How To Kill A Chicken: Thoughts on The Morality of Killing from the Barnyard.

Ever since reading Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma, I have been thinking a lot about his defense of carnivores. Although his latest book suggests a simple, somewhat vegetarian mantra (Eat food, not too much, mostly plants), Om Dil argued convincingly for meat-eaters’ rights. I had the sense that he began his argument from a desire to eat meat, instead of assessing all the data and then coming to a reasoned conclusion. Rather in the same way that George W. Bush decided to invade Iraq, then figured out a bunch of bullshit reasons.

The thing that really stuck with me from that book was his mention of Peter Singer’s suggestion that in 150 years or so humans might well look upon the eating of animals in the same way that we now look upon the keeping of slaves. Its a powerful suggestion. And its easy to see how this could happen.

Alan Weisman describes in The World Without Us how humans have the dubious distinction of causing the mass extermination of species after species through their relentless hunting. Even the “traditional” tribal societies, who we often think of as being much lighter on the earth than us “White Men,” waged a relentless war against animals. About 10,000 years ago America was home to “super mammals” the like of which the Earth has not seen since: ground sloths the size of elephants; mammoths the size of several elephants; wolves that make Africa lions look like Labradors; lions as big as rhinos. Not long after the arrival of Clovis Man (considered the first human in the Americas) these animals were history, yet they continued to live on in other places where Clovis didn’t get to, for some 5000 years before dying out.

So Man has been the bane of animals’ existence since she (sic) first came down from the trees; a kind of super ape with a taste for blood. Although it seems clear that we did hunt and kill a lot, Jeffrey Masson, in his book The Face on the Plate, discusses work among anthropologists and paleo-anthropologists that suggests maybe we did not evolve to eat meat, but were actually better suited to plants. Our mouths are small compared to most carnivores, our jaws certainly not designed to rip flesh from live prey like other predators. And our teeth are grinders of plants more than slicers of flesh.

But how could it be that we ended up being the meat eaters that we are? As far as I know, there is no book, or natural law, that says “this is how humans should be” (absent of course religious texts, and I consider them all human-generated). We are, then, one of the only creatures on the Earth that, as of today, is confused about what it should eat.

Is there any wonder that I felt so conflicted when I slaughtered 50 chickens over a couple of weeks last summer? Yes, you do become numb to it after a while, but the question is, should we? The Nazis probably became numb to incinerating people in the camps. Repetition does that, even with killing.

Due to the power of denial, all behavior can become routine. This is the meaning of Hanna Arendt’s “banality of evil.” But deep-down something just felt wrong about running the knife across the chicken’s throat and stepping back while it went into its death-throes, wildly flapping, and spraying blood. I even closed the barn door while I did it, or did it at night, to hide the indecency from the kids. Although we aspire to a kind of truthiness in agriculture, it was just too gruesome to want little children to see, and suggested a kind of brutality I did not want them to associate with me.

I know. This is anguished hypocrisy; so stop eating meat, you might well say. But let me play out these thoughts. Why? Because I’m pretty sure that I’m not alone in my ambivalence. It may just be that we need to work these issues out before moving on to the next stage — veganism? Vegetarianism? Only wild game hunted by our own hand?

The fact is that all creatures want to live, and in eating them we come into conflict with this awkward truth. One reason we, as a family, started raising our own meat was to get a handle on what, exactly, it meant to eat meat. Another was to eat stuff that was not reared in conditions that are unacceptable on all sorts of levels. But when you think about the basic conflict between the farm animals and us, even the “family farm,” that bucolic fantasy of wholesomeness, is essentially Death Row, where all animals — pig, sheep, cow and chicken, are more than likely to meet a sticky end, against their wishes, and the time spent there is simply time fattening up for the pot.

We even have a dilemma with the laying hens. We bought 25, lost a couple the first spring, and know that in a couple of years they will all slow down their laying and eventually stop. Then there will be little choice but to get rid of them; some people turn them into stock. Perhaps we could slow cook them. But there is not much meat on these birds, so it looks like we will be faced with a massive slaughter — of the birds that the kids have spent two or three years getting to know and love. Why? because they can’t sing for their supper — not even these birds who have been selectively bred over centuries to lay far more than their wild ancestor, the Wild Burmese Jungle Fowl, ever laid (20 or so eggs in a life time).

