Apparently, the next phase of the local food movement entails the slaughter and butcher of local animals. In this essay, I have tried to capture what that means as I witnessed the slaughter of three goats on a local farm in southwestern Michigan.
It was different this morning. The overcast December sky hinted of snow to come. The hayrack was empty. The trough held no grain. Even the heated water bucket next to the pen gate had not been filled.
The tools were different. An array of special knives lay on a clean white towel with each fabricated in surgical stainless steel for a specific task. Some longer and very narrow. Some wider. Others short with a slight curve. The ivory-handled knife was special: it was longer and wider than the others but it, too, was honed to razor sharpness. Its specific design, based on millennia of halal and kosher practice, was to administer slaughter that was humane, quick, and painless. The knife was wrapped and tied in a wide clean cotton cloth and only exposed for the task to come.
The silence in the barn was both hallowed and deafening. A solitary figure quietly stroked the tranquil, pregnant goat does and their spirited “girl” kids. He made sure their feed bins were full and their water fresh and unfrozen. Yesterday, he had changed the bedding in the birthing stalls with fresh, crisp straw, just as he had eight months before when the “boys” and the “girls” were born. Gender would again mark the fate for each of them on this gray morning.
The guinea hens were locked in the poultry house up the hill and far away from the buck pen. They were still yakking away and getting used to their extra space since the 40-some ducks left the farm a few days before. Only the three nosy turkeys kept vigil albeit a short, cautious distance away from “the area.”
A faded black and yellow rope with a hooked latch on one end had lain limp and out of sight until today when it was placed around the neck of a young and furry black and white buckling. He was first in line this time when the farmer called the “boys” to the gate. The buckling thought he had cleverly outrun his brothers. Unlike most goats who are skittish around people, these goats had been “handled” from birth, so they welcomed the farmer in their usual, frolicsome way, pushing each other away to be first. Typically, the farmer talked to them in cheerful and hearty tones accompanied by a brushing. But not today. He could manage only soft words and a gentle stroking.
The Black ‘n White probably thought he had been singled out for some new adventure when he was led outside the pen. The last time he went past the gate was a month or two ago when his father, Leonidas, with uncanny dexterity picked the chain latch and escaped the confinement of their pen. The buckling and his eight brothers then did what goats love to do: kick up their heels in a capricious dance of unbridled freedom and joy as though they were getting away with something. It’s no wonder why goats are associated with the zodiac sign of Capricorn or with the word, caprice, or with the musical term, capriccioso, meaning fantastic in style.
So this time the Black ‘n White pranced proudly as he was led to “the area.” Then the farmer then did something strange. He faced the young goat north and straddled him as he gently talked to him. He placed his gloved hand beneath the jaw of the goat and massaged it. In his right hand and behind his right leg out of view he held the special ivory-handled knife and waited for the goat to come to a calm, quiet place within. Then he loosened the rope. As the young buck slowly glanced to his left the farmer delicately lifted its head upward and in one rehearsed, instantaneous and smooth-flowing movement, the long, ivory-handled knife came across he buckling’s throat. And it was done.
Rich, red blood gushed out as the goat lurched forward. His body arced eastward and left little red droplets on the snow. Suddenly, he fell and convulsed on the ground a few seconds more until his body stilled from his head all the way down to the last frisky wags of his tail.
Actually, the Black ‘n White died instantly when the knife sliced his jugular vein and carotid arteries. The movement of his body was a bundle of reflexive spasms until his muscles, starved for life-giving blood and neural messages, ceased to function.
Pompadour-Boy, the brown goat with the blond hair spilling out from the top of his head like a waterfall, was next. He came to the gate when the farmer called and proudly swaggered out of the pen. He didn’t notice his brother’s carcass on the ground when they passed it.
Then he, too, was stopped in “the area,” faced north and straddled. As he took a calm breath, the black and yellow rope was loosened from his neck and the fatal swipe instantly downed him. He jumped away in an arc just like his brother, only in the opposite direction, and he, too, left tiny red droplets in the snow. As he lay on his side most of his body’s blood oozed. The tip of his tongue stuck out between his teeth, and his eyes remained open and glazed.
The third and last buckling didn’t come to the gate when he was called. Instead, he stayed in the furthest corner of the pen cavorting with the does and doelings who were in the barnyard next to the buck pen.
This sort of interaction had gone on between the “boys” and “girls” since the summer when the does went into heat. Bucklings display mating behavior early on and at just four months old they can impregnate a mature doe. To attract the “ladies,” a raring-to-go buck sticks out his tongue and groans with desire. He also sprays his urine on his face and beard as well as any passing targets including other bucks or persons. Scent glands on his head also produce the distinct “buck smell” during mating season. This penetrating odor of ripe buck and aging urine acts as an aphrodisiac for the does and is the main reason many people are disgusted by goat bucks.
