“Do you live with other people?” the girl asks, clutching the gimpy rooster to her chest. She’s about six years old and is missing one of her front teeth.
“No, I live alone.”
“Do your friends come over for dinner sometimes?” The rooster coos and she tilts her face toward his head.
“Yeah. I have a group of close friends, and usually people join me for dinner about three times a week. My parents come over a lot, too.”
“Are your friends coming over tonight?”
“In fact, two of them are.”
“Boy, are they going to be surprised when they see these!” she laughs.
I’m purchasing eight roosters, $30 dollars in total, from her father, Eric, whom I met on the Farm/Garden section of Craigslist. He’d already caged the roosters by the time I arrived, and dons gloves to help me finagle them into the dog kennel wedged into the backseat of my Honda.
“I like to hold them by the feet. Do you have gloves?” Eric asks.
“I usually hold their wings, and no, no, I don’t. I’ll be okay.”
Once all the roosters are secure, Eric repeats, “I like to hold them by their feet. And wear gloves. You can do it however you want, but… I hold their feet and wear gloves. They can be nasty.”
I smile and say a polite, “Thank you,” before handing Eric the money. He rocks back on his heels and glances at his daughters chasing hens in the yard.
“I have to ask…” Eric sucks his lip, wetting it. “Why are you going to all this trouble?”
This is a common question: Why bother? I hear this from people even after I tell them what I’m doing is more humane than slaughterhouses, even after I tell them I feel it’s cleaner, even after I say that the birds I’m able to buy from folks like Eric, who’re just raising chickens for eggs or backyard hobby flocks, are totally different than the mass-produced chickens that come from factory farms, have their beaks cauterized as chicks, and are blinded by ammonia burns from living with the stench of their own feces.
I can say, over and over, that I do not believe in the wasteful attitude and environmental degradation of mainstream meat production, and people still ask: Why’re you going to all this trouble? As if I hadn’t given them more than enough reasons already. Occasionally, I resort to telling them that it’s cheaper to do it myself, and I hate that this reason is usually the one that stops the questions. These roosters are going for $3.75 each, and instead of getting a cleaned carcass, I’m going to get all the skin, blood, and guts, most of which can be eaten by me or my dog.
Those are the reasons I give, but here’s the crux of it, the big motivation that would baffle the skeptics if I uttered it aloud: I’ve been trying to redefine my boundaries.
I need to work on boundaries, both setting them for myself and with others, and I need to stick to them, hard and fast. This is one that I care about, have defined for myself, and believe in. My thoughts on the subject: I am willing to eat meat, but I am unwilling to participate in the mainstream meat industry, and I do not want to eat anything that hasn’t been slaughtered respectfully. As an assurance that I act in line with what I believe is right, I only consume animals that I kill. The poultry I purchase or pick up for free are mostly from small, backyard flocks.
I tell Eric, “I used to be vegetarian and now, I just prefer to do it myself.”
By the time Aaron and Seth get to my house, it’s around 8:30 p.m. From where Aaron and I are standing in the driveway, you can see the Christmas lights in my yard glowing soft orange. As supplemental illumination, I’ve suspended a droplight from the overhanging roof.
“The guy I bought the roosters from kept telling me how to hold them,” I say to Aaron as we lean against the car. “It wasn’t a big deal, but it bugged me.”
“How’d he say to do it?” Aaron asks.
“He suggested I wear gloves, and he said I should hold them by their feet and dangle them upside-down.” I open the car door and begin to jimmy free the wire-mesh door of the dog kennel. It sticks. Inside, the roosters begin to chorus softly: burrrp, burrrp, burrrrrp.
“That’s how you’re supposed to hold them. That’s what we did in Chicken Lab.”
Chicken Lab is a class Aaron took in college where they injected chickens with a heavy sedative, autopsied them while they were still alive, then euthanized the birds with a second injection. Since I started slaughtering my own food about eight months ago, I’ve heard a lot about Chicken Lab and, frankly, I just don’t care anymore.
When I brought home three ducks a few weeks back, Aaron asked if he could help. I said no because I wanted to do it alone, but I couldn’t refrain from popping the question: “Do you think you could kill a bird?” When he responded with an assured, “I’ve already done it,” I let the subject drop.
