When I started farming, I had never killed anything of substance, not really, only insects. I wasn’t one of those kids that ran around with a bb gun shooting birds and other little critters just for fun. In fact, when I was with any of my friends that were doing that, I always looked at the death of the animal as a sort of mini tragedy, a transgression of the sanctity of life. And, even though I did it all of the time, I actually felt bad when I killed insects.
Then I became a meat animal livestock farmer, who is, of course, a person who raises animals — sentient, expressive animals — for the sole purpose of killing them so that we can eat their flesh. Initially, and still to a large degree today, this was something of a challenge for me. My feelings about life were and are in direct contradiction to my actions in regards to the lives of those animals, or, more specifically, to their deaths. I am never more than a thought or two away from remembering that I kill for a living.
Over the years, more or less, I have been able to hold onto my discomfort, my uncertainty, my anxiety about raising animals to be killed. I have maintained, to some degree, that little boy’s visceral sense of tragedy in the face of death, at the sight, for example, of a little robin gasping its last breaths as blood pulsed out of the bb gun hole in its throat while my friend Joe, who had shot it, watched and spoke about it with an exaggerated sense of bravura as the small bird died.
Nevertheless, over the course of the last year or two, something fundamental changed, gradually, and almost imperceptibly. A number of years ago, when Izzy the Goat died, more or less in my arms, I bawled hysterically. I felt her death in the deepest parts of me. But, then, as the number of animals increased on the farm, I loaded more and more of them onto the livestock trailer for the trip to the slaughterhouse, and first one and then another would occasionally die on the farm, of old age, of disease, of troubled birth. I have dragged the bodies of full grown ewes and 100 lb. pigs into the bucket on the tractor and buried them in the compost. I have picked up dead newborn lambs, limp, and still slimy and warm, wrapped them in some hay, and dropped them in the wheel barrow to also be buried in the compost. More than that, I have used a gun, though only once, to end the suffering of two lambs that were in the violent throes of what I was convinced was tetanus, which would have slowly, painfully, and viciously killed them over the course of a few days. The bright red blood oozing out of the holes in their heads onto the dark brown ground is emblazoned on my mind and the thunder of the shots still rings in my ears.
All of this death and dying still confronts me as a challenge. But, and this is an important but, my relationship to it has changed. I still care, but I no longer feel it in my bones. I feel as if that deep, moving connection has been severed by the degree to which I need to dissociate myself from what I am seeing, doing, and experiencing in order to live through these often bloody, can-never-go-back moments. I have, as much as I hoped it would never happen, become inured by the shear number of these dissociations, even if only slightly, to death and dying.
The day I loaded the first two pigs I had raised, whom I had named Breakfast and Dinner to continually remind myself of their purpose, onto the trailer on a bone chillingly frigid February morning with my friend Zach helping me out, I noted my sadness, I noted my apprehension, I noted my sense of loss and longing, and declared that no matter what happened in my farming life, no matter how long I worked at it, no matter how many animals I had killed, killed myself, watched die, and found dead, I would never ever lose my lifelong sense of the transgression of the sanctity of life inherent in my actions.
However, in spite of the strength of this desire, the day to day reality of livestock farming has changed me. After taking part in the deaths of nearly 2,000 animals, death has become a shadow of what it once was to me. I now occasionally find myself meeting it with indifference, and even, once or twice, disdain. I have become, to put it bluntly, a killer, something I hoped to never be regardless of the fact that I kill for a living.