When the does are in heat, they tend to hang around the bucks rather than ignore them as they usually do. Such behavior signals the farmer that they are ready to mate.
Sometimes a farmer keeps a castrated buck, called a wether, with the does as another way of knowing if the does are in heat. In this herd, that job fell to Lil’ Man, the long pointed-eared buckling that was somehow conceived by Tiger, a French alpine goat, through a woven wire fence with electrified wire off-sets. Such is the power of caprine desire!
So when the faded black and yellow rope was placed around the third and last buckling’s neck, he resisted. After all, showing off to the “girls” was his purpose in life. On the other hand, did he intuit his fate? Even leaving the pen apparently had no attraction for him as it had his brothers, so he struggled and resisted even as the farmer straddled him in “the area.”
“C’mon, my sweet boy,” pleaded the farmer.
After a few moments the goat finally calmed down and it was done.
This last cut was the cleanest one of all and the goat spasmed backward equidistant between his brothers. His resting place formed a perfect downward-facing triangle in relation to the other two carcasses and his arced droplets of blood completed a kind of trefoil.
At this point, I realized I had witnessed a sacred event but it took some time, research and reflection to understand it.
Three is a sacred number in most cultures and religions. In Christianity, for example, the number signifies the Holy Trinity and is sometimes represented as a triangle. An upward-facing triangle symbolizes fire or “the aspiration of all things towards the higher unity,” according to Cirlot’s Dictionary of Symbols (1962). A downward-facing triangle symbolizes water. These goats lay in a downward-facing triangle.
The trefoil is an ancient and basic ideogram for a high spiritual dignity going back 5,000 years. It is a common design in Gothic church architecture often used in masonry or windows as a sign of entry. In this, my first witness of animal slaughter, you might say that I had just been “baptized” into Nature’s sacred mystery called the “circle of life.”
As the top of the food chain, human beings eat animals like goats no matter how cute and furry they are. In this way, the animals “sacrifice” their lives so that humans might live.
Grocery stores camouflage this fact by presenting meat that is impossible to recognize as an animal, says food guru Michael Pollock. It is an example of how modern Americans have disconnected themselves from Nature and its ways. So, how can people understand what the animals sacrifice if they’ve never seen them alive or don’t know how meat gets to their table? And, how can people be thankful for their food if they don’t know what it takes to get it? A truly modern, urban dilemma!
However, I wasn’t thinking about these things that day. I was distressed, speechless and unable to know exactly how to react to what I had just seen.
I had known the “boys” as members of the farm. I had petted them and watched them romp in their pen as they jumped on top of each other, danced on their plastic shelters or raced each other to feed on their daily portions of milk and hay.
When I first arrived on the farm, the “boys” were only a few weeks old. As I approached the pen, their natural curiosity and herd instinct drew them all toward me. They nudged me with their noses begging me to pet them and I gladly obliged. Their soft fur and playfulness reminded me of my cat, and I felt an instant connection to them.
Petting the goats wasn’t my only pleasure. Since the garden was near their pen, the tedium of pulling weeds in the hot sun was delightfully minimized by the bucklings’ occasional bleats. Sometimes I’d answer them and we’d have our own little call-and-response jam session.
Since the day of the bucklings’ births, the farmer knew he would process them for meat and he wasn’t happy about it even though he and his wife would have meat for a year. He euphemized their fate by calling it “freezer camp,” as if to prepare himself for this day.
What made it especially difficult for him in slaughtering the goats was that he took such great care with them when they were born. One he had to resuscitate because it wasn’t breathing. Another was a breach birth and he had to go inside the doe up to his elbows to turn the kid properly in order to help its birthing.
Since bucks are typically used for meat, the farmer felt a keen sense of responsibility to give them a good life on pasture and in the sun throughout their short lives. He called it “good stewardship,” and “responsible animal husbandry.” Meanwhile, the bucklings were prepared for this “one very different day” early in their lives through stroking and handling. The farmer also practiced his use of the knife so that the animal would not see the blade as well as to ensure that the cut was swift and accurate.
I helped transport each of the three bodies in a wheelbarrow and took them to a room in the barn where they were processed. The room was decidedly different from my previous experience of it. I never noticed the pulleys on the ceiling. And, the small table with the knives resting on it, I’d never seen before.
The hind legs of the slaughtered bucklings are spread apart and attached to a gambrel (a two-foot-long steel bar with crimped ends) through the gap between their ankle and Achilles tendons. The gambrel is then hoisted to the ceiling with the pulleys. This arrangement provides better control during eviseration and skinning. Hanging the head downward also facilitates complete bleeding, which vastly improves the quality of the meat.
