When I was young, I killed a possum. It’s my earliest memory of killing an animal. That’s not surprising, as I don’t have many instances of killing animals to remember. I loved animals as a child. I still love animals. I grew up wanting to be a veterinarian, and while that doesn’t appeal to me nearly so much these days, I love the fact that I get to work with animals on a regular basis. Sheep, cows, chickens, pigs . . . I honestly enjoy being around them, feeding them, interacting with them—even when they go and muck me up, as they so often do.
But years ago, I killed a possum. Well, I think I did, anyway. I was somewhere around ten years old and I did it in service of another animal: our dog, Buster. He must have been chasing the possum, because it had clamped down hard on Buster’s lower lip and had no intention of letting go. Buster was in pain and very unhappy about the situation. My older brother and I found the howling, snarling tangle in our back yard, at night, my flashlight illuminating the pained scene. My brother grabbed his pellet gun, a rifle loaded with pointed lead pellets. I put it against the side of the possum’s head. I didn’t want to kill the animal, but I didn’t know how else to get it off Buster. I loved animals; this was a big deal for me. But I’ve always had this background belief, too, that there are just things you sometimes have to do, and it felt in that moment like something I had to do. I can’t recall ever believing the world to truly be a clean and neat place, even if I’ve often wanted it to be so.
I pulled the trigger. I killed an animal.
In hindsight, maybe I didn’t. The possum let go of Buster and, in my memory, it’s confirmed as dead. But looking back, I wonder if the little air rifle really would have killed the creature, even from a point blank head shot. Or maybe I wounded it but didn’t kill it. Hopefully not; I’d rather not the possum have died slow and painful from a messy infection. At this point, it’s long settled. And in a way, it doesn’t necessarily matter if I’m remembering the event correctly. What I remember is the echo, and it’s the echo that shapes my thoughts today. It’s the echo of that first killing that frames what I have to say today.
— ∞ —
I can’t recall any vivid killing of other animals in the years that followed. The only real exception is that I went fishing a few times and, in my success, killed a handful of fish. But killing fish has never bothered me that much; I certainly recognize them as living creatures, but their alienness—that lack of mammality—render them less sympathetic for me. I feel a slight regret at taking them out of their world, ending their life, but not a significant one. Not in a way that particularly resonates, except in one particular example that I still need to write about one of these future days. (Stay tuned.)
At the age of sixteen, I became a vegetarian. I was influenced by others around me at the time, but it also felt right. And a couple strange visions preceded the decision. Who am I to argue with visions? Regardless of where they came from, the message seemed clear enough to me and I felt I should heed it. My vegetarian status stuck for twelve years, relatively easily, and then it left. I suppose I debated the decision a bit, but looking back, it seemed to happen as easily as the initial decision to quit eating meat. No visions preceded it this time—just some reading and reflection. But, again, my needed course of action seemed clear.
That decision arose from the beginnings of a shift in my perspective on death. I began to see a greater complexity around the moral question of killing other creatures. I think I also began to have a better understanding of how much death I inflicted anyway, whether or not I ate meat—and even within the act of not eating meat. (Grains, beans, fake meat—there’s death in these, too, of plants and often wild animals and, of course, innumerable creatures at a much smaller scale.) But I still thought mostly of the visible, of the animals I would eat or not, and I grew sympathetic to the idea that the way these animals were raised and slaughtered was more important than whether they were raised or slaughter. I thought, if they were raised well and in natural environments, if they were respected and considered, if the farmers who raised them did it with care and consideration, then that was what mattered most. All creatures die. All of us die. Death began to seem to me secondary. What led up to the death? How was the life?
— ∞ —
I’ve twice now participated in a chicken slaughter at the farm down the road. Most recently, about a month and a half ago. I killed chickens. I killed ducks. The ducks were a touch more challenging—they’re cuter. That might sound flip, but it’s true. I can’t think of any other reason I should have felt worse killing the ducks than the chickens, except perhaps because I like ducks a bit more. I’m pretty certain it’s because they’re cuter.
I didn’t want to go the first time. I did, but I didn’t. I felt it was an experience I needed, but the idea of actually killing the chickens unnerved me. I went anyway, and—this may sound odd to some of my readers—I loved the experience. The killing quickly became easy. I don’t mean light, or inconsequential, but easy. We all started laughing, joking, breaking apart the stress. It felt communal and shared. Intense and elemental.
The second time, this year, was not as good. Perhaps the vibe was different owing to the different people involved, or maybe the heightened stress of my first time created a release and subsequent high that I didn’t get this time. Still, I enjoyed the process and it seemed almost natural, simple. This time I focused more on the cleaning and gutting of the chickens. I didn’t do that at all my first year and wanted to get some experience with that, so I would feel capable of completing the entire process on my own. And while I’m no expert at this point, I do think now that I could go out, slaughter and clean a chicken without too much trouble. That’s satisfying.
It’s interesting, though, how quickly I went from being unnerved to . . . well, maybe not cavalier about the process, but okay with it. Okay with the entire situation. Satisfied to have gained a valuable skill. Just one more task.
— ∞ —
In a blog post from early in 2012, The Myth of the Machine, John Michael Greer wrote about philosopher Martin Buber’s concept of “I-It” and “I-Thou” relationships. In Greer’s summary, “I-It” relationships are “those interactions in which the individual can simply deal with other things as objects,” while “I-Thou” relationships are “those in which he or she must deal with other beings as subjects with their own inner lives and their own capacities for interpretation and choice.” According to Greer, the relationships that humans engage in (with all manner of other humans, creatures, items and objects) fall along a continuum between these two points.
