Female ducks are loud, particularly when they first get their quack. For no apparent reason, they break out into incessant bouts of “HA, HA, HA!” It sounds like the evil villain laugh just before some heinous crime is perpetrated, or the sarcastic – I am not laughing with you, I am laughing at you – laugh. They sound off like a choir – one will start, another will join in, then before it ends, all the females of the flock are making a cacophonous racket that echoes across our holler.
Over the last several weeks, this quack-laughing has punctuated the peace on our farm as our flock of mostly female meat ducks came into maturity and reveled in their new-found ability to speak for themselves. Now it is eerily silent because we slaughtered twelve of the fifteen ducks recently. Three girls were granted a reprieve to live as egg-layers, but they too seem to have lost their voices in solidarity with their deceased friends. For the fictional character Clarice Starling, in Silence of the Lambs, it was the screams of lambs as they went to their bloody deaths that haunted her. For me, it is the silence of the ducks.
There is so much debate about meat and what is ethical and right. I don’t have all the answers. But even the night before the slaughter when it occurs to me that our animals’ deaths will literally mean blood on my hands, or while adjusting to the notable silence of the ducks that follows the kill, I know my life is better because I am dependent on animals for my well-being. I also believe that even though many of our animals end up on a dinner plate, their lives are better for being dependent on me and other farmers like me. It might seem counter-intuitive, but humans’ and domesticated animals’ lives have been intertwined since the advent of agriculture which directly coincides with the creation of civilization. The fallout from ending that ancient relationship would likely be catastrophic to both parties.
If we decided to outlaw raising animals for meat, what would happen to all those animals in circulation now? Is some benevolent organization going to keep on feeding them and let them live out their end of days? Do we have a grand carnivale and finish off all the meat animals on the planet at once and then just stop doing it? Do we ban dairy products too since those activities depend on animal reproduction – which means more boy babies than we need? Do we allow a genetic modification so all dairy animals born are female? Do we use more highly-processed dairy substitutes like coconut, almond, and soy milk? Do we put meat cows, chickens, pigs, etc. in the zoo and treat them as exotic since they have no natural habitat anymore? Do we keep them as expensive pets to perpetuate their species? Do we set-up more shelters and euthanasia chambers to deal with overpopulation of unwanted farm animals (similar to what we now do as a result of keeping pet cats and dogs)? Do we let the animals roam free to become pests damaging farm and wildlands and potentially endangering humans? Do we make up our calories with petroleum-reliant grain products? Do tax dollars pay for our transition? And what about the Dalai Lama? He eats meat because his health suffers if he doesn’t. Do we let him suffer poor health?
I am not trying to be flippant, but we live in a complicated world with enormous problems that are often a consequence of changes we make to improve our lives. Even if we could work out a reasonable policy-answer for ending our use of animals for meat, based on our track record at making things better for the natural world, the result would likely be disastrous. Just look at our approach to creating and then mitigating climate change. Fossil fuels have enabled incredible productivity and have advanced our civilization beyond comprehension in record time. But it has happened at the cost of a climate crisis with the long-term potential to decimate any progress we’ve made and cause unbelievable human and environmental suffering. We have already caused incalculable damage. And we already know what will happen if we don’t radically alter our lifestyles and make reparations for the harm we have done. Yet, we are still talking about who will shoulder the burden and what luxuries we are willing to part with to get there. Or worse, we are busy pretending that we can buy our way out of this with solar panels, rechargeable batteries, and LED light bulbs. That’s the environmental equivalent to an alcoholic switching from whiskey to beer. Undoubtedly, our broken relationship with meat animals has compounded the climate problem by adding enormous amounts of methane gas to the atmosphere and decimating CO2 cleaning forests to expand pasture and farmland.
Still, in honest moments, we all recognize that eating meat and using fossil fuels are not the root of our problems. Somewhere along the path of progress, we lost sight of our individual moral compasses. We put them in our pockets and forgot we had them. Without direction regarding our responsibility to ourselves, our planet, and future inhabitants, we stopped calculating the consequences of our actions. Then suddenly there was an eight lane highway laid out in front of us, so we took it. We went amazing places, very fast, in the comfort of our car with the convenience of super markets and fast-food chains to give us sustenance as we sped ahead. But now we sit in bumper-to-bumper traffic, on crumbling roads that no longer take us where we need to go. We all know we need to find and use our moral compasses and choose new paths, if only we could remember where we put them… When you buy meat at the grocery store, it feels safe and decent. When you slit a ducks throat and watch her body convulsively twitch as her still-beating heart pumps candy-apple-red blood into a drip bucket, you question your actions. Whether we recognize it or not, farm animals lives are intricately intertwined with our own. Their history is our history. The more industrialized human lives have become, the more industrialized meat animal lives have become. In a way, they are our mirror, and perhaps, if we begin to see the animals lives and deaths again, we will be able to see ourselves and we will remember.
