by Sherry Zhao
I saw blood coming out from the 3-inch-wound on the bird’s neck: first dripping slowly, and then bursting out of the cut, running down the wooden pole like a twisted snake.
The color of the chicken’s blood was bright red, suggesting how abundant oxygen was in its arteries. Some of the blood drops splashed on the ground just two or three inches away from my shoes with incredibly strong momentum. There were still some flapping sounds from the upside down metal cone that was restraining the chicken’s action—clearly the chicken didn’t realize that the faster it flapped, the quicker it would bleed out, or no matter how hard it struggled, its destiny had been determined and its death was inevitable.
Two minutes earlier, that chicken with shiny orange and partial black feathers had been running around the cattle with its peers when Daniel Lee, the owner of the farm, went into the barn and grabbed it by pinning the wings to its sides and tucking it between his ribs and upper arm. Lee placed it into a cone tied on the wooden pole upside down so that the head of the chicken could easily go through the open top of the cone while the wings could not flap or help the chicken fly away. Then Lee pulled out a knife, pointing out to me where the bird’s head was, and quickly pithed it. “You push a sharp point up through the edge of the mouth into its brain,” Lee said, “And then that will turn their brains off and now they are unable to experience pain.” The whole procedure lasted less than one second, and the bird could not feel anything anymore. Lee then cut the artery of the neck to create an exit for the bird’s heart to pump all the blood out. Even though the chicken’s body was still having some sudden movements, those were just the muscle reflexes. The control of its body, the brain, had already been shut off. The whole procedure was finished in two minutes, but I felt like my mind was working hard processing what had just happened, witnessing the death of an animal so closely and so vividly.
In the 21st century, people have become more aware of animal rights and more interested in ethical ways to consume animals. Reducing animals’ pain before cooking them has become a worldwide trend. For example, in early February of 2018, Switzerland issued a new law which made boiling lobster alive illegal because “the classic cooking method is cruel since lobsters can feel pain” (Keay). As the trend became more prevalent, several organizations in Portland started to enter into the meat-processing industry, striving to provide high-quality meats and custom processing service for customers. These organizations hope that their customers can actually see and experience what it’s like to process an animal in order to eat them, instead of just going into a supermarket and buying them; seeing the slaughtering procedure themselves can arouse people’s empathy and therefore make them more cautious in how they will consume meat in the future. Among all of the organizations based in Portland, the Meating Place and PDX Meat Collectives are perhaps the most well-known.
“Portland has more restaurants that will include the source of their ingredients on the menu,” Camas Davis, the founder of PDX Meat Collectives told me when asked about the specialty of Portland’s meat industry. “I really appreciate this advantage,” she said. Her voice was gentle and proud when she talked about the developing meat industry in Portland. Portland Meat Collectives, founded in 2009, is a “hands-on, transparent” butchering and slaughtering school that helps people to use the whole animal without wasting most of the body parts (Davis). Although there are plenty students and local farmers that join this organization, it faces much pressure and difficulties. Once, a group of vegetarians stole away eighteen rabbits that were supposed to be used in the next day’s slaughter class. In the local weekly paper Willamette Week, the responses to Camas’ daily update about this thievery were “not pretty” (Brown). One of the responses commented ironically “I was deeply saddened by your recent loss of 18 rabbits intended for slaughter for your rabbit butchery class. The idea that a room full of smug, pugnacious, privileged, bourgeois would-be urban homesteaders might have been given another opportunity to jeer at some petty inconvenience really burns me” (Brown). Due to different mindsets people have about eating meat, incidents like stealing rabbits or making harsh comments about ethical butchering are inevitable. In order to get a closer look at how local farmers manage their farms and harvest their animals, I decided to visit Wingham Farm.
The car silently drove along Northwest Pongratz Road with dark green trees standing aside until the sign “Wingham Farms: Eggs, Meat, Milk” appeared, with an arrow pointing left. After a fairly steep slope followed by a left turn, a red wooden house with a dark rooftop came into sight. We parked right next to the house while I started to glance around.
Even if I closed my eyes, the smell of this place would perfectly indicate where I was: it was the smell of a mixture of the rain that had just stopped, the sunshine that started to warm up the air and shone through the branches, the dry and settled hay, the moist and vital soil, and most importantly, the farm animals. Two cats, a striped black and grey one lying on the ground and a dove-grey one stretching on the windowsill, both stared at me with curiosity and wagged their tails every now and then. Unlike the pet cats in people’s houses, they showed no surprise, no fear, and no stress towards me—a stranger—as if they were omniscient and therefore already knew I was destined to come visit today. As I stepped out of the car, two fluffy white Maremma sheepdogs, about thirty inches in height, gradually got closer and closer. They were without a doubt the biggest and strongest dogs I’ve ever seen; yet despite their enormous size, they could still move very fast and stay highly vigilant to anyone who stepped on the field. As I walked around the farm and got closer to the ducks and chickens, one of the dogs went inside the barn to notify the owner, and the other one jogged beside me just in case I decided to steal a chicken or two.
