I’M SWEARING AND SWEATING, trying to set up the kennel in my bathtub, emphatically repeating to the dog that the live chicken on top of the toilet is “Not yours.” Tashi noses the chicken, the chicken cocks her head. “Not yours.” Tashi backs away, then noses the chicken again. “Not yours.” I shove straw into the kennel with one hand and push Tashi away with the other.
Once the chicken is inside the kennel and the door is closed, Tashi watches me dejectedly. She’s a brindle pit-bull boxer mix, built like a brick, and although it seems like she should be tough as one too, this dog can mope to no end. I fetch water for the hen, and when I return to the bathroom the question hits me: to whom, exactly, does this chicken belong?
I can hardly say this is my chicken, even though I paid five dollars for her. The chicken is only a temporary houseguest, intended for the table tomorrow evening, so I’m not sure I can say exactly what her status is.
Let me back up.
I want to confess: I used to be a vegetarian.
I was happily vegetarian for six years until suddenly I wasn’t. The day I became an omnivore again was about two weeks after I started a new job on a farm. No matter how much I repeated the fact that I DO NOT EAT MEAT, the guys who worked there would always bring me something containing cow, fish, pig, or chicken for lunch. For several days I refused, until I didn’t. I was pretty broke, so I’d been eating a lot of ramen, mixing things like peanut butter and eggs into the brothy noodles for variety. This day it was BBQ-sauce ramen.
But then Luis showed up with steak fajitas. And for all the moral ranting I did about the meat industry—the water it wastes, the land it dominates, the workers it exploits, the contamination it causes—it took me half a second to decide to eat those fajitas. The next week I had a turkey sandwich with extra mayonnaise. The week after I had beef jerky and ribs, then ceviche, chicken legs, pork tamales. And as soon as my finances improved, I began buying meat to cook at home.
I’d become a vegetarian for environmental reasons, “Not,” as I often said, “because I care about animals.” As someone who believes in taking responsibility for what she consumes, I’d always assumed that if I started eating meat again, I’d need to be able to kill it myself. Which is how I ended up converting my dog’s kennel into a chicken bed and welcoming the bird into my home.
I’d bought the chicken from a farmer named Cody, one of my co-worker’s cousins, and I’m pretty certain that he wouldn’t have sold me a chicken otherwise. Cody is only sixteen years old, but he runs an impressive chicken operation: two hundred birds, sixty dozen eggs a week. Every now and then he’ll slaughter a batch for meat, but it’s not a major source of income. His mother, when I spoke with her over the phone, was nice enough to offer me some prekilled hen. “If you chicken out,” she told me, “we’ve got some in our freezer.”
“Thank you, Joyce,” I replied, “but that’s not the point. I want to do this myself.”
“Well,” the woman sighed, “a lot of people get grossed out. You can hit ’em over the head first, you know. So they don’t flap around. Oh, and don’t break the gall bladder, that little green sac, because it’ll spoil the meat.”
While Joyce was worried I wouldn’t “have the constitution for it,” my mother seemed to be hoping I wouldn’t.
“I just don’t understand why you want to do this,” my mother said one night when I came over for dinner. Mom was, coincidentally, serving roast chicken. “It seems immoral,” she said. “I just don’t want to imagine you killing a little chick-a-dee.”
“Someone has to do it.”
“But you don’t have to. You can go out and buy a chicken from a store.” Mom paused and skewered something with her fork. “You’ll be making a chicken suffer.”
“This chicken suffered!” I said, raising my voice and pointing to the partial carcass in the middle of the table. “How is it immoral to kill a chicken, but it’s not immoral to eat it?”
“I buy free-range, organic chicken.”
“Gina,” my father said in the space of my breath, “Don’t yell at your mother.” I’m twenty-three, but all of a sudden I feel seven years old again.
If Dad hadn’t stopped me, I would almost certainly have mentioned that there’s not much to be said for “free-range” chicken. Yes, chickens like Cody’s have pretty good lives. They waddle around a patch of grass in a beautiful Northern California town overlooking the ocean, smelling cows and fresh salt, soaking in the sunshine. But that’s not how it is for most chickens. “Free-range” is a murky classification, meaning only that the chickens have some sort of outdoor access—yet there are no laws that specify if this area needs to be a twenty-by-twenty-foot run where they can scratch and peck at bugs, or if a small, wire-mesh gravel box outside the hen house will do.
“Organic” is regulated with a little more common sense. Certification is overseen by the USDA, and for a chicken, being organic means that you eat nothing but organic feed, and you can’t be pumped full of antibiotics. Without antibiotics, most chickens would die of disease if they experienced the same overcrowded conditions that nonorganic chickens suffer, so this often means organic birds get more space.
