personality and complexity than any sheep or chicken I've met. A former girl friend grew up on a hobby farm, and according to her, when faced with the option of not eating meat for a month, its not to hard to slaughter the cows or turkey's that you've grown up with.

This isn't true for all animals though. Apparently goats are really clever animals with a fair bit of sociability and will actually bond with the person who spends the most time with them. The girlfriend I mentioned above would rather be less a few barn cats than slaughter the goats she raised in high school.
posted by midmarch snowman at 9:16 AM on January 24, 2012

A friend of mine raises meat animals for a living. The females, which she keeps around for breeding, get names like Daisy and Spot. The males, who are sold for meat around a year of age, get names like Ninety-Six and Ninety-Seven.
posted by orangejenny at 4:26 PM on January 24, 2012 [2 favorites]

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