They saw I had a third sheep with me, one I was just transporting back to its flock.
¨We would take the third one. How much do you want for it?¨
I hesitated, she was the most bad ass little sheep I had.
Dwarfed from birth and too small to ever breed. Her fate had been decided by nature.
Knowing this did not make it any easier in the moment.
¨Same as the others.¨
¨But she is much smaller.¨
I had no response… not one that I would let leave my lips at least.
Her life is just as valuable to me.
I hate USDA regulations. I was willing to do anything to avoid the slaughterhouse.
They consulted each other. ¨we will take all three.¨
We pulled them one by one from the crate, brought them down to the ground and they hog tied them. As they lay on the ground, I could feel how aware they were of what was to come. This is what harvesting an animal looks like when you avoid the ¨cruel and unusual practices¨ of the efficient slaughterhouse system.
As they hog tied each one, I rested my hand on their necks.
Thank you my friend.
I lay awake for weeks wondering if what I had done was truly any better.
It was pouring rain. My partner and I had worked all day in the biggest storm of the year to retrieve these animals. I had known them since they were born.
I had watched over them, fought for their life at times… protected them.
Yet, here I was, in an effort to defy our system, trading their lives for dollar bills.
These were nice people, seemingly as desperate as myself for culture to be returned to the sacred art of harvesting other animals for meat. So desperate that they were willing to take on the heavy task themselves. Yet it was clear to me, that they knew nothing of my sheep. They may as well be buying them cut and packed off a grocery store shelf.
______________________________________________________________________ 10 months later
¨Can I go with you? If I am going to keep talking shit on slaughterhouses, I oughta at least know what I have such a problem with.¨
I rode in his passenger seat to the slaughterhouse. An animal in the trailer being gracefully pulled behind us. We arrived and backed up to a chute. The two men peeked in, ¨You weren´t supposed to be here til tomorrow.”
My friends eyes widened. Shit.
Our worst nightmare as producers is that we fuck up and our animals endure two bad days.
We all have that one bad day. We are not ignorant to this.
But we are also not ignorant to the fact that as producers of meat, we are responsible for making that one bad day as swift and calm as possible.
Many humans in this world are not given as much consideration.
¨Well, lets get him unloaded then.¨
The trailer door swung open, granting the cow access to the chute.
¨Come on now bud.” The men were in no rush, the pace was decided by the four legged here.
He stepped out of the trailer and walked calmly through the chute and down the alley way into a holding pen with other animals.
I was reminded of my own animals. The ones I had not given so much respect as to let them walk into their harvesting day.
There was no cattle prods, no hollering, in fact, there was not even a drop of aggressive energy to be felt in the place.
I agree, don´t get me wrong, that what we eat deserves respect.
My partner does not enjoy his salad each night because he is ignorant to the habitat he is removing when he cuts lettuce, or the soil organisms he is disturbing when he sows his radish seed. He enjoys it knowing it is a gift from mother earth, a sacrifice she makes for us. We are in debt to her for it.
I remember at a young age, shortly after finding out where meat comes from, asking myself who I was eating. Feeling [even as a child] as though meat tasted different, better, when the animal came from a life filled with joy and playfulness. This is why I chose to be a shepherd, to be sure that was the case.
I could not eat the 30 to 40 sheep we harvest each year. Nor would I want to, sharing those joy filled ribs and thighs is a pleasure for the shepherd who works hard to protect her sheep from fear, stress and the predators who would happily harvest them early.
Harvesting of animals is an intense and emotional job. I know this to be true and I have endured the weight far fewer times in my life than the individuals that do it for all of us. I have respect for them and their desire to be swift and skilled in what they do. I have appreciation that my animals are respected, enough that they walk into their fate with their heads held high, getting to experience what every prey animal does at some point in their life.
I understand that USDA regulations can hinder cultural tradition. To anyone standing up for a change to that, please know that I am with you.
But USDA regulation also requires that if you want to harvest an animal yourself, you must live with it. You must know it and be responsible for it, understand it, know the difference between its sickness and its health. While this is not the harvesting tradition of my own buffalo hunting ancestors, it is one that I have come to feel deserves as much respect.
The people who work slaughterhouses for us have spent a lifetime honing these skills so they could save me from the heaviest obligation a producer could choose to bear.
Slaughterhouses are efficient, it is true, but they are also filled with people who believe in what they do. Maybe we should too.
There is so many different approaches to slaughter. We are not limited to the two experiences I chose to share about. There is worse, better and everything in between. I hope you find what feels right to you. Let us be thoughtful and whole minded in our approach to a changed world.