The Emotional Gauntlet of Raising Meat Chickens & Other Livestock
Raising Rabbits for Meat Doesn’t Make us Heartless. Quite the Opposite.
“You’re raising meat chickens? You horrible, heartless human.”
It’s a constant fight, isn’t it? And there are many sides on the battlefield. Those that don’t eat meat, period. Those that buy from the supermarket, ignoring claims that their food once breathed. People who choose to eat meat but only patronize farmers who raise animals ethically. And the farmers themselves. People have their opinions, their values and reasons to fight. Rarely do they imagine the other sides.
I hear it all the time when people learn I am raising meat rabbits and poultry for meat. My friend hears it regarding raising pigs for meat, after she stays awake into the dawn to help deliver piglets during a blinding snowstorm.
“I could never do that.”
“How can you claim to love something then slaughter it?”
This bothered me for a while. It still does, a little. I grew up raising my own meat, and I have always known the side of the farmer. The side of the person loving the animal before slaughter. But I spent a lot of time thinking about it, trying to imagine someone else’s viewpoint.
People don’t want to feel that much emotion. They want to love animals and hate the meat industry. Or to despise factory farming and respect those that consider humane animal husbandry. It’s black and white; good and bad.
“How can you feel that much emotion for something you’re going to eat?”
This practice isn’t for the faint of heart. Many have tried then retired from animal husbandry when they realized they didn’t have what it took. Others have admitted from the start that they just couldn’t do it. Many relay their respect for those that do. Some just hurl hateful slurs.
How can we feel excitement when we decide that what we want is goat meat? Healthy, dark, and flavorful meat comes at a price. We introduce breeding pairs, knowing how the unions ultimately must end. But we’ve learned about the process and we’ve resolved to do it the best way we can.
Then there’s the hope as we gently lift eggs from the incubator and shine flashlights against the bottom. Red veins glow and developing limbs pulse within the shell. The miracle of life manifests when the first egg pips and we sit by the incubator for hours. One by one, precious chicks emerge then rest as their fluff dries.
Love blooms when we check the brooder dozens of times each day, monitoring the thermometers and cleaning waterers that have become sullied yet again. Or when we choose the most nurturing among all our broody hens for raising meat chickens in their infancy.
We cry out in adoration when rabbit kits open their eyes for the first time. Their ears are stubby and their fur is disproportionately long as they flop and roll around the cage. They snuggle tightly in our palms. No, we’re not thinking about meat at this point. That will come later. Right now, we enjoy pure happiness with our little fluff-balls.
Patience and Prayer
We don’t go directly from birth to butcher. There are weeks, months … even years, if we’re raising beef cattle … to care for our animals.
Patiently we help them grow, watching feathers grow in white if we’re raising meat chickens or weighing our rabbits weekly to ensure they’re eating right. We monitor their health, supplement their diets, trim their toenails and purchase snacks.
And nothing is ever perfect. Sometimes, our animals fall sick. If we were heartless, we wouldn’t search the Internet for symptoms and cures. We stand beside the cages, our fingers clutching the bars as we consider options and pray for little miracles. None of us want our animals to suffer. Even if their final purpose is nourishment for our families, we want their journeys to be smooth.
We consider the risks and benefits as we read labels within the feed store. If we medicate our animals, we lose organic status at the market and won’t have the funds necessary to balance the books at the end of the year. But our animals are suffering. With our hearts heavy, we purchase the medicine and administer it. One injection affects a year’s income but the animal is soon healthy again.
Or it isn’t. No matter what we do, the animal gets sicker. Raising meat chickens means accepting the good with the bad. They don’t all make it to the freezer. Predators attack. Genetic defects happen. Either way, our animals are miserable. They won’t get better. With a mixture of sadness and resolution, we decide that the animal doesn’t deserve to live in pain. We cull. And we cry.
A Moment Approaches
Small-scale homesteaders raising turkeys for meat often name their awkward little turkey poults “Thanksgiving” and “Christmas” to remind the family that these birds will be dinner. They prepare for the eventual day when the birds must rest within the freezer. But during that time, families laugh at the turkeys’ antics, their affection for each other and their behavior when newcomers walk into the poultry yard.
There is sadness. There always is. Each time, we go through a period of introspection as we watch calves that used to scamper in pastures but now are heavy with muscle. Even if raising meat chickens is a years-old tradition, we aren’t excited for butcher day. We consider what would happen to the animals if we didn’t process them. And we know what must be done.
“The butchering process can’t be fun.”
Of course, it isn’t. It never is. We may band together as homesteading communities to get through the process sooner and support each other as we harvest the meat. But no, it’s not fun. It’s messy and smelly, and sometimes things don’t go as planned and we have to improvise so the animal can get the most respectful end if factors change.
We talk our ways through it. Sometimes we discuss the process and sometimes we divert conversation elsewhere so we can get the job done. The animal has been raised with as much love, care, and adoration that we could give it. Now it’s time to go on to its next purpose.
We Give Thanks
Bowing our heads, we thank our Creator, or the animal itself, for the blessing of nourishment. Then we do what’s necessary to bring food to our tables.
No matter how bountiful each year has been, and how many thanks I give each November, I’ve never been so grateful for my food as when I raise it myself. From seed to salad or from chick to cacciatore, I’ve witnessed growth. I’ve seen good and bad. And I’m honored to have it as part of my life.
Purchasing a piece of red beef from the supermarket doesn’t carry the emotions. When the plastic-wrapped package sits within my grocery cart, I don’t think about whether the animal had a twin. I rarely consider a rancher bottle-feeding a Hereford because its mother didn’t survive. And when a ten-pack of drumsticks passes over the scanner, how many of us contemplate how raising meat chickens on family farms differs from within factories?
Perhaps we should. Maybe if we acknowledged that something always dies for what we eat, we would carry more gratitude within our hearts. From the rabbits and voles stirred up beneath a wheat combine to the birds that perish from pesticides, the cycle of life revolves around us at the end. We can ignore it. We can be activists. Or we can take part in the process with the love and emotion that makes us human, choosing the better part when each scenario approaches.
Those of us raising meat chickens and other livestock aren’t heartless. We’re the opposite. Humanity is a strength.