Backyard butchering class in Richmond raises dialogue about death and killing
on December 5, 2014
There is nothing graceful about the first time you kill an animal. As with most things, you get better with practice.
Rachael Soroka has a story about the first time she and her then-husband slaughtered their old egg-laying hens years ago. They learned how to kill and butcher a chicken by watching YouTube videos and waited until their infant daughter was down for her nap. Fueled by horror, her husband applied too much force while breaking the chicken’s neck after bleeding it out, and he accidentally pulled the head clean off and flung it across the yard, shrieking.
Soroka slaughtered the other three hens without him.
Now it’s a Sunday morning and I’m sitting in Soroka’s backyard in Richmond with a chicken in my lap, its fine chicken bones rippling underneath a deep fluff of reddish brown feathers. Soroka, 33, is teaching the second of what she hopes will be many family-friendly, all-ages chicken butchering classes. I am the fourth student to attempt – you could say attempt to execute – what I’m about to do, which is swaddle the chicken tight in my apron, turn it onto its back in my lap, hold its face in my hand, find the spot underneath its beak where the feathers are sparse, slit its throat quickly with a sharp knife, let its heartbeat pump the hot blood out into a bowl at my feet, then break its neck.
Soroka has already demonstrated this once, surrounded by five sets of parents and their small children. She did it with such practiced efficiency and such matter-of-fact dispatch that it had seemed like nothing at all. One minute the chicken was alive, and then it was dead. The children watched in fascination, a couple of them tentatively reaching out to stroke the chicken’s feathers and feet. The adults held still.
The class had started with Soroka holding the live chicken and asking the kids, who formed a giggling circle around her, “Does this look like a chicken we buy at the grocery store?”
“No!” they shouted in unison.
“What would we need to do to make it look like a chicken at the grocery store?”
“Pull its feathers out?” one of the children offered.
“We would need to do that, too,” Soroka agreed. “But first we need to kill it.”
This elicited a clamor of responses, from happy barfing sounds to nervous faces. But their curiosity drew them closer, magnetized to the anticipation of something they’d never seen. Soroka proceeded to explain each step out loud as she demonstrated, and then it was over and the chicken was limp in her lap.
“In our society, we tend to encounter animals as either pets or plastic-wrapped ‘meat,’” Soroka wrote in the email she sent to the class’s adult participants beforehand. “I think that facing our discomfort around death and killing and processing our feelings about the subject makes us more available to meet our children’s needs for exploration of death and killing and living.”
Soroka originally had the idea to offer a chicken butchering class a few months ago when she noticed that parents at her daughter’s preschool seemed horrified by the “I’m dead!,” “You’re dead!,” “I just killed you!” games their kids were playing. She observed that some parents spoke of banning games at school that mentioned killing and dying.
“So I said, ‘Let’s kill some chickens, bring your kids,’” Soroka said.
Several families from the preschool have since taken her up on the offer. For a flat fee of $40, the families each get to learn to kill and butcher a chicken and then take the cleaned carcass home. Soroka gets the chickens donated by posting to a local urban homesteading listserv; neighbors are often happy to give hens that are too old to lay eggs and which they have no desire to butcher themselves.
Child development studies have established that, generally speaking, children under the age of seven do not understand the three foundational concepts needed to understand death: that death is irreversible, universal and inevitable. Young children’s feelings about death are far more influenced by their parents’ feelings about death than by any understanding of death itself.
Soroka said her own daughter, at four, has witnessed and participated in butchering many times and, Soroka believes, has “a certain ease and practicality around her place in the food chain and with the subject of mortality in general.”
“Four- to five-year-olds are fascinated by death, and I’ve noticed that the parents of these inquisitive and innocent and not-at-all-squeamish young people are horrified to be talking about death, horrified even to acknowledge it,” Soroka wrote in a Facebook post describing her intention to teach backyard butchering classes.
“I’m worried that in our culture, we squash this innocence by teaching that death is bad. I’m afraid that we are indoctrinating our children into a system of suffering that comes from thinking that we can resist death somehow.”
Parents have been happy to follow Soroka’s invitation to consider their kids to be curious, inquisitive “blank slates” on the subjects of death and butchering, said Soroka, who is a certified counselor through the Interchange Counseling Institute. As part of that invitation, Soroka suggests to the parents that they avoid asking their kids questions like, “Are you grossed out?” and instead ask, “What do you think about all of this?”
That is not to say that Soroka is immune to her own discomfort about death and animal slaughter. Though she has raised chickens for four years – along with pigs, goats, rabbits, geese and cows – and harvested chickens for just as long, she considers the taking of an animal’s life to be “serious work.”
“I firmly believe that strong feelings should arise when taking the life of an animal,” she said. “Killing feels like more responsibility than I want – but it’s my responsibility. It is if I eat meat.”
Today, at Soroka’s invitation, I’m reckoning with my own carnivorousness. As much chicken meat as I have consumed in my life, I have rarely touched a live chicken, much less held one in my lap. Swaddled in a black apron and oriented on its back, the chicken settles into a surreal avian calm and blinks drowsily. My job is now to competently, painlessly transition this warm creature from life to death using the blade gripped loosely in my right hand.
Killing well with a knife takes decisiveness. I feel intensely squeamish about holding the chicken’s face in my hand to pull back its neck. I don’t want to feel the knife open flesh.
But I do it – badly. You could say I butchered it.
I stay unmoving over the limp body of the chicken for a long time afterward, gripping it tightly to stop its post-mortem spasms even though they’ve stopped. The adrenaline jangles beneath my skin. After I get up, I can’t wash my hands enough.
The kids watch us adults do our serious work in between romping around the backyard, but the novelty of the slaughter has passed and they’re now preoccupied with climbing trees.
“I feel really strongly about involving people in this process in a way that’s accessible,” Soroka said in her backyard a week later. “It’s horrifying and it’s not. It’s completely mundane and awesome.”
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