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Thankful – and educated – about the sacrifice on the table


May 05, 2017

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Last weekend over a bowl of vegetarian chili with friends, conversation moved into the slaughter of animals. Two people at the table had grown up with animals destined to grace their dinner tables, and told gruesome stories of chicks that grew up beneath the warmth of the wood stove and were then cooked inside it…chickens whose heads were popped off like the heads of plastic dolls, and continued to run around the yard, brainless. This does not upset me. In fact, I wish there was beef in my chili.

For two years in my late 20s, I lived and worked on a grass-fed cattle ranch in Loveland, Colorado. Nestled between red rimrocks and small gray mountains still recovering from a fire blight years before, I woke up early every day in spring and moved irrigation pipe from one location to the next so that the grass in the pastures would grow quickly, to feed the cattle. In summer, you could see exactly where the cattle had last been grazing, as that land seemed clean-shaven and fresh-faced beside strips of grass up to our waists.

The cattle were docile and communicative. They lay beneath the rare tree and scratched their rumps against barbed wire, and they followed us wherever we led them. They knew our call, and they knew that where we took them, they would be fed anew: fresh water and salt licks, dry golden hay and those vast waves of blue grass.

But about once a month, we led them all unwittingly into the sorting pen, where with a small black switch, body language, and clipped commands, certain of the cattle would be further sorted into the center of the pen. There, on their last night alive, they were given all of the fresh hay they could eat.

They were sorted by their ear tags – 001, 001, 709, 347 – for slaughter, which we called “harvest” to soften the blow. For ourselves. We were told not to get attached, and no cows were ever given official names, but we named some of them, of course. We watched for glimpses of our favorites’ faces as they were carted out to the main road in the blue trailer, which always smelled of grass and dung.

We weren’t asked to attend the slaughter but most of us chose to observe at least one during our time on the farm. I will never forget the heady scent of frost and blood inside the slaughterhouse, or the sound of the air gun against my favorite cow’s forehead, the shock of his 1,000 pounds slumping against the pen. I watched, crying, as they hung him by pulley and chain, then bled him out into a gray 32-gallon trash bin.

It got more gruesome from there, but also strangely more palatable. He began to look more like meat and less like an animal.

Later, I ate him. I bought steaks and roasts and even his tongue, which I’d spent so much time watching move around the sloppy mown-lawn hinge of his jaw. I want to say he was particularly delicious, but in truth, he tasted like the other cattle from his herd.

I worried that watching a slaughter would lead me back toward my vegetarian roots, but the opposite happened in the wake of that experience. I eat more meat now, but I have a different understanding of it, a sort of seeing backward: the steak is the lowing cow, born so that I could eat it. Somehow, refusing to ignore the fact of that killing has made me more comfortable with the killing itself. I thank my food before I eat. Silently. An atheist’s prayer to the food chain, and to sacrifice. 


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