After several minutes, the dog came back, leading a man who’s wearing a grey jacket and casual jeans out of the barn. He walked towards me and shook my hand. “Hi I’m Daniel, Daniel Lee.” Lee’s hands were calloused and rigid due to all the farm work, yet the handshake was gentle. He had a smile suitable to his personality: not too dazzling, but full of kindness and sincerity. The two dogs became very excited when they saw Lee, realizing that I was a harmless and welcomed guest, and started jumping and running around. “They are twins,” Lee said, “Remus and Romulus, you know, the twin brothers who were abandoned, raised by a she-wolf and then founded Rome—that’s where their names came from.” Although in the original ancient myth, Romulus kills Remus in anger, in reality, these dogs get along with each other very well and collaborate together to guard the whole farm.
Lee started to show me around his 143-acre-farm by counting the animals living on the farm. “We have two cats and five dogs right now,” he said, “Two of them—Remus and Romulus—are guarding the farm, and the rest are guarding the chickens and are currently in training.” Five dogs, of two different breeds, did different jobs based on their unique characteristics and manners. “We also have five dairy cows that belong to others—we just milk them—20 beef cows, and 25 goats in total,” Lee said, pointing to each barn that the animals lived in. Barns for different animals were distributed unevenly in this 143-acre-area; the cattle barn was closer to the red wooden house I first saw and the goat house was located on the very far end of the farmland, almost on the edge surrounded by the fence. “We don’t own the goats; we have a business relationship with a goat woman,” Lee explained, “the goats live on our farm and she just comes and milks them.”
We climbed on a ramp where the view was broad enough so I could easily see what all the animals were doing. The chickens—running around, chasing each other, flapping and jumping—were the most active animals at Wingham Farm, compared to the calm cattle and the quiet ducks. “Free range,” Lee said, “We don’t confine them in a small chamber the whole time, they can just roam freely on this meadow.” Indeed, the chickens all looked like they were in fine condition under Lee’s care and the dogs’ protection. “They are flock animals, so they like to be together, and they don’t travel very far from where they are,” Lee explained. “Unlike these two dogs who run around the whole farm, the animals like to stay in the same places, so we rotate the pastures because we don’t want them to eat all of one pasture and ruin the grass.”
After the tour, I suggested we could sit down and talk about how Lee usually harvests his animals. Lee joyfully agreed, leading me back to the little red house with the dark rooftop. I looked around, trying to find a place to sit, but Lee had already chosen the perfect seats for both of us: a cooler box for me and an upside-down metal bucket for himself. “Have a seat and you can start asking questions,” Lee said. As we sat down, the stripy black and grey cat, whom I later learned was named “Stormy,” jumped on my lap, lay down, and apparently decided to stay and listen. Daniel taught me how to pet it the way it likes—scratching softly on his neck and tummy—and we started the conversation.
When I asked Lee why it was important for him to slaughter the animals ethically, he said that since we were going to kill them and therefore eat their meat, we should respect their lives. Lee also told me about the Animal Welfare standards. If a farm matches the Animal Welfare approved standard, somebody would actually come and watch whether the farmers slaughtered the animals ethically, so that the animals were not feeling huge amounts of pain. According to United States Department of Agriculture, the USDA, Animal Care inspectors conduct routine, unannounced inspections of all entities licensed or registered under the Animal Welfare Act, which includes different parts of farming activities (“AWA Inspection and Annual Reports”).
One of the most efficient ways that farmers use to test whether the animal can feel pain is the “blinking test”, meaning after they quickly pith the animal and disconnect its brain functioning, they put their fingers quickly close to the animal’s eyes and check whether it blinked. If the animal doesn’t blink, it means that its brain has been destroyed and it won’t feel pain. This method is also used to determine the brain status of a human-being after accidents like car crashes. More interestingly, a research group discovered in 2011 that in the blinking test, although “human subjects exhibited a higher average blink rate than rats, the temporal pattern of spontaneous blinking was qualitatively similar for both species” (Kaminer), which means the brain plays an equally important role in both human bodies and in other animal bodies.
Knowing the importance of turning off the brain first, Lee quickly slaughtered the chicken, plucked it, cleaned its skin up, put it in a transparent plastic bag, and stored it in a big chest freezer. The big chest freezer was in a small warehouse, along with two other chest freezers that were exactly the same size, each stored about thirty packs—all freshly harvested and carefully bagged chickens like the one Lee just packed. Every time when a client comes, Lee is well-prepared and just needs to go to the cabin to grab these finely packaged chickens. Since Lee only performs small amounts of chicken slaughtering every once in a while, the supply of chicken cannot support a big business.