The most reliable thing to do, if you want to know how your chicken meat is treated while it’s still a chicken, is to buy direct from the farm, and bring a list of questions with you. I hate to say it, but who has the time for that? Does anybody care that much?
The fact that I’m showing up at Cody’s after work, bearing a cat carrier lined with straw, seems to support the idea that some people, clearly, do care that much.
I missed the driveway once, then twice, and finally hit it on the third pass. The rolling hills were lush green, peppered with mostly black cows and their young as I bumbled along in my Honda Civic, scaring clumsy calves and jolting into and out of potholes.
My dirty jeans, I think, earned me some street cred with Cody. On the short walk to the henhouse, he kept saying things like, “But a day off’s not really a day off, you know,” and “You get a break to catch up on all your projects, right?” Cody’s line of work is farming: his projects are probably things like branding cattle and fixing fences. My “day off” projects all focus on my own small world, mostly simple tasks I purposefully make hard.
It’s laughable, and somewhat selfish, to be honest. I grow a meager amount of food in my garden (the onions, at present, are begging for a mercy killing), use a washboard for my laundry (which I then hang sock by sock and sheet by sheet in my front yard), dissolve my compost in a worm bin I keep on the kitchen counter, try to use most of my paper recycling to start fires in my woodstove (which is how I heat my house), and have a collection of glass bottles, which I sterilize and use to store the kombucha I make from scratch. These are things I do not confess right away when I meet someone. They are, for the most part, fourth- or fifth-date topics. Doing things like washing and rewashing plastic bags and trying to scrub organic ketchup off your shirt with a washboard sounds honorable and romantic, but only in theory. In reality it makes your back hurt, makes your fingertips pruney, and takes away time from other activities—what some might call leisure activities.
WHEN CODY OPENED THE DOOR to the henhouse, the first thing that hit me was the smell. The ammonia stench clogged my throat and nose, and while my eyes didn’t literally water, I wished they would’ve because of how badly they burned. I cannot imagine what a factory farm might smell like, with chickens piled one on top of the other, surrounded by feces, and suffering blindness and ammonia burns from the poorly ventilated air. Which is nothing like Cody’s farm, but good God it reeked.
The chicken house wasn’t very large, maybe only eight feet by ten feet. The outdoor run, a swatch of bright grass bordered by a ten-foot-tall wire fence, was slightly more spacious. Chickens flocked toward the door, hustled in and out of the house, and crowded around our feet. I stood there stupidly, wondering how to pick out which chicken was due to die tomorrow, then wondering what Cody, his mother Joyce, and my co-worker who put me in touch with them would think if I ran out of the henhouse, straight to my car, and sped away, sans chicken.
“What about this one?” Cody asked, picking up a light-colored chicken with a large red comb on the top of her quivering head.
“Um, sure?” Cody held the chicken softly to his stomach, looked thoughtful, then released it.
“Maybe a Rhode Island Red. They’re older, so they’ll have more meat on them,” Cody said, changing his mind.
I bent down, and the chicken before me squatted. She let me pet her.
Cody selected another bird.
“That one looks good,” I told him.
Outside, we tried to finagle the chicken into the cat carrier, but I was too hesitant. She pushed with her feet against the edge, went brrrrrrp brrrrrrp in a low, throaty voice, and I lost all resolve. “I don’t think she wants to go in,” I told Cody. Although I’m seven years older than he is, I felt much younger than him in that moment. “I’ll just carry her for now,” I decided.
On the walk back to my car Cody held the cat carrier in one swinging hand, and I held the chicken in my arms like a baby. I asked Cody if he had any tips for eviscerating the bird.
“Not really,” he said, “It’s pretty self-explanatory.”
That wasn’t the first time I’d gotten that answer, and I was happy to believe it. “You just twist off their necks,” a friend told me. As a kid, she helped her parents pluck and clean chickens. “And then just slice around their ass and pull all the guts and stuff out after. It’s easy.” On YouTube, the videos are similar. People cut around the neck, around the bottom, and voila—it’s a chicken, just like you’d buy in the store.
MORNING ARRIVES, and the house is quiet. The chicken, I presume, is still asleep. Lying in bed, the ludicrous thought of releasing her into the woods crosses my mind. But I’m too invested in the situation to back out now, so I slide out of bed, take the chicken out of the bathroom, and let her roam through my yard. She follows me around, watches me, scratches at the dirt, poops in my Shasta daisies.
But watching the chicken scratch and defecate will not accomplish anything. I set up four stations: the killing station, the plucking station, the evisceration station, and the soup station.
