Have a heart.
I cut off his head. My stomach turns a little. You can’t help but feel sorry for the guy. Killed because his owner is half annoyed that he got woken up. Maybe all this noise and killing could have been avoided by not ordering so many roosters. I choke back the doubt as I drop the head into the bucket. Some blood slowly drips out. I look up. The rest of the 17 chickens are staring at me, standing completely still. All are dead silent.
Minutes earlier: It’s approximately 6 am, I awake from a very sound sleep by the call of six roosters. I realize I fell asleep and forgot to close the coop last night. Worse, I neglected to shut the electric fence.
Another cock-a-doodle-doo. Then another, and another. I imagine they must have been in there pacing back and forth all night waiting for morning. They gather near the cabin to sing me another harmony a capella style this time. I get up, put on my sandals and step outside.
It’s not raining. It’s going to be a nice morning. The way dawn is lighting the mist between the trees shows it. I stop on the first step out and look up, breathe deep. I smell the air. The warmth pours through but the sun isn’t even visible yet.
I jog 150 feet around the pen to the entrance to inspect. No sign of bear this morning. The chickens are hungry, especially the fatties. They way they’re waddling after me. I take a guess that they’ll follow me inside the coop. They do. Only half of them do but that’s enough. A few of the fat roasters, a couple smaller hens and three of the roosters come. I shut the door.
Obviously they don’t know what’s about to happen. I step outside and lock the door behind. The other birds still outside are waiting for food, so I take a little time to feed them. I start a boiling pot, grab some knives and sharpener, a bucket, a few cones, tarp, garbage can and the wash basin.
This is the third time I’ve processed chickens in the past few weeks. I wish I had gotten all hens and only one rooster but I tell myself I need practice. Plus, it’s good to choose which lives and which one can fertilize my hens. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I decide to let the one who eludes me the longest live.
It’s no coincidence that one happens to be the fattest, smartest and quietest as well. The other males don’t touch him, and all the hens respect him. He’s the one that seems to be on the log while the others are squaring off, trying to prove themselves.
Thinking back, the first five birds I killed behaved differently with each method. It’s hard to get used to all the flapping and contortion. At one point I imagine it would be easier just to shoot them in the head with a .22 or air rifle. That would be wasteful and too loud. That would break my connection to the kill, the squeamishness. Just pull the trigger.
Until today, I tried killing these poor things a different way each time – including bonking them to knock them out, and just slitting their jugular with a small sharp knife. That didn’t quite work. I missed on the second bird, hit him in the wrong spot. His head and neck were so limber it was like hitting water with a stick. The poor guy flapped so hard he broke his wing. Wasted meat. I have to do something different.
It clicks. The jugular doesn’t have to be severed to kill, just stopped. And you don’t need to hit him on the head to knock him out. I close my hands around his neck and squeeze. Too hard. I crush his wind pipe. Regardless, he’s limp in a minute. After his last shudder I place my knife to his neck.
The 16” blade flexes like a fillet knife. It’s meant for bread but works great on fish. With a few flicks of a wrist, a sockeye salmon takes less than a minute to fillet with it. After thousands of fish, my hand knows the motion well. I never thought to use it until today.The head of the chicken comes off with a flick.
I drop his head to the bucket. What blood did drip ends up on my legs when the head lands. I waited too long. The heart needs to still be beating. I look up. Chickens standing there motionless, look at me with some contempt. I reconnect to my action and to them and my intention.
I realize they live a good life here. Their death doesn’t need to be a control I exert when I get annoyed, so I decide to try be present and honor the kill. I look around. No one around and down at the blood on my shins. I take off my shirt and pants and place them aside.
In my boxers sandals, I go back into the coop and get the next bird, still wondering if they know what’s up. When I catch him, I can feel second rooster go limp in my hands. He lets out a pathetic chirp and gives up all hope. I feel for this one. An annoying chicken but still a small helpless animal in my hands. His heart’s beating wildly through his thick chest of feathers. I hold him upside down by the legs to calm him, walk out of the coop and over to the fluorescent orange killing cone, suspended upside-down by a rope tied tight between two paper birch trees. I lower him into the cone.
He tucks his head, trying to not let his neck stick out. I pull him out and reach up into the cone with my other hand to coax it through. This time, careful to not crush his wind pipe. His pulse is wild. My fingers slide around and put pressure on both sides of his neck to stop the blood flowing to his brain.