In order to find out what a more commercial chain of ethical slaughtering is like, I decided to visit Andrew Turner, a mobile slaughterer who works for the Meating Place. Founded in 1974, the Meating Place is a butcher shop that provides “high-quality meats and customs processing”. I met Turner outside of the storage & preparation house at the Meating Place.
“He doesn’t look like someone who would kill an animal,” I thought to myself when I first saw Turner. The man ran down the short stairs extended to the ground, wearing a pair of jeans, an indigo T-shirt, and a casual black and white cap. As we sat down and started talking, I noticed that Turner’s eyes were blue, not icy blue like a glacier, but light blue like a cloudless sky or an ocean with warm water. When he smiled, it was even harder to connect him with a slaughterer or a butcher, someone that deals with blood and animal bodies every day.
As a mobile slaughterer, a typical work day for Turner starts with preparing the truck and checking the hooks and ropes he will be using. After making sure everything is secured, Turner then drives to the farm, greets the owner and sees the animals that he will slaughter. “I usually first make sure that they are not scared,” Turner said, “the work will be much harder and more dangerous when they are scared.” Similar to Daniel Lee, Turner talked about how to make sure that the animals don’t feel fear when they are slaughtered. “I usually take the first one, and quickly take the second one, so that the rest will not have enough time to react and therefore won’t be scared,” Turner explained.
He then showed me the inside of the storage & preparation house. There were two freezing rooms in the big house, one for packaged meat and one for hanged whole pigs and cows. Both rooms not only had good air circulation but also were clean and organized. “This is where we store our meat for our customers,” Turner introduced. Packages of meat were weighed, carefully cut into different body parts, wrapped with clean paper or stored in transparent plastic bags. I noticed that they also collected the parts that customers do not want, such as the livers or feet, with a separate plastic barrel. The rest of the packages would wait for their owners, as their names listed on the labels above the meat, to claim.
“When I think about ethical slaughtering,” Lee said, “I think about the animal being helped to be comfortable while they are at the slaughterhouse. When you watch those videos online, and you listen to reports of some of the commercial operations where they chop the head of cows along with tractors, or they use the electric pokers to move them, you can imagine a cow having a difficult time in that.” Lee sighed. He was a little frustrated when talking about the factories, but his sad emotions were totally gone when a goat standing just about two feet away from us started to pee. Lee laughed, picked up a baby goat and put it on his lap, so until the end of the interview, it was a four-creature-conversation: Lee, the cat, the baby goat, and me.
It was probably the most informal place I could think of for an interview, but it happened so smoothly that eventually when I left the farm, I couldn’t think of a better place to embrace the full nature of a farm.
On our way back home, the car silently drove along Northwest Pongratz Road with dark green trees standing alongside again, except the sign of “Wingham Farm” became further and faded out of sight eventually. I couldn’t stop asking myself: What will be the future of meat?
It has been proved that “slower-growing animals have time to develop a deeper flavour, while meat from stressed animals has a more metallic, bitter taste due to the adrenaline that has pumped through them.The idea of ‘ethical slaughtering’ or ‘ethical butchering’ is not completely accepted in our society (Rivera). Therefore, ethically-slaughtered animals have better tastes and even commercial values. In fact, it’s still a long way for people to acknowledge this idea and make their decisions of favoring it or detesting it. Many think that it’s hypocritical; ethical vegans are not people who hate the taste of meat, they don’t eat meat because they can’t “stomach the suffering animals endure before their bodies are carved up for human consumption” (Tatum). In this case, for them, no matter how “ethical” the slaughtering, it still means taking an animal’s life away, which is not acceptable at all. There are also social critics who disagree with how people favor small and individual farms for meat instead of large factories or industries because “as long as consumers continue to eat meat, eggs, and dairy—even if they are sourced from small farms practicing the highest welfare and safety standards—they’re providing an endorsement of the products that big agriculture will always be able to produce more efficiently and cheaply” (McWilliams).
Ethical slaughtering cannot satisfy everyone’s lifestyle, because as individuals, we have every right to decide what the food on our plate is and what kind of diet we have. As a non-vegetarian, I think it’s a responsibility that comes with the choice of eating meat to see where the meat comes from and how it is prepared to go on the plate. By acknowledging and consuming ethically-slaughtered product, people can be mindful of the sacrifice behind their food, while maintaining a non-vegetarian or vegan diet. The farmers and organizations all work for one goal: let people eat without guilt. In our current society, not everyone is familiar with ethical slaughtering, but becoming more empathetic and mindful about our food will be the trend.
Whenever I eat meat or see meat in the supermarket, Lee’s voice starts to play in my head: “What you were seeing just now(the chicken slaughtering) is what makes you an ethical eater and an ethical customer,” he smiled, “When I see you, I see the same fear in myself, which is mainly why I know I should still be in this business. If one day, I don’t have the same feeling, I will lose the empathetic mind and I will just be like the factories.”
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