The killing station is in the garden in front of my house, beside the raspberry and sugar pea, and consists of an upright log for sitting on, two placemats, a bowl to catch the blood, and a knife I’ve sharpened hair-follicle thin, so much so I accidentally shaved a layer of skin off my finger (not enough to draw blood) the night before.
The plucking station is almost in back of the house, and involves a large pot of nearly boiling water, a blowtorch, and one of the lengths of parachute chord that I use for hanging laundry. I tied a slipknot in the end, to dangle the bird from, and placed a cardboard box below it to catch the feathers.
The evisceration station is a large, flat cylinder of wood, about eighteen inches high, which I’ve placed in the garden behind my two rows of lettuce. I’ve got a cutting board on top, my only cutting board, which eerily has a picture of a chicken on it. Beside it is a teakettle of hot water for sanitizing as I go, a clean hand towel, a bucket for waste scraps, a small pot for organs and tissue I’ll boil into soup for Tashi, and a plate for the meat that I will eat.
The soup station is inside: a pot of cold water on the stove, piles of chopped carrots, celery, onion, and garlic. I’m going to boil the chicken and the vegetables to make broth, then remove the meat from the bones, remove the vegetables from the stock, and make soup.
The day before, while out buying carrots at the local market, I discussed the plan with my favorite butcher. Usually he helps me pick out what meat would work best for my recipe, fetches choice bacon for me from the back, and gives me a double-shot of moral support when I’m trying to cook meat in new ways.
“What’s up, girl! What do you need?” he hollered, smacking both latex-gloved hands flat on top of the display case.
“Nothing today. I’m going to butcher a chicken tomorrow. She’s in the car.”
“Aw, man!” He leaned over the counter and gave me a high-five. “You’re going to do it all yourself?”
“Yep, I’m making soup.” I held up a carrot, trying to seem enthusiastic.
“Who’s going to help you?”
I used the carrot to point to my chest and said, “Just me.”
Although I wanted to seem confident, deep down I was scared. If I popped the gall bladder, the meat would be rendered inedible. If I messed up, the chicken would go to waste. What if I didn’t cut her throat deep enough? What if she flapped around my yard, massacred and bloody? I wanted a helper, someone to do this with me, but no one else signed up. One of my best friends, who studied anatomy, offered me pregame advice, but said he couldn’t make the playoff. Another friend said he’d help, but left for a month-long trip to Africa right before my chicken connection came through. I was thinking of asking my co-worker, Cody’s cousin, but on my days off, he works.
“Right on!” Another high-five. “You’re gonna do great! Tell me how it goes.”
I’M SEATED AT THE KILLING STATION, trying to calm my hammering pulse. The chicken is wrapped in placemats and resting, belly up, between my knees. It’s only nine a.m., but it’s already seventy degrees. I’m sweating.
To make her fall asleep, I tap a few fingers gently on the space between her eye and the base of her beak. I know this works, like I know you can also massage the breastbone for the same effect, because I had chickens as pets when I was little. My friends and I made them harnesses out of flannel and walked them on leashes to the park. We painted their toes, and pretended they were our children. We kept them for eggs, a flock of four, then a flock of six, then four again, then three when I left for college, and now my mother has none. She told me she hopes I won’t end up killing this chicken so she can adopt it.
Sitting in the sunlight with the chicken on my lap, I think about the life it would have at my parents’ house. It would lay eggs, peck in the garden, bathe in dirt, sit in the sun. My mother would probably decide that the chicken needed friends, so she’d find more chickens to keep her company.
Massaging the chicken, watching her warm eyes close, I also think about what my neighbor said—just don’t name her—although I find myself wishing I had something to croon to this chicken now.
Without a name, is this supposed to feel more impersonal? I’m holding the chicken between my legs, stroking her, trying to help her relax. Maybe there’s the no-naming rule because to give the chicken a name would make it seem like she belonged to me more. We name our pets, our children, even sometimes objects that belong to us, like cars or skateboards or stuffed animals.
When her body goes limp with comfort, I stretch out her neck. I tap the knife against it, tap, tap, tap, and accidentally slice a single feather. It slides loose and floats to the ground. I’ve been holding her for about twenty minutes. She’s not straining, not afraid of me. I lean forward, jutting my knees toward the blood bowl. Quick, I slice her throat.
Blood gushes into the bowl, warm on my hands. I drop the knife and hold her body. She kicks one leg slowly. A wing shuffles. But not so much. She moves less than I expected. This is nothing like a chicken running with its head cut off. This is nothing like death throes or dry heaves. I can see the blood pumping out of the arteries in her neck. She moves for another five seconds then stops. This is also not like buying chicken, cleaned and plastic wrapped, from a store. And it is also nothing like I thought it would be. I’m not shaking. I’m surprisingly unafraid of what I’ve just done.