I prefer to do it alone because I believe that slaughtering an animal should take all of your attention and shouldn’t be about ego. The whole process is both incredibly tender and startlingly brutal: I coo to the birds, massage them until they’re comfortable, then slit their throats. I was worried that if someone else was watching, I’d be more concerned with what they were thinking than how they chicken was feeling. So for eight months, I held off on bystanders.
The kennel door opens, and the roosters regard me warily, heads rotating.
“Well, that’s not how I hold them,” I say. “You can hold them however you like, but I’m going to hold them close to my body.” I reach into the car and grope for a rooster, thinking this action will translate to the fact that the conversation is over, though it doesn’t.
“But it relaxes them when you dangle them from their feet,” Aaron says. I emerge with a rooster held close to my chest with my arm and forearm.
“That’s not how I do it. They relax when I hold them like this, too.” Because this is not a negotiation, I don’t point out that the upside-down method stuns the birds more than it relaxes them and that if you hold them that way long enough, the pressure their organs puts on their lungs will cause them to suffocate. “You can hold them however you want,” I tell Aaron.
To me, this is the essence of autonomy: having the power and self-direction to make your own decisions about what is right. And yeah, I know that deciding how to hold a rooster isn’t the end-all-be-all of personal agency, but it’s a start. By the way, another boundary that I’m upholding is not performing any action that I personally do not agree with, especially when I’d only be doing so to appease others.
The reason I need to redefine my boundaries and commit myself to them is because I recently lost them all. I gave away my autonomy to a guy. I moved into a house I found on Craigslist where he was already living, and several weeks later we began dating. I can’t say why I gave him so much. At the onset of our relationship I was lonely, unhappy with myself, had just suffered a bad breakup, was having trouble with my family, and in the wake of all that, I suddenly started wanting to do things that he’d want me to do instead of wanting to do things that I’d want to do.
I began wearing things that would turn him on, stopped caring about standards I once held because he didn’t harbor them, and began neglecting my friends to spend time with him. I stopped believing things I knew were right, gave up vegetarianism, and bought into false correlations just because he said them. When he beat up two guys in San Francisco for harassing me, I believed him when he said he it was protection, even though I knew those drunk men didn’t deserve the broken hand and dislocated shoulder he dealt them, and that he could’ve probably kept me safe without violence. When he chased the dog through the house with a stick, I didn’t push him when he said he had to hit her to make her learn. When I swam in the Pacific at midnight and didn’t get attacked by sharks or carried out by a rip tide, I believed he—standing there with a life jacket and throw bag—was the reason why. When I asked him to teach me joint manipulation and he bent my wrist back and dragged me across the backyard while I screamed, I let him off the hook because he laughed and said, “This is how you learn.” I believed him when he asserted the drugs we were doing were no more harmful than a glass of wine with dinner even though that’s straight bullshit and I knew it—I just couldn’t bring myself to care.
I let my boundaries, my values, and my limits all go because I wanted to be who he wanted me to be—that girl was fun, sexy, and brazen. She wasn’t lonely, unloved, and unimportant, which is how I’d been feeling before I met him.
I walk toward Seth in the backyard with the rooster clutched to my side, letting Aaron follow. I squat on a stump. My arms and hands are bare, and I have the rooster, which is already growing spurs, pinned between my legs, his head at my knees, his body pressed down by my abdomen. I start massaging the bird’s chest with one hand and hold his head with the other. I tap his throat with a free finger. I focus on breathing regularly while I wait for him to close his eyes. There’s a Tupperware container at my feet to catch the blood.
“It’s calm,” Seth says.
“Yeah,” Aaron agrees, “because it’s upside-down.”
If I didn’t think it would interrupt my quasi-meditative repose and thus disturb the bird in my lap, I would tell Aaron flat-out to suck it. False correlation. The rooster’s calm because I’m calm. Damn thing’s not even upside-down. I realize this is an overreaction, but I’m sick of people telling me what to do. Hold it this way. Wear gloves. Wait in the car. Smoke this. Snort that. Now that I’ve left my ex, stolen the dog he was abusing, live on my own, and spend lots of mental energy trying to find my rightful place in the world, all I want is the space and respect necessary to figure out what I think I should be doing and how I think I should be doing it. At base, this isn’t asking a lot. On the other hand, it’s asking everything.
Instead of telling Aaron off, I try to dig down into some deeper Zen, and remind myself that respect is a two-way street: I need to give him space, too. His opinions are just as valuable as mine. And if I don’t want to debate a point, I can’t start harping on it.