It’s in these concepts of relationship and interaction that I have started to see my work with animals. Animals are not objects; they’re creatures, “subjects with their own inner lives,” in Greer’s words. They make decisions, have personalities, react to my behavior and the behavior of other animals and humans. They have desires and fears, wants and needs. I don’t know exactly what it is to be them, to be in their minds, or if the inner expression of their desires and fears are at all similar to our own, but they are there. You can see it in their behavior. Hell, sometimes I see it in their eyes.
I particularly remember one moment.
It was brief and small, this moment. I was at one of the farms I work for, outside, in the cold and wet winter, standing in the muck of sheep and cows up by the barns. One of the ewes was heading out for the field, starting to pass me. Brian—one of the farm’s owners and, also, blind—wanted me to grab and hold onto the ewe so he could inspect her. I can’t remember why; maybe he wanted to check her udder, or maybe something else. But I was to hold onto her so he could do his work and so I grabbed at her before she could get past me and out into the fields.
She didn’t want to be grabbed. She didn’t want to be held. She wanted out on the grass. And so as I attempted to grab her, digging my fingers into her thick fleece, she sped up, pulled away, steeled herself. I held tighter and tried to gain my footing. She pulled harder, bucked a bit, started to run forward. I half ran, half grabbed, and in that moment she was not a creature, not a being, just an object and an impediment to me doing what I needed to do. “I-Thou” turned to “I-It,” if only for the briefest moment. And then she fell. I pushed. I don’t know exactly how it all happened and I certainly did not intend to knock her over, but our balance and my grabbing and pulling and pushing and her pulling all conspired to knock her over, right onto her side, deep in the muck, legs flinging up a moment into the air and her head twisting toward me, eyes looking up at me while I looked down at her. Locking eyes with her, her gaze was one of betrayed. One of hurt.
I might be the one putting that in her eyes. I don’t know. Maybe she was just annoyed, or confused, or frightened. But in that moment, I saw betrayal in her eyes, and I felt terrible. It wasn’t even that big a deal. She ended up in the muck, knocked over, and I’m sure that was not pleasant. But, so far as I know, I didn’t injure her. And she got back to her feet and continued out to the pasture. The day commenced. Brian’s inspection would have to wait.
But that moment sticks with me. I felt terrible. And upon understanding the concept of “I-It” and “I-Thou,” I began to understand why I felt terrible. In that moment, when I wanted her to do something that she didn’t want to do, she became an object to me rather than a creature. I inadvertently harmed her—even if it was a small harm, and even if accidental—and it came out of my frustration and my inability, in that brief frustration, to continue to treat her as a creature rather than as an object.
These are the moments that stay with me. These are the moments that echo.
— ∞ —
Recently, at another farm I work for, the local butcher came out with their mobile slaughtering unit to butcher three lambs and a ewe. The lambs were ready for customers and scheduled. The ewe was a different matter. Something happened to her. Her back two legs stopped working. We didn’t know why. She was older, and maybe the ram had too vigorously taken after her. Maybe something else happened, perhaps internally. Maybe a stroke. It’s tough to say; you can’t grill them about their symptoms. Regardless, she couldn’t walk. She could only sit upright, her front two legs propped on the ground and holding her front half up, her back end sitting. It was odd and sad.
So the farm owners scheduled her for slaughter. The day the butcher came out, two of us lifted her and carried her outside. We set her down and she sat there, front legs propped in front of her, head up, looking around. She couldn’t move. She just sat there, out of necessity. And then the worker quietly said, “Goodbye, girl,” and shot her in the head. She toppled over.
I’ve driven lambs to the slaughter, delivered them to the place of their death. This was the first one I actually saw killed. It was hard. I’ll admit that. Far harder than the chickens, or the ducks. Even considering the fact that I wasn’t the one killing her.
But throughout the process, she remained thou to me. And, so far as I could tell, she fit into that category, to some degree or another, for all people involved. The man who shot her did it . . . casually, I suppose you might say. But not cruelly or dismissively. He had plenty of experience—this was a common action for him—but I didn’t get the sense he didn’t recognize that it mattered.
That’s the key for me these days. Sometimes I kill animals, and sometimes I’m involved in the process of killing animals. That’s okay with me. But I don’t want to lose the thou. I don’t want to forget that these are creatures. I don’t want to turn them into objects, into its. I don’t want them to become to me nothing more than impediments or frustrations. I don’t think killing animals is inherently wrong, but I do think that consistently doing it thoughtlessly and carelessly is dangerous. That’s not a path I want to walk.
— ∞ —
Killing that possum echos and resonates. Those first chickens and ducks—I think I’ll remember that forever. And I don’t imagine I’ll ever lose the image of that ewe being shot in the head—the slight jerk, the settling limpness, the topple. But I feel worse about that ewe I accidentally shoved over into the muck. It doesn’t seem to make much objective sense, except that the transition to object is the sense. If they die a thou, and the death is sensical, then I can be okay with it. If it matters, if the context fits, I can be okay with it. It’s when they die an it, when they’ve been stripped of their creatureliness, that I can hardly abide it. That sort of death I have a hard time seeing as anything other than a betrayal, and that’s the path I want to avoid taking.