I slice off the chicken’s head, place it in the bowl with the blood, and unwrap the place mats.
At the plucking station, I hold the chicken by her feet and dunk the body into the hot water. I try to remember what Cody said—it was either three dunks for twenty seconds with five-second intervals or five dunks for twenty seconds with three-second intervals. I dunk her four times then try to pull the feathers; they come off easy. I hang the chicken, steaming and dripping, and remove the rest of the feathers. She smells grassy and warm. Even the large wing feathers come out without any trouble. The skin does not tear.
Once the feathers are gone, I turn on the propane blowtorch and singe the small hairs from the bird. I wipe her clean with a rag from my back pocket.
The evisceration is the part I’ve been most worried about. I do not want to pop the gall bladder. I do not want to puncture the stomach. I’m not sure if the meat will be spoiled if I rip open an intestine, but I do not want to find out. And the colon. I feel I should avoid the colon.
I start with the feet, cutting them off at the knee joint, then drop them into the waste bucket. I do not slice bone and am proud, but when I make incisions around the neck, trying to dip into the throat so I can remove the crop, which held the chicken’s food before it was digested, I cut it with my first slice. Corn and seed squeeze out onto the cutting board, like yellow textured toothpaste. I rinse it off with hot water from the kettle. After that, I cut a little lower toward the breast meat and eventually remove the organ, then slice off the neck. The crop goes into the waste bucket, the neck into the dog-soup pot.
It takes me forty-five minutes to clean the bird. I find that I cannot just scoop out the organs from the back, that I cannot just pull and everything comes out, and that this is not in any way self-explanatory.
“Fuck YouTube,” I say.
I cut through the rib cage on one side of the breastbone, then the other, and lift out the sternum. From this vantage I can pry the abdominal cavity apart with both hands. The intestines come loose, ropy and pale. I drop the liver into the pot for Tashi. I press the gall bladder between my fingers then toss it into the waste bucket. I try to scrape out the lungs with a spoon, then with my fingers. All the while I’m thinking about how disgusting this must be on an industrial scale—the blood and flies and intestines and chicken shit and probably the pile of punctured gall bladders. I carefully dissect the chicken and, aside from the crop, do not puncture any organs that I don’t mean to.
I remove the gizzard, bisect it, and use my fingers to wipe out all the rocks and stones the chicken used to digest her food. I peel off the lining, a strange, yellow layer that feels exactly like it’s made of plastic, and save the muscle for Tashi’s soup, along with the heart. The meat, the skin, and the bones I set aside for my soup.
Tashi looks at me with a cloyingly sweet face, begging for the plate of raw flesh.
“I have something for you, but this chicken is mine.”
I say the words realizing, as they fall smooth and easy from my mouth, that they are true. This flesh belongs to me now.
I boil the carcass with the vegetables for two hours straight then stand above the steaming stock, peeling hot chicken meat from the bones and eating bits of it with my greasy and grateful fingers.
PEOPLE HAVE NEEDS: we need to eat, to be respected, to be free from harm. Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs organizes these, determining that each consecutive need cannot be fulfilled until the need that precedes it, the more base need, has been satisfied. After physiological needs, like air and food, humans require safety, then love and belonging, then esteem (respect for and by others, self-respect, confidence, achievement), and, lastly, self-actualization (creativity, problem solving, lack of prejudice, morality).
I suspect that humans don’t just need to feel like they belong socially; they need to feel like they belong to their environment as well, and I know that for me, personally, I attain a sense of belonging through labor, creativity, and care. Maybe that’s why I made the curtains in my bedroom instead of buying them, or why I brew kombucha in my kitchen and wash my laundry on a washboard. Simple things that make us responsible for ourselves, ways we can aid in the production of what we’re consuming, help us feel engaged and connected. When I have a hand in creating something, like the patterned rug on my bedroom floor, it feels more my own than if I bought it, because the money exchanged for a rug is an abstract thing that doesn’t solidify ownership the same way carefully cutting each flannel scrap into a perfect square does. In the words of E. F. Schumacher, economist and author of Small Is Beautiful: A Study of Economics as if People Mattered, “When a thing is intelligible you have a sense of participation; when a thing is unintelligible you have a sense of estrangement.” I want to belong in my body, my house, my life. I want to eat intelligible food and feel satiated, not consume blindly and feel empty.
By involving myself in the production process, I see the extent of my needs and their effects on others: Am I using too much water? Is it morally correct to eat animals? How much waste am I generating? I appreciate the warmth from my woodstove more than the hot air that comes blasting out of my wall-heater because pushing a button is too damn easy. There’s no work, no feeling of accomplishment. I feel like I’ve earned nothing, because I haven’t.