I take a deep breath and Seth hands me my knife. I tap it against the rooster’s throat. Once he eases into the sensation, I slice. His neck bleeds. They watch. The bird dies and I pull off the head and hang the body by its feet on a length of P-cord in a corner of my small yard, then rinse my hands and retrieve another bird from the car. I slaughter the second rooster and he dies before Seth or Aaron realize it.
“Is that all?” Seth asks.
“Yeah, that’s all,” I say, trying to temper my pride. It’s important to want to kill animals in the most seamless way possible for their sakes, not because I want to prove myself or my method. I think pride is a misplaced emotion in this context; relief is much more humane.
I kill the third rooster, then the fourth. There’s blood under my fingernails and Seth shudders at the way the knife draws it, but I appreciate this situation. This, I remind myself, is what eating meat requires. Animals must die in order for us to devour them. The boundary I have surrounding my personal consumption of meat is important because, in addition to the ramifications for animals and society, it reminds me what is real. It draws me back to the truth that looms behind packages of processed hot dogs, hamburger patties that look like hockey pucks, and plastic-wrapped chicken breasts.
I don’t think that anyone would flat-out support the mistreatment of animals, but when we buy meat purchased in cellophane and Styrofoam, we’re voting with our dollar. We’re saying our dietary preference is more important than another being’s welfare. And in some ways, maybe that’s not so horrible: maybe our need, perceived or actual, to consume meat is more important than the life of a chicken or a cow or a pig. Maybe. But no matter what, the way industry treats animals seems unnecessary. Take Eric’s roosters, for example. They grew up running free outside with a pack of scaly-legged ladies. I saw their coop when I pulled into the driveway: it was expansive. Eric’s daughter hand-fed the roosters as chicks, then doted over them while they grew. They foraged for bugs, dust-bathed in the dirt, pecked for roots in the garden, and harassed the chickens with their doting male behavior.
Alternatively, even organic, cage-free chickens raised for eggs aren’t necessarily allowed outside. One morning when I was still contemplating killing a chicken for the first time, I called Willie Jarvis, general manager for a farm that provides eggs to the national brand Horizon Foods. “The chickens do not go outside,” he told me. Apparently, no cage-free, organic chickens that lay eggs for Horizon are allowed outside. Ever. “Free-range products are hard to find,” Jarvis said. “We don’t sell any free-range products because it just costs too much.” He assured me that “some light” comes in through slits in the side of the hen house.
When it’s time to kill the fifth rooster, Aaron says he wants to try. He takes my position on the log and holds the rooster the way I’ve demonstrated. I kneel in front of him and massage the rooster’s chest. Slowly, it falls asleep, and I hand Aaron his knife.
He keeps rotating the knife in his hand, trying different angles. After holding the bird for ten or 15 minutes, the blade never comes within two inches of the rooster’s neck.
“Well,” he drops the word flatly. “At least I know I’m human.”
I have blood on my pants, my hands, and even a small, accidental smear across my cheek. Even though I smell like death, I am uncomfortable with the idea that humanness more readily is predicated on ignorance than participation.
In slaughterhouses, chickens are often hung upside-down by their feet on a conveyer, dipped in cold saltwater that electrocutes and stuns them (although, sometimes the stunning doesn’t work). They are then dangled through a series of whizzing blades meant to slice their necks. The blades do miss. The chickens are scalded in hot water so the feathers come free when they’re tossed into a tumbler. America churns out approximately 80 million “red birds” annually, so named for the way their blood tints the meat after being scalded alive. Their carcasses are thrown away, unsightly and unsellable.
Whenever I kill something, I sit with it and calm it down. I massage the birds until they go totally limp and trusting. I tap my finger to their neck to accustom them to the motion so when I tap the knife to their neck looking for the perfect spot, the blade doesn’t shock them. Then I cut their necks quickly and decisively, deeply, and keep them immobilized while they bleed. If I am going to eat flesh, this is how it will be slaughtered. I think this sense of responsibility and honesty is what connects me to my humanity—it is not proof of my separation from it.
Aaron tries and tries again but does not cut the rooster’s neck. He cannot bring the blade to its throat.
“I can’t. Gina?”
“You hold him. He’s relaxed,” I say. I reach for Aaron’s knife.