While in this state, the beauty of the goats’ fine coats is more apparent. But that doesn’t make it any easier to look at them, especially since their open throats still bear a very rich red color. A closer look reveals their severed jugular vein, carotid arteries and trachea that made the difference between life and death in one short instant.
Seeing the bodies hang also makes it plain for me to understand how precious—and fragile—life really is. Less than an hour ago these goats were fully alive! But that is another point. These bodies are no longer goats; they have become carcasses. This transformation causes me to relate to them differently—and quite unexpectedly.
The first cuts of the carcass begin at the anus, which is tied off to avoid the spillage of feces that wasn’t eliminated in the goat pen when the goat was alive or during the body’s last muscle spasms as it lay on the ground. The bladder is also tied off for the same reason. The fur is been brushed off and rinsed from any mud or dirt.
The carcass is still warm since the heat from its former self was between 101.5 to 103.5 F. Steam pours out of it when its opened chest meets the cold air.
The hide is carefully sliced with a special short curve-bladed knife down the center of each hind leg to above the scrotum. The scrotal sac and testicles are removed and dropped into the ten-gallon tub on the floor below the carcass. The knife then goes down the middle of the chest, always cutting outward to prevent any hair from touching the meat or penetrating the peritoneum sac that contains the organs. At this point, I saw what for me was a new and curious world of the inner body.
The lungs are clear and pink without blemish. The intestines are translucent as is the colon so it’s easy to see how the tiny round fecal pellets were eliminated. The heart is encased in the pericardium to protect it. How small it is given the work it did to pump blood throughout the goat’s 90-pound body!
Small globs of fat surround the organs but there aren’t many of them. These carcasses are lean and clean because the goats grazed on grass and hay and they drank the does’ milk. This diet will make the meat (yet another transformation) tender and tasty when it is cooked.
All of the internal organs are encased in a sac lining of the abdominal cavity called the peritoneum and great care is taken to avoid puncturing it. Instead, the peritoneum sac attachments are carefully severed so that the organs all come out at once and slowly fall into the tub below. The offal is later buried in the earth where it will decompose.
It takes more time to cut through the peritoneum sac if you want to remove the liver and heart, which make for good eating. Actually, internal organs are healthier to eat than the outer walls of the carcass, the skin and muscle, because they are nutrient dense. Most predators eat only their prey’s internal organs or they eat them first before consuming the rest of the body.
A final rinsing of the carcass with water releases the leftover blood and the clinging fat globs. Most of the goats’ blood was spilled on the earth after they expired so there was little of it dripping on the floor.
After evisceration, the three carcasses hang in silence. The ribs glisten in the low light. The heads are limp since they are still connected to the backbone. The eyes remain open. A clean stick is placed within the chest cavity to help cool the carcass.
On the next day a professional meat processor will skin the carcasses and hang them for aging. Then he will divide the meat into smaller packages for the freezer. Later, the meat would be put into an oven or roasting pit and provide a fine meal (yet another transformation) that will nourish and satisfy the farmer and his wife who always say a little prayer of gratitude for the goat who gave his life for them.
Each year, millions of animals are slaughtered and butchered for the meat we eat at our dinner tables, but the way we raise and process them in America today is so contrary to the care and sacred treatment of the animals that I witnessed on this day.
Those animals typically live in crowded feedlots. They are fattened up with grain (not grass, their natural food), injected with antibiotics, shipped to stockyards on fast-moving trucks and killed in noisy, scary slaughterhouses. They are regarded merely as commodities and the profits they command. They are stressed, uncomfortable and usually sick—and humans eat that, too.
These realities didn’t dawn on me before I witnessed the slaughter of the goats. In fact, I was completely oblivious to them. Like most people, I merely took the meat I bought at the grocery store for granted, and of course, didn’t connect it to animals even though I knew intellectually that that’s where it came from.
The Native Americans knew how to relate spiritually to the buffalo they ate. Before they killed it, they thanked the animal for its sacrifice and cried over the loss of its life. Now I understand why. I felt this same way on this cold, wintry day.
My work on this small farm has allowed me to develop a new relationship with food through the time and muscle I expend to milk a goat, grow vegetables or clean the barn. This work all requires care, patience and responsibility. That’s why grace is said before meals, a practice whose purpose had become so routine and so disconnected from the growing or raising of food that it didn’t make any sense to me.
The three slaughtered boy-goats introduced me to a more spiritual way of relating to food. That’s what the trefoil meant: I had entered it and discovered the divinity of Nature.
And, my overwhelming response was sadness but gratefulness to the animals who gave their lives for the humans who would eat them. That is the greatest respect I can show them—and it has changed my life as a result.