Today, we send most animals to factory farms in the form of feed lots and “processing” centers. We feed them highly refined foods that are not native to their diets. We cram them into spaces that prohibit expression of their natural behaviors. We dose them with supplements and antibiotics to compensate for their squalid living conditions. Although their lives are shorter, without any pretense of pretty, factory animals’ lives don’t seem that different than our own industrialized lives. We enclose ourselves in factories and offices, medicate with alcohol, antibiotics, flu shots, fad diets, and vitamin supplements to compensate for our unnatural, often toxic environments. We gorge ourselves on “food” that any self-respecting medieval peasant would refuse to eat. In many ways domesticated animals suffer the same fate as domesticated humans. So, even with the silence of the ducks as my soundtrack while I write, I believe that keeping farm animals for meat can be a tool to help us find and re-learn how to use our moral compasses.
As a small farmer, contemplating meat has become more than a moral dilemma, it’s now a moral responsibility. Before I became a farmer, I prided myself on being a consumer of “Happy Meat.” I bought meat directly from farmers or at small grocery chains that carried packages marked “humanely and pasture raised.” I wanted to believe that my meat was grown in a happy environment, until the moment of untimely death. The idea made me feel better, but now, I know better. Small farmers don’t raise “happy meat.” We raise healthy animals. The idea of happiness is a distinctly human one – it’s the bait on the line that lures us from one activity or purchase to the next, snapping out of reach just as we think we have finally captured it. Happiness is not something farm animals contemplate. Animals are concerned with eating and drinking enough, basic physical comfort, establishing a hierarchy among their herd or flock, entertainment, pleasure, avoidance of pain and danger, and adherence to daily routines. Some, but not all, exhibit curiosity about our human activities and/or seek our affection. Our role in their lives is not to make them happy, but to attend to their well-being. The idea is a bit nuanced, but I suspect other people who raise animals as a personal food source will immediately understand what I mean. We nurture the animals so they will nourish us. We practice interdependence with animals rather than commodification of meat products.
In large scale operations—even organic or free-range–it’s hard to develop an affinity with the animals. They are necessarily “products” from start to finish. Their lifespans are compartmentalized into phases of production. Human and animal interactions likely occur only through an assembly line process and no individual human interacts with the animals from birth to dinner plate. Butchering is treated as “processing.” Even the act of killing gets a tidy name like dispatching – defined as sending off to a destination or with purpose or dealing with a problem. Then the meat is packaged, labeled, and sold to customers as a product on a refrigerator or freezer shelf. Sometimes, to re-humanize the transaction, a smiling grocery store “butcher” in a spotless white coat helps you pick the most well-marbled steaks for your dinner party.
In this kind of process, the animals are clearly commodified, but so are the workers, and the buyers. We all participate in something that is inherently demoralizing. I’m not talking about morale – as in the way it makes you feel, but I suspect that suffers too. By demoralizing, I mean the removal of our ability to moralize for ourselves – which is arguably one of the skills that distinguishes humans from other animals. When you don’t see it, you don’t have to make real decisions about whether or not or under what conditions eating animals is the right thing to do. If it comes as meat in a pretty package, and the USDA or some other authority has declared it salable, then it must be fine for us to consume.
Yet as soon as I talk to people about slaughtering animals on our farm, they usually express some form of disgust at the idea. My direct contact with the care for, killing of, and preparation of animal products brings to mind the full perspective of what it means to eat meat. Suddenly their ability to moralize is reactivated. Some people shut down and refuse to talk about that aspect of farming because it’s too cruel. Others say they know what’s involved, but prefer not to think about it, because they couldn’t eat meat if they did. Some admit to wanting to remain ignorant of the mysteries of meat so they can pretend it wasn’t once a living animal. A few people ask how I can stand to eat the animals after I raise them. Only a hardy few want to hear about or participate in the process. I have actually been in all of these camps at one point or another, so I can relate to each reaction. However, in my current position of interdependence with animals, I feel sadness when I encounter any response other than a whole-hearted understanding of (or desire to understand) what it means to eat meat. The animal-caretaker in me wants the animal’s sacrifice to be kept present while eating the animal. I want us to eat pigs instead of ham, cows instead of burgers, to stop keeping the animal at a mental distance by calling it various preparations of meat. My own transformation from avoider of meat issues to caretaker and killer of food animals started with a love of duck. I discovered duck at the age of 24, in France, in the form of a duck magret – a fat covered hunk of dark breast meat served with a potato gratin and red wine sauce. When I sliced into it, juicy goodness oozed out, affirming the fact that it was seared rare like steak, rather than well-done like chicken. Within days of that first bite, I had tasted my way through every form of duck available, including the controversial foie gras – engorged duck liver caused by force-feeding the ducks through a tube for roughly two weeks.