WHILE THE STOCK SIMMERS, I add carrots, beets, garlic, celery, potatoes, onion, tomato, salt, and a couple ounces of apple cider vinegar, then cook the soup for an hour and a half. It is thick and steamy. Small globules of oil and yellow fat bob to the surface. It’s full of meat, long, juicy strips and chunks, and I’m amazed by this fact: the chicken meat I found in my chicken was pink, just like the kind you find at the store. It smelled similar. It is somehow surprising that chicken meat that comes in plastic and Styrofoam looks about the same as chicken meat that comes to your house in a cat carrier and poops in your Shasta daisies.
My mother reluctantly agrees to come for dinner, but asks if she should bring pizza, “just in case.” At the appointed time, she sweeps through the door bearing bread and salad, arriving alone because my father had plans.
“Okay,” she says. “How was it?”
“It was uncomfortable, but it was a good experience.” I take a breath, feeling grounded and steady. “I would do it again.”
I set the table with the same placemats I’d wrapped the chicken in (they’re the only placemats I own). I don’t tell Mom this. I light a few candles, serve up the soup, and we settle down to eat.
“Well?” I ask. Tashi noses around our feet, then resigns herself to not getting table scraps and lies down on the rug.
“This is so flavorful,” she tells me. “I think it’s the best soup you’ve ever made.”
As someone who runs an organizations that rescues and advocates on behalf of chickens and other farmed animals in desperate situations and who has come to know them as loving, lifelong companions, I found your piece called The Chicken Project highly offensive and pedestrian, fueling the status quo ignorance about chickens which is based on the crass and predictable denigration of their identity as commodities not animals. We kill close to 300 baby 6-week-old chickens every second in the U.S. alone. Your article rubs salt in the wounds of these birds who already suffer immensely.
“Someone has to do it,” says the farmer in the story. No, this is a false dilemma. This article is based on one of the most common logical fallacies of all time: we either kill the animal or we starve. No, there is an easy way out of this false dilemma. No one is twisting our arm to force animals to suffer for our tastebuds. This is not a piece that raises consciousness about animals or food. It mocks any serious moral consideration for animals by simply asserting the supremacy of our taste buds. In other words, “might makes right.”
We expect so much more from your publication than this!
Free from Harm
Slavery and cruelty come in all shapes and sizes. How tragic the animals were taken into slavery long before we adopted the same behaviors that created human slavery. How tragic the ugliness in humanity reins in our world when the opposite could manifest if we stopped carving the hearts out of children who have an innate kinship with all beings.
Is it any wonder human society is replete with moral, physical and spiritual chaos when we live in such abject discord with other beings we SHARE this planet with, a planet in crisis from human arrogance, hubris, and the delusion that we are top of the self proclaimed food chain… Tell that to the millions of patients dying of preventable diseases caused by eating “the way we always have.”
Thanks to carnism, the US economy from pharmaceuticals, medical devices, cancer treatments, is strong.
Your demeaning of sentient birds stunts your moral growth and keeps our nation in spiritual and ethical stasis.
Accepting violence to animals is normalized pathology. Yep, that is the reflection in the American mirror and anywhere animals are violated .
Just like the former coworkers who persuaded her to abandon her values, this young author seems determined to persuade us that animals belong to us and that killing them is no big deal. This piece perfectly examplifies the old adage “misery loves company”.
Like Robert Grillo, CEO of Free from Harm, who has penned an excellent response to “The Chicken Project”, I too found the article offensive. Not simply because it reinforces our notion that animals are “food”, when in fact this is merely a culturally conditioned perspective, but more so that the author, Ms Warren, found taking a life so unmoving. In her words, “[i]t was a good experience… I would do it again.”
If we are genuinely interested in knowing where our food comes from or in being involved in growing and preparing it, then we need also to be morally aware of the difference between food and sentient beings with intrinsic worth. There is a moral chasm between a plant and a sentient being: one is food; one is no different from you and I in her desire to live free – free from exploitation and murder.
Unfortunately, I find these journeys of self discovery of very limited merit. They do nothing to open our eyes to the moral consideration at the heart of the matter. It is simply wrong to harm any being unnecessarily. We have absolutely no need to eat animals and animal products.
Lenny’s Lair (Vegan) Cockatiel & Dove Sanctuary
Calgary, AB, Canada
The commenters above make me wonder if they have seen any of the recent science on plants. Plants communicate, cooperate, reward, cajole, fight, plan for the future, etc…so Jonathan Martin’s claim that there is “a moral chasm between a plant and a sentient being: one is food; one is no different from you and I in her desire to live” deserves as much scrutiny as the choices the writer makes. Bottom line: if you eat animals, you’re responsible for that consumption. If you eat plants, it’s the same. I grow enormous broccoli in my garden, have you ever cut the head of one of these glorious plants off to put on your plate? I also sigh heavily each time I cut a head of lettuce to make a salad. Those plants I tend also have a desire to live, just like a chicken or a mole or mushroom. Please watch this “PBS Nature” program to get a sense for just how sentient plants are:
It’s way, way too simple and easy to claim a moral high ground just because broccoli doesn’t have eyelashes.
