Tuesday, July 10, 2012

A Lesson in Remorse

I feel a twinge of remorse every time I kill something, whether large or small. I regret when I bisect a worm in the garden, not simply for the sake of the garden, but for the sake of the worm. I imagine his name was Sven. Even mice, which eat and poop and are generally a nuisance. The snap of a trap leaves me feeling a little sad and a little guilty. The slitting of a chicken’s throat definitely qualifies.  This twinge is healthy. It is what separates us from serial killers, sociopaths, and members of the mustelid family.
Hopefully it’s not the only thing.

Our 5 meat birds met their demise this week. It was our first home slaughter, so Shane and I watched videos and did our research, but in the end we looked at each other over our coffee and took a deep breath. “Are you ready?” hung in the air. “Oh well” was the assumed response. So we silently finished the dregs of our coffee, put on our rubber gloves and got down to it. We estimate it took us a half an hour per chicken, from field to fridge. Not bad, I suppose, for our first time. 

The pullets (soon to be layers…we hope) seemed particularly curious about the preparations, even callous. The meat birds were bullies, after all. The whole flock, being rather small, hung together, so perhaps their response was more of relief than anything. They certainly don’t seem to be pining away since. Rather they cluck and scratch and explore with what seems to be renewed vigor. Perhaps I’m over anthropomorphizing a bit, but that's half the fun of it! Regardless, Jackson (our half black, half white rooster) is beginning to crow. He sounds exactly like a 14 year old boy with a crush on the pretty girl in class. 
Her name is Blondie and she’s a white-crested black polish. Very stylish. Brownie, our golden polish, is slightly odd, but the two of them have always been friends. We're still not sure if she can see through all those feathers. Cleo, our Egyptian Fayoumis, is too shy to hang with the group, but her looks are impeccable.  Clearly she’s very particular.
The two bantys, Princess and Thumbelina (no idea what breed) have their own clique and they sometimes allow Boots to hang, but Boots is so neurotic she can’t quite settle down to anything.

Jail Bird
 Jail Bird is our barred rock and she really does her own thing. Being a little butch, she hangs with Jackson if she hangs with anyone. She’s by far the largest. They are all lovely, though, and come running out when I bring garden scraps, only to flee in terror when I toss them into the yard for closer inspection. They have recently discovered the carnivorous delights of Japanese beetles, much to the relief of my bean plants. Silly chickies.

As far as the slaughter goes, catching the birds is the first step, and we took advantage of their genetic desire for food by withholding it for 12 hours prior to slaughter. This had the desired effect of bringing the whole flock running every time we scattered a little grain. Once caught, we held them upside down until they became docile and then put them in our improvised milk jug/slaughter cone. I held the birds by their feet and kept a firm grip on the jug. Shane found the jugular and slit it quickly and cleanly with an exacto knife, then stabbed up into the brain to reduce any possible suffering of the bird. I will admit I was unprepared for how strongly they struggle to stay alive. Despite being brain dead and doomed, the body still struggles and fights to remain whole. The strength of desperation was such that I was completely blood spattered by the end.  My hands were too occupied to wipe myself clean, so I stood my ground like a piece of Chris Burden performance art. Grip.

The final “death roll” takes a surprisingly long 60 seconds of seizing muscles and frantically pumping heart before the blood has drained and the body gone limp. I held on for dear life. So did they. By comparison, the job of plucking was much easier than expected, both physically and emotionally. There is such contrast between a living thing and a dead thing that they almost seem unrelated. For the most part the feathers pulled right out after the bird was scalded. The remainders were burned off over our cedar shingle fire. Then came the evisceration. Shane was the eviscerator, and felt as grim as the name sounds. Thankfully not quite on the same level as Dexter, but he played his serial killer role with grace and respect. His kitchen skills yielded us a 4 gallon bucket of neatly quartered chicken sitting in ice water in our fridge.  I took the carcass remains and made another 2 gallons of stock. After curing in ice water for 2 days I bagged and froze the lot. From five chickens we have 1 roasting bird, 8 breasts, 8 legs, 8 tenderloins, 8 wings, 2 gallons of stock and a bucket of guts for the coyotes. We’re hoping the peace offering will appease the hungry ‘yotes, but I’m afraid it’s more like posting a billboard in the middle of our field that says FREE CHICKEN, EXIT 20. Ah well. With a young pit bull and a neurotic hound dog as big brothers, our girls (and guy) are pretty safe.  