Later at 27, I visited a family run foie gras farm in France. Flocks of ducks roamed free in an idyllic pond paradise. Rosy-cheeked farmers captured four to five-month-old ducks and crated them in spaces quite a bit bigger than commercial chicken cages. To my surprise, the ducks eagerly tipped their heads back and opened their beaks, almost ecstatically, as the feeding tube full of corn and yogurt lowered toward them. I felt a twinge of guilt as I noticed a slaughter-ready duck hunched forward from the weight of its liver (similar to commercial chickens and turkeys folded over from the weight of their breasts). I didn’t get to see the slaughter, but I saw the end result – featherless carcasses hanging on hooks in a refrigerated room. When the butcher took one body off a hook, slit open the breast bone, and pulled a giant liver free from its bone cage, I had to step outside for some fresh air. A few hours later, I hesitated before eating the seared liver, but as the silken fat rolled over my tongue, sublime pleasure and an inexplicable sense of peace came over me. Nothing had ever tasted so good – so real. It wasn’t the preparation or even the quality of the duck, it was the act of coming to terms with what it meant to eat meat that enhanced the experience. The next day I bought a book, in French, on duck farming. It was full of idyllic photos of ducks in pasture, stories of families with ancient attachments to the land and the care of animals, historical traditions and celebrations surrounding the preparations, and recipes for preservation. At the time, I thought the purchase of the book was just a bit of lifestyle-porn – an extension of my obsession with French food. In retrosepct, it was a seed sown that took over ten years to germinate.
Which brings us to present – about a year and a half into our decision to become farmers. Meat was on our minds at the outset when we purchased our land, but after keeping our first rounds of baby ducks and chicks in our house until it was safe to put them outside, we became too attached. The chicks fell asleep in our laps and purred like cats. The ducks were not as cuddly, but they were always excited to see us since our appearance meant the likelihood of meal worms or bath soaks. The birds were more pets than farm animals to us. As a result, it took us almost a year to reconsider the meat proposition. Actually, though, the reconsideration took place every time we ate meat. The fact that we had the space, resources, and ability to raise animals weighed on us every time we seared a steak or plopped a pork shoulder into the slow cooker.
In time, our relationship to our animals also changed. Those initial, excited responses to baby chicks and ducks gave way to the realization that once these animals became mature adults, their lives become static. Their needs from us are basic – food, water, and shelter. So, other than being amused watching chickens chase grasshoppers or being disgusted as “demon ducks” wobble-run around with their bills stained black from gorging on frog tadpoles, the “pet” factor began to wear off. Ducks and chickens at four months are about the same as ducks and chickens at 18 months. There are no leaps in intelligence, no extraordinary genius demonstrated after some great breakthrough, no change beyond a certain point. Well, actually they do become better foragers and are more destructive to soil structure and plant seedlings as they age. A year-old chicken or duck can decimate a newly planted garden bed in minutes with their feet, beaks, or bills.
Yet, it wasn’t even the decline of the pet-like qualities or the recognition of the animal’s static natures and destructiveness that that changed my mind. It was something much deeper and more primal. It started with the realization that our animals were in fact eagerly exploiting us for their purposes – extorting us for food. It then expanded to the recognition of how little regard they had for each others’ lives. There was no evident magnanimity between them. When I threw out a bowl of grubs, the chickens would rip them out of each others beaks to get more. When one of our chickens was eaten by a neighbor’s dog, the rest of the flock failed to notice or care. Ducks operate as a more cohesive group in their daily activity, but that cohesion crumbles when ducks are frightened or food is perceived as limited. Animals aren’t cruel for these behaviors, they are simply exhibiting normal animal behavior. But that recognition of their “animalness” is what ultimately made it acceptable for me to raise them for meat.
It may sound like a tautology at first blush, but it’s not only that I saw the animalness of the animal. Seeing it triggered a change in me. I became a “benevolent predator.” Only through my observation and care of animals did I accept this part of myself. The benevolence comes in because I do in fact still have the animals’ best interests in mind as I go about my predatorial activity of fattening them up for the slaughter. I am deeply concerned for their well-being and go to great lengths to ensure it. Part of me always cringes at the thought of slaughtering these animals because our daily proximity makes me sympathetic and, even at times, affectionate towards them. I care so much about the animals that I frequently ask myself “Can I really kill and eat you?” But I have done it before and I will again, so the question is rhetorical. Their fate is already decided.
Political and military leaders can make decisions to send soldiers to their death. Obviously this is not the same as slaughtering animals for meat. But I use this example to demonstrate that the ability to be simultaneously caring and ruthless is absolutely part of our human character. We are more comfortable with this aspect of ourselves when we can shroud it in terms of nobility – fighting for freedom, protecting our way of life – and the like. Fundamentally though, it is the same human quality – waging a noble war with other people’s lives or killing an animal you’ve come to care about. Both activities can be terribly and undeniably wrong if done in the wrong way and for the wrong reasons. They can both also be the right things to do with appropriate moral consideration. In the time it took me to write and edit this piece, the silence of the ducks has given way to renewed quacking. Our three pardoned layer-ducks have found their voices again.” HA, HA, HA!” they refrain. It no longer sounds like the villain laugh, but rather resonates as a kind of celebration of life and continuity. As I step outside to watch them swim on our idyllic pond, I feel an unexpected weight in my pocket. I reach down deep and clasp something I thought I had lost.
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