He chokes a little but can still breathe. His blinking eyes start to close. His neck relaxes. I relax too, breathe out, pause, pull down on his head to stretch his neck. It pops like a cracking knuckle. One long slice through feather, skin, neck and spine. His head falls. Blood squirts. Every muscle in the carcass relaxes. No flapping. A little twitch.
Returning with the third rooster, the audience of chickens continue to watch from the corner of the pen nearest me as I work. I coax his head through the cone and cup my hands over his head and comb with a light touch to calm him down. The motion calms me too.
His beak and tongue click once or twice with some residual nervousness. I rub the back of his neck for a few seconds. He shudders a second, then relaxes again. I slide my fingers over his jugular and press in until his eyes close and his neck relaxes. Pulling down, I make one long, quick slice. His head drops to the bucket with a few gushes of red.
“So this is how it’s done around here from now on.” I half tell myself and my audience with a slightly more certainty, thinking “Death is necessary to sustain and create life. Killing should be taken seriously and respectfully no matter how small. I feel guilty that I used to disconnect (supress the fear and sympathy) a deliberately not think of my preys’ will to live or the possibility that he knows and feels it coming.
I’m raising, killing and eating all of these in order to sustain myself. The chickens are sacrificing their lives, but what am I giving back? I think about ancient civilizations, their rituals, and wonder if this, this is why animal sacrifice was so sacred and their blood appreciated. It nourishes me and the ground it falls on. If I waste parts of this animal or plant, I’m disrespecting him, his death our life together for the past few months, and myself. Down deep, I promise to give back.
Well water pumps from 300 feet below my property through my garden hose and pours over my head and down my spine.The first couple of seconds rinsing off are a mighty cold awakening first thing in the morning. Cold and suffering seem essential to appreciating the wildness of a life and death experience. It’s a good reminder I live a warm, happy and blessed life here in the city. Shocking the body wakes up the circulation in my skin, brain and spine. My mind and body activate in a way that tends to lie dormant under normal day-to-day.
I dip the three carcasses in hot water, then place two in a bucket of cold water. The first one is easy to pluck. I gut him, careful to save the heart, liver, gizzard, neck and a portion of the intestines. I pull out and stick the intestines up to my nose to smell. “Them’s chitlins alright.” I look over to my dog, Isla. Tail tucked, sniffing some feathers that fell to the tarp a second ago.
I squeeze the slippery intestines over the garbage to see what comes out. Greenish-brown shit. Hard to fathom eating it or the intestines, but I would have to if I were starving in the wilderness. I put a portion of it with the other offal to try later. Guilty for not saving them all.
I think back to Tustamena Lake, eating squirrels fried in bear fat. When you’re hungry, stuff like this tastes really good, especially if you cook it on an open fire. I wonder what kind of nutritional value it has.
The last bird is cold and a bit harder to pluck. About 90% naked before moving on. Just a few quills and bits of down sticking out here and there in those hard to reach places. Gutting complete, the knife slices through gizzards. Rocks dumped and lining peeled, gets inspected.
Don’t put them back in cold water after the hot dip. I thought cooling them down would help keep them fresh but it just makes the feathers hard to pluck again. I clean them inside and out with one-step brewing cleanser and rinse them with highly diluted white vinegar. A frenzy of bubbles foam up as they eat the bacteria. I place all the organs I want to try eating in a pile and line the birds up to vacuum pack and freeze, save one heart.
Breaded in salt, pepper, garlic and flour and sliced into three pieces, the heart sizzles in the canola oil. The stainless steel pan smokes slightly while sitting over the open flame of the trangia.
It’s amazing how well these little stoves cook for how small they are. I promise myself to fry the heart next time in rendered chicken fat instead of canola.
The chewy texture of the heart is pleasant – not quite as chewy as calamari. It tastes like dark meat, only slightly more potent. I chew up a piece for the pup to show her its good and put it on her plate. She sniffs it and looks away with her tail still tucked. Dead now.
I realize the smell of chicken slaughter is now everywhere. Even a dog’s instinct is suppressed to some degree by modern comforts. She hesitates a few but gives in to the deep fried fat aspects of the aroma, licks it a little, then eats it. Good puppy!
I smile. After watching me all morning, she may be going vegan.