I definitely feel the remorse of killing our birds. However, both the living and dead chicken are, I believe, an important part of understanding our food and where it comes from. A step closer to becoming self sufficient, and consequently self aware. So thank you to our chickens, for teaching us this lesson.

Here’s a step by step for those of you who are interested in doing your own slaughter:

Gloves (we went through a half box of food service gloves for 5 birds, but probably could’ve used fewer)
Scalpel or exacto knife
Boning knife, chef’s knife, and cleaver
Milk jug (cut the bottom off and enlarge the spout so the chicken will fit, but without too much wiggle room.)
Gut bucket (we used a 5 gallon bucket, and it was pretty much full by the end)
Large pot of hot water (~140˚F)
Fire or torch (for burning off any leftover feathers)
Container for butchered meat (I also had a container in the fridge with ice water in it. After each slaughter, I put the meat in the fridge and added more ice.)
Plastic cutting board
Rinse bucket

Mise en place: Have all your tools and supplies ready to go before you begin. You will be slaughtering outside, so positioning yourself out of sight of children is respectful. It can also be helpful to have a hose nearby.

                                              Step 1:
Catch the bird. We withheld food from them for 12 hours before slaughter, so the birds were all too happy to come up to us when we scattered a little food in the yard. Chickens become utterly docile if you hold them upside down by their feet. Then you can easily insert them into your milk jug/slaughter cone.

Step 2:
One person holds the handle of the milk jug AND the feet of the chicken. The other person brushes the feathers of the neck toward the head to expose the throat. They then cut through the jugular completely.  (They can also stab up through the roof of the mouth into the chicken’s brain to ensure there is no unnecessary suffering.) The person holding the chicken should be prepared for convulsions. Hold the chicken over the gut bucket until it has completely bled out and has stopped twitching.

                                         Step 3:
Dunk the dead chicken in the pot of hot water. Keep it submerged for about 30 seconds. After you pull it out of the water, the feathers should come off easily in your hand. Start at the feet, do the entire underside, flip the bird over and do the back. The wings are the hardest part. Don’t get too caught up in plucking. Any remaining feathers will be burned off in the next step.

Step 4:
Burn off any remaining feathers.
Step 5 (Sorry, no pictures):
Using the cleaver, chop the head and neck off. With a boning knife, cut around the knee joint and remove the feet. (The knee bends the opposite direction ours does.) Very carefully make an incision below the anus (on the belly side). DO NOT PUNCTURE THE INTESTINAL TRACT! Cut around the anus and reach your hand into the body cavity. Pull the entire GI tract out at once. If you want to save it, the dark red liver will be attached to this. Remove it carefully. There will be a small blackish sac attached to the liver. This is the gall bladder. Carefully cut it away without puncturing it and add it to the gut bucket. Reach your hand back into the body cavity and scrape out the lungs (pinkish) and heart (looks like a heart) and any other remaining bits.

Step 6:
If you’re keeping the chickens whole (for roasting or soup), you’re done. Bring it inside and chill it in an ice bath. If you want parts, proceed to butcher, but make sure you save all the leftover pieces for stock. Waste not, want not.


  1. This is wonderful, Ruby - thank you. Mari

  2. "Find" an orange road cone. They grow on the side of the highway sometimes. Cut the bottom as you described. It can be screwed to the end of your slaughtering table. Sturdier then the plastic jug and allows no 'wiggle' room. Nice blog BTW!