Killing animals has always nauseated me. I remember the first time I shot something with a BB gun, at the age of eleven or twelve. I went out before dinner with my Webley .177. I wandered away from our house into the lightly wooded pasture and through the orchard. It was twilight, and a few birds were still out. I came across a starling about thirty foot up on a branch. I shot it out of the tree, but because of the feebleness of the gun, and my inability to get the pellet between the bird’s eyes, I only winged it. I then stalked it about half a mile, as it tried vainly to escape. Finally it staggered under a gate and into a sheep field. I rested the barrel on the gate and sighted at the bird’s head, flattening it in the grass. Upon inspection I had made a mess of a bird that a few minutes earlier was minding its own business, and probably gathering food for its young. I went back to the house for supper with no feelings of satisfaction, no pride in the kill, and no appetite.

I’ve had that same feeling dozens of times since. Perhaps hundreds. I went on to slaughter more starlings with that Webley. I once shot a fly catcher, sort of by accident — an Ancient Mariner moment. Then I graduated to a 20- gauge shot gun in my teens, and went after rabbit, duck, pheasant, pigeon, grouse. I was like a one-man extermination tsunami. But large mammals, thankfully, I have never felled.

What is interesting to me, however, is that killing never became totally neutral. I think this is part of the sense of denial that Masson talks about in his book. On some level we know that this taking of life is somehow wrong. I don’t necessarily say “wrong” in any morally objective sense, because I cannot be sure that such an objective morality exists except perhaps in an evolutionary terms. But for somewhat sensitive souls (as children, we are all sensitive souls, some lose it, others do not completely) there is an underlying unease with our taking of animal life, at least in both the senseless and systematic ways that we are want to take it. Yet we repress these feelings, and are taught to do so by persistent cultural training. We cover the origins of the meat, and we lie in response to our children’s questions about the origin of their food. We call cow meat “beef,” and pig “pork.” How jolting is it when you ask, what’s for diner, and Dad says, “Cow!”

Thinking, as the Bard said, makes it so. And this applies to morality, including carnivory. Any wrongness in the taking of animal — or human for that matter — life only pertains within a moral system which we have generated from our imaginations, cerebral beings that we are. Absent religions, of course, we are left with moral codes invented for various reasons. The evolutionary psychologists amongst us might suggest that the killing of humans is taboo because we have an opposite drive to procreate and grow the species. We also know on a tangible level that killing entails violence, and violence runs the risk of creating injury — which, especially in the old days, could lead to death. You did not, in other words, resort to violence against other humans unless you absolutely had to, and/or the chances of success were very good. This is the gamble that violence entails. And bearing in mind that until very recently in our species’ existence we have considered ourselves part of the animal kingdom (and kin, therefore to other animals) killing animals was a sacred process in which humans tended to recognize the animals’ “sacrifice.” Of course the animals don’t care about what rituals we enact after their death. But the ritualistic nature of animal killing simply points to the fact that humans considered this killing unfortunate, morally complex, yet necessary.

After the birth of the world’s big religions — especially monotheisms — the game changed. Man was now master of the universe, and animals existed for his use. Thus equipped with an “its alright to kill aimals” philosophy, we continued with gay abandon to do so, and ditched the rituals. But we still felt weird doing it.

We had a rooster, briefly. Like many roosters, he went psycho and started attacking the kids. I told them I would deal with him, and I shot him and put him in the crock pot. He was a Polish bantam, not really designed for eating. But he was less than a year old, so not too tough. The kids seemed pleased that I had killed him, having both been attacked at some point by him (at this point there were about 4 and 6). They could now play in the yard without being attacked. I made no secret of that fact that I had done killed him. That was why at dinner that night, when Conrad asked innocently, Is this King? I told him Yes, without flinching. I was not sure whether his mum had told him we were eating His Majesty, but I thought it was likely. I was only partly surprised when Conrad pushed the plate away.

In a sense I took this as evidence of our confusion about eating. Yes, Conrad was happy that King was gone — he was a vicious bastard, and for small children he posed a real threat, with those spurs. But he was uneasy about the prospect of eating him, as if it was taboo, as if it was, somehow, just plain wrong.

I am certainly no moral authority. All I can do is recognize the ambivalence I feel. I could, I admit, go further and stop eating animals, as vegetarians would suggest I — and all of us — do. Or, frankly, I might alternatively continue doing what I’m doing, and not fully face the hypocrisy of it.

Maybe we shouldn’t eat animals. But we have for a long, long time. And anyway, what would become of all those domesticated animals if we let them go? But one thing is for sure, the scale of animal eating should be reduced, and all the industrial shit has to stop. For them, for us, for the planet. Maybe this is impossible given the world’s population, and its taste for meat. Maybe we can do away with meat and consume lab-grown “meat” in its place. Maybe. In the meantime, perhaps we can bear Pollan’s mantra in mind: Eat Food, Not Too Much, Mostly Plants.

Writer of fiction & non fiction. Author of “The Thinking Past: Questions and Problems in World History to 1750,” and the ebook Look Smart!

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