Animals eat each other. We’re animals. We eat animals. I don’t see any moral quandaries in this. If I could choose for myself, I’d rather be food for another animal than die uselessly of cancer or heart disease. Participate consciously in life and death cycles and don’t pretend humans are exceptional or superior. Sooner or later something’s gonna feast on our corpses anyway.
In recent years, a number of women have posted blogs similar to Ms. Warren’s. These women describe how they used to be vegetarian but now they are not. Their core themes are their initiation as DIY killers and their pride in proving to themselves and others – especially guys – that they are not squeamish and that they look forward with pleasure to killing again. In some cases I would venture to say that these women enjoy sharing their selfie so much that they will kill a chicken or some other creature (though chickens being small seem to be their victim of choice) simply in order to have grist for their poetry, so to speak.
Having held many hens in my lap in the warm sunshine and watched them close their eyes trustingly in the comfort of my care over several decades, I felt keenly the part where Warren describes massaging the hen she’s preparing to kill and “watching her warm eyes close,” not in a loving way of watching, but with the consciousness that her will to power is going to close those eyes forever. All for soup and to prove she’s a Man and a writer as tough as Hemingway. This, anyway, is how her story strikes me.
Warren’s description of soothing the hen reminded me too of the Maenads, female followers of Dionysus in Greek mythology, who were said to lure animals to their breast and soothe them in preparation for turning on them in a frenzy of dismemberment. This is not a compliment, but it does place Warren’s personal mythology in a context of women employing trust as a weapon of deception for the sake of destruction. Men do these things too, of course, but Warren’s story is a particular type of woman’s story, one for which a hen – a sister – had to die in order to give heft to the writer.
Karen Davis, President
United Poultry Concerns
Gina, thank you for your thoughtful story. I eat meat and it feels important to understand at a deep level that that means the death of an animal. I also eat plants and plants need to die so that I can live. Whatever we eat becomes a part of us. We are all interconnected, the boundaries between humans, other animals, plants, the bugs, the air etc is illusory. We are all interconnected. It is humbling to know that something else needs to die in order for me to live.
Though I almost always find Karen Davis’ comments strong and very much to the point, this one I believe needs challenging:
“Warren’s description of soothing the hen reminds me too of the Maenads, female followers of Dionysus in Greek mythology, who were said to lure animals to their breast and soothe them in preparation for turning on them in a frenzy of dismemberment.”
The source Dr. Davis cited—by email, when I asked—for her description of the Maenad ritual, was Marcel Detienne’s Dionysos Slain:
“In Dionysos Slain,” Davis wrote, “Marcel Detienne talks about how the Maenads drew the denizens of the forests and fields from their hiding places to suckle and soothe them as part of a destructive seduction ritual involving harrying the parents down the mountains, dismembering and devouring them. . . .”
After I first read Davis’ comment—which she sent to me before it was published—I’d felt that it might be a modern slant on the ancient myth. Dr. Davis seemed to me to be describing a calculated Mengelean seduction/dismemberment—something Dostoyevsky also shows with Russian soldiers who play with, tickle, and then brutally murder babies before their mothers’ eyes—almost exactly the opposite of what Euripides, for example, describes. The Maenads of his play are frenzied unto madness and it’s within that madness that they tear wild beasts apart, as part of their religious worship. As revolting as that would have to be to any animal activist, the practice is not quite the evil to which Davis points. And the author of the ORION article is no frenzied Maenad.
It’d be interesting to find out if the cold deceit that Davis and Warren seem in some sense to glorify—a configuration so prominent in the societal hazing ritual of this country—actually shows up as a feature of Maenads, literally “raving ones,” in the original Bacchic myth.
Joan Harrison, PhD
Independent Advocate for Animals
Several years ago, I also went down the same path as Gina. In order to eat meat, I had to become an intrinsic part of the food chain, which involved learning to kill a chicken. I thanked the chicken for what she was about to give me- a meal to support my family, and began. The most unsettling feeling to me was how warm the body was, which is so very unlike what you get in the grocery store…cold, sitting on top of a diaper, wrapped in plastic. Its a reminder that this was once a living being, and we must give thanks for her life.
Gina- I appreciate your eloquent essay, as it is a topic most of the American public has not grasped. I am sorry to see all of the negative comments following your essay, but that just shows how removed Americans have gotten from the food chain and the need for more awareness.