I try to make a cut with Aaron’s knife, but it’s too dull. A feather is sliced, but it doesn’t pass through the skin. The rooster doesn’t shudder.
“This isn’t going to work. Seth? Can I have my knife?”
Seth hands me the knife. I look Aaron in the eyes.
“Ready?” I ask. He nods. I draw the knife over the rooster’s neck and it cuts. Blood runs over my hands, over Aaron’s hands, and I realize that I never told him what hot blood feels like. In Chicken Lab, Aaron wore gloves and used sedatives.
“I’m going to cut the other side,” I say. “Hold him,” but in that same instant, Aaron lets the rooster’s head go. He flaps. Blood misses the bucket, spurts, and the bird is on the ground kicking, one of Aaron’s bloody hands clasping the rooster against the stump. He’s somewhat pinned, but nowhere near immobilized.
“Hold it,” I repeat. “Hold it.” Without realizing, I’ve lapsed into calling the rooster “it” instead of “him.” The bird kicks a leg and hits me in the mouth with its claw. I drop the knife, push one of Aaron’s hands out of the way, and use both of mine to secure the rooster.
This is too much of a struggle. There will be no calming this bird, no easy exhale. The knife is in the dirt. Haste is the most compassionate tool at our disposal and I know what has to happen.
“I’m going to break its neck and take the head off,” I say, my voice strong and steady as I can make it, one hand already clamped under the beak. “Can you hold it?”
“Okay. Yes,” Aaron says.
In one motion I snap the bird’s head backwards, sever the spine, twist my hand, and pull off the head. I exhale, throw the head into the waste bucket, and take the bird from Aaron.
The rooster continues to fight. I tilt him so the remaining splatters of blood drip into the Tupperware. His legs kick, body quivers, and heart pulses so hard it feels like it’ll break skin. The wings try to extend against my hands—it takes my knees around the body, abdomen leaned onto it, one hand on his neck, and the other on his shoulders to secure the bird.
“I read online,” I say as the rooster kicks wildly, feet the only body part not totally immobilized, “that chickens have two nervous systems. One that works when they’re alive, and another that runs after they die. This,” I tell Aaron and Seth, “is just a normal nervous system response.”
I did read that online, but I don’t know if it’s true. I’m saying it for their peace of mind, not to placate them, but to protect them. The truth is, slaughter’s tough. Aaron and Seth both eat meat. The point of doing it myself is to avoid situations like this, which can be more common and insidious in slaughterhouses. Although there’s a big gap between my backyard and a slaughterhouse, the middle ground is still a hard place to be.
“The bird is dead,” I tell them. “The head is off.” Muscles are convulsing. I make it a point to breathe, to feel myself where I sit. “This,” I repeat, looking to Aaron who’s looking at the blood on the ground, “is just a normal nervous system response.”
Although I’m trying to make this easier for my friends to witness, I’m usually the first one to say that eating meat should make people uncomfortable.
Discomfort lets us know that we’re in a situation we don’t want to be in, or doing something we don’t agree with. My justification for eating meat is the way I do it, and I like that boundary. I find it authentic and moral. I enjoy getting chickens that were raised as pets and have stopped laying eggs or roosters that grew up in backyard flocks. Where I live there are strict zoning codes against roosters, and people often thank me when I take their unwanted birds. “Here,” one woman said suddenly while we stood in her kitchen chatting about how neither of us agrees with chicken sexing, a process by which the egg industry separates male chicks from female chicks shortly after they hatch (the male chicks are useless and thus discarded, often live into a grinder). “Take these, too.” I’d just met her when I showed up at her house to collect her rooster, but she handed me a half-dozen duck eggs.
“Are you sure?” I asked. Her pit bull whined and nuzzled its head between my knees. The rooster was in a cardboard box on the counter beside us.
“Yes, I’m sure. My boyfriend and I really appreciate you picking him up.” She told me they didn’t want to buy store-bought eggs for ethical reasons, and that she liked having chickens and ducks around. The rooster I took home that day was a natural product of not sexing.
Those interactions, the ones where I leave with eggs, apples, or gifted bouquets of kale simply for taking a bird—a pet—someone can’t keep but doesn’t have the heart to dispose of, don’t make eating meat feel uncomfortable.