Well done story . One thing vegetarians don’t think about is how few animals would live if they were not raised for meat . If we are became vegetarian ,all the domestic livestock would dissapear . I don’t believe in industrial agriculture but do think animals of small farms are part of a healthy landscape incuding growing healthy vegetables . Even though I grew up on a commercial chicken farm and now raise my own meat,I had never personally butchered either till last year . I always helped but my husband did the killing act . It IS a profound part of life. :)Sharon
I am a vegetarian. This is the first time wandering through Orion Magazine and came across this article, a total divergence from the typical piece of scientific literature that I often look for in Nature or similar journals and magazines; however, I am glad to have read this and am disappointed to read such harsh criticism from the above commenters.
Your story, while by no means vegetarian, is an empowering one. It raises the question of taking responsibility for our human nature. While it is true that our modern world provides us the luxury of choice — allowing us to choose to live a “guilt-free” lifestyle — it is this modern world and the machinery of our society that inevitably scars our environment and brings suffering to the unsuspecting souls that share our world. In this way phones, cars, buildings, homes, roads, shipments, energy, and far more all have a price to pay. It is human society, by its very nature, and it is not the fault of any one person.
As a commenter remarked: we have a choice to eat meat and it is immoral to choose to do so. People have choices every day: from choosing to drive over walking or biking, to choosing to use a smart phone designed and built in numerous countries. All have consequences, and all make an impact. You raise the question of responsibility. While no one person is to blame for the effect of the human race, we have the choice to take responsibility for it. You do so respectably — taking on the burden of butchery. You did exactly what many vegetarians/vegans hope to accomplish; reducing your impact on the world around you. Reduction of impact is not an all or nothing argument; it is illogical and hypocritical to think so.
I am a falconer and my hawk hunts live animals. She is the hunter I am her assistant. I am there to make sure the animal she hunts is killed quickly so it won’t suffer. I have learned how to kill a rabbit quickly. Raptors hunt and eat live food. This as been a amazing learning experience for me and I do not over hunt, just enough to feed, my hawk. I have been a vegetarian for years but recently I have become a meat eater. I do not hunt for my meat but I buy humanely grown and killed meat. It is very expensive but I will pay the price knowing the animal was not factory farmed, thus I do not buy much.
A friend of mind raises all her animals for food. They are so well cared for and fed well, plus have an incredible range of land to wander in. They are killed humanely and quickly where she assists. I admire her for all she has taught me.
This piece is haunting, rich, deeply personal, and challenging. Most of the respondents, not so much so, mostly axe-grinding, and not the useful kind.
Warren writes, toward the end of this challenging piece, “I want to eat intelligible food and feel satiated, not consume blindly and feel empty.”
There are many kinds of blindness, just as there are many ways to consume. This piece is not an instruction manual for moral perfection, but instead a walk with someone who is walking with a moral quandary. I find that brave.
The article struck me as very sad. Trying to explain and justify killing a living creature is at best pathetic and at worst just plain dumb. If you feel like eating meat, go ahead and do it, no need to explain. We are all different creatures, some of us have seen the light and realized that eating meat, no matter how “humanely” the animal was killed, is wrong, while others , sadly the majority , have chosen a different path, the one of ignorance. Most people eat met and never question where that meat comes from, not to mention all the garbage that animal was fed, the horrific conditions it lived in and at the end, the savage way it was killed and processed for our kitchens and dinner tables. Most people never question those things , because if they ever did, less people would eat meat.
The author of this story writes that she was a vegetarian. Then she was very poor, and lived on noodles.
Then people gave her meat and so in her hunger she ate it.
It seems to me she was suffering from a lack of nutritious food, not a lack of meat.
You can eat wonderful burritos full of sauted veggies with beans and wild rice and cheese and spices, without any meat.
I see the issue as economic. Why was she so poor with so little food?
Surely killing and eating animals is not the answer to poverty.
We can’t get sympathy from someone who is not sympathetic.
I want very much to print out all the comments regarding the Chicken Project story so I can reread and reflect on them, but the System won’t allow it. Why is that? Is there anything I can do about it? Help.
Vegan is an proven ethical technology and it is part of the Rights of Nature social movement. I am shamed that Orion Magazine printed this ridiculous story. To me it appears that OM does not know about these 21st century social movements.
Thank you, Ms. Warren, for sharing your introspective and life-affirming journey.
It is both ironic and tragic that to become completely disconnected from Nature’s way is considered, by those still living and thinking within the system, to be morally superior. I understand, because I used to subscribe to the same philosophy. Closer examination revealed that to live in Western culture is to live on the profits of murder, rape and pillage. Have you ever killed a fly? (But, not a chicken…) Do you drive? Pay taxes? Then you embrace hierarchies and, my fellow beings, hierarchies murder. That’s what they’re for. There is no “high ground” here, not for any of us.
I invite and encourage all those claiming moral superiority through shaming words and claims of outrage to dismount your pretensions and join Nature’s real circle of life. Live purely within your means and by your own hands (you need not eat meat), independent of the system that is intentionally murdering the planet for profit. Grow what you eat and give your life-time and your life, in turn, for all life that sustains you. Then read Ms. Warren’s article again.
I read the article with interest, then distaste and a kind of shame, when, yes, she seemed to feel so little about that betrayal: stroking the hen’s neck, intending to slit her throat. I actually do generally respect people who kill their own, rather than paying someone else to do it. I could certainly never kill an animal for any reason. But what bothered me most was one of the comments that said something like “this chicken who gave her life”…so that the author could eat/live. NO, the hen did NOT give her life. And neither do any of the other “meat animals” we consume. That way of talking is to soothe our own feelings of guilt. The hen did not give her life. She was tricked, lulled into innocent inattention…her life was was taken from her. If you want to be an honest meat-eater, be honest about that.
I was glad to be able to leap frog from the article to the referral from John dated 6/30/15 to the PBS video “What Plants Talk About” It was fascinating and informative. It made me feel even more connected to the earth today. Also, Richard Stafursky dated 8/13/15″ we can’t get sympathy from someone who is not sympathetic” was just the pithy insight I needed to hear.
It is an honor to harvest plants and animals for nourishment. I grew up poor and on a farm, and the only way our family had enough food was to butcher our livestock (chickens, geese, cattle) and raise a huge garden. The comments trying to shame or dismiss this honest essay (and the lifestyle it represents) are directed from a first-world, socioeconomically privileged perspective, a perspective filled with Whole Foods and Saturday Farmer’s markets. Of course, plant or animal, killing is the ultimate harm, but killing also provides nourishment for life: that whole circle of life thing. Death is not unnatural, neither is eating. By honoring the creature we are about to eat, looking it in the eye as we take its life, we honor its life and final purpose: to become part of us and keep us alive. There is tremendous gratitude in this cycle as well as the reason some cultures think that when we kill and eat a plant or animal, its spirit becomes part of us. People who aren’t privileged enough to have a hobby garden, shop at the farmer’s market, choose where the get to shop, or choose between a variety of foods, are extremely grateful for what they have to eat. More people harvesting and killing their own food would alleviate most of the problems associated with our modern Ag-business.
I loved the experience of reading this piece! Also at the age of 23, I often search for a way to “earn” things, to participate in life, and to battle the feeling of adolescence in the presence of my parents. This is not a piece about murder, about right versus wrong, or even about vegetarianism – it is a piece about self-realization, or a coming of age tale. What does it mean to feed yourself? What does it feel like to do something on your own? I applaud your determination and plunder to butcher and prepare a chicken with only the company of a pup, and admire your courage to publish a reflection of the experience. I look forward to reading your other works!
Unlike some of the other individuals who commented on your article and were angered by your decision to write about butchering that hen, I thought you wrote very clearly about a dilemma that has, in some ways, influenced my own vegetarianism and desired way of life. How do we seek out opportunities to become more connected with the world, rather than less? I chose to become vegetarian out of respect for the animals behind the styrofoam and plastic packaging. Despite this, I found your story about your decision to butcher the hen yourself to be interesting and thoughtful. In your writing you did not necessarily imply the respect that some individuals might want towards animals. The perspective of the farmer from whom you received the chicken is symptomatic of a greater issue surrounding livestock production in the United States, yes. But that is not the issue you chose to address, so I do not believe it bears excess mention, nor should you shoulder the blame for the issue. Instead, your decision to butcher the animal yourself instead of working within inhumane systems that encourage animal cruelty towards livestock implied a large amount of respect for the chicken and for her right to not suffer in her final moments.
I also understood your decision to butcher the hen yourself to be quietly subversive in the same way making your own curtains or kombucha is. To encourage the satisfaction you receive from creating instead of buying offers a deeper connection to your community and your surroundings. Instead of working within a system that encourages isolation and disconnection from other people and the animals with which we share the world (such as buying all your food from or furniture from a store that ships it in from god-knows-where) you sought out others with whom you are connected in order to eat in a way that is both rewarding to you as an individual and encouraging to the local economy as a whole.
Thank you for taking the time to write frankly about your experience. It was much appreciated, and I hope you know that even the animal-loving vegetarians have a lot of respect for you and your choices, even when you write about killing the same animals we choose not to.
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