I was uncomfortable every time my friends or family interacted with my ex-boyfriend. I knew he wasn’t good for me, and although everybody else knew it too, I wasn’t willing to admit that fact out loud.
He was 30; I was 22. He was unemployed; I was working full-time and putting myself through a master’s program. He introduced me to new drugs, new habits, and new people, none of which I personally identified with, but I stayed that course.
So when my parents or friends were around him, I was startlingly uncomfortable—making excuses, pardoning myself from the table, trying to rush out as soon as possible—because I saw what a bad choice he was in the apprehensive looks they cast our way. It was a truth I didn’t want to catch myself recognizing.
Eventually I was forced to face my mistake, but I didn’t leave him until I was pretty sure he was going to kill his dog and more than halfway sure he was going to kill me. One morning at 5 a.m., without any warning, I packed up my stuff while he slept. I knew I was leaving about 36 hours before I did. My mass exodus felt as well orchestrated as a moon launch, but in reality it was tantamount to a free-fall.
I’m proud of the autonomy leaving required, but I’m not proud of all the discomfort I weathered before I got to that point. Being uncomfortable, I now understand, is a good invitation to look inward and check our personal thermostat. Not everyone needs such an extreme lesson, but I did.
I don’t ask Aaron if he wants to try again with another rooster. While I hang the bird with the others, I catch him staring at his bloody hands. I know he’s uncomfortable, and I touch his knee to ease it. I leave a blood streak, but he’s already filthy.
“There are worse things that happen to chickens,” I remind him gently, even though that is not necessarily the most positive justification. But I think it will help.
I kill the sixth bird, and Seth takes the seventh in his hands.
“Is this a good angle?” he asks, holding the bird against his knees, like Aaron and I did, tilting a knife against the animal’s throat.
“Yeah, that looks good. Do you see the ear? You can feel just below that where the jaw is, and cut under there.”
“Like this?” Seth mimes cutting the neck. The rooster remains motionless.
“Yes. When you’re ready. Don’t worry too much about clearing all the feathers out of the way first, the knife’ll cut through those too.”
Seth cuts the neck. The rooster twitches, and Seth holds him steady.
“Is that deep enough?” Blood runs down Seth’s fingers and into the bowl.
“It is,” I tell him.
We talk while the rooster bleeds out. After this, there’s one more, which I kill while a pot of water reheats on the outdoor stove. We dunk the roosters one by one, holding both legs, and the scalding water loosens their feathers for plucking.
Seth, Aaron, and I line up before the roosters steaming from heat and pull their feathers free. Water flicks from the carcasses and our hands, onto each other.
“This smells lovely,” Seth says.
“Keep your mouth closed,” Aaron tells him. “Gina’s splashing over there.”
I eviscerate all the roosters myself. I begin while Aaron and Seth finish plucking, and continue while they take handfuls of dirty rags inside and stash containers of blood in the fridge. Neither Seth nor Aaron wants to cut into a dead rooster or learn how: it’s late and we’re all tired and hungry. The pads of my fingers become soft from the amount of time they spend inside rooster carcasses, pulling free hearts and livers for the soup pot and scraping out lungs with the backs of my fingernails. When the roosters are all finally bagged and in the fridge, Aaron takes a shower, Seth rests at the table, and I unplug the droplight and make a large batch of coconut milk hot chocolate and warm several cookies (made with blood instead of eggs) in the oven.
It is a powerful feeling, having all that meat in my fridge. Once it cures, I’ll spend an entire day making and canning soup and vacuum sealing whole thighs, breast meat, and wings. I’ll save meat to eat with friends and family on the evening of my graduation from grad school, meat to share with friends during a vacation we’ll take together, meat to have with just my parents, and a special vacuum-sealed rooster thigh for a truly sweet and gentle man whom I’ve been developing feelings for.
Being able to share all that food is the reification of my abstract ideals, ones I set myself. It secures the idea that I do not need to participate in the mainstream meat industry to actually eat meat, and that slaughter can be done on my own, the way I see fit. It’s also a way of telling myself: I’ve got this—this whole developing-toward-being-more-self-directed thing, I’ve totally, full-on, no-questions-asked got this.
Gina Warren is a Ph.D. student at the University of Louisiana, Lafayette. Her work has appeared in several publications including Orion, Bacopa Literary Review, and Creative Nonfiction. She received her MFA from the Northwest Institute of Literary Arts in 2014.