Killing Animals – How do you really feel about it?

Warning: some readers may find the subject matter of this post disturbing. 

An article in the latest issue of Gourmet magazine addressed the oft-ignored, but very real, dilemma of the carnivore that is the slaughter of animals for human consumption. We touched on this issue briefly a while back in a post on Provencal rabbit stew as I had a succession of rabbits as pets growing up and initially found it difficult to decide if I could eat rabbit given these very friendly relationships in my formative years – what my sister refers to as the dilemma of whether or not to “eat your friends.”

In this Gourmet article, two Brooklynites go shopping in search of goat meat in order to recreate some goat tacos they’d eaten in northern Mexico. After searching high and low for the cut of goat they need to re-produce this dish authentically, they end up at Madani, a halal butchers in Ozone Park, Queens, and there, they witness the slaughter of their chosen goat in the traditional halal method of throat-slitting, and subsequently, they experience some philosophical issues relating to mortality, meat-eating and the preparation of the goat tacos.

For a rather more comprehensive discussion of the ethical slaughter of animals, check out Halal: The Original Ethical Meet Eating at where the gist of the piece is that halal-style slaughtering methods are the most humane to be used anywhere – showing as they do proper and due respect to the animal before, during and after its death.

Never having witnessed the killing of an animal for food using halal, kosher or any other method, and therefore not knowing the look in its eyes as the knife is drawn across its throat, nor having watched the life (and blood) ebb out of it, I was both fascinated and made a little fearful by this article. For me, it wasn’t that I had a sudden ethical problem with the killing of animals for food – far from it, in fact, it brings me great delight on a daily basis that animals are killed so I can eat them — rather I felt that I should also witness, first-hand, the death of at least one animal that was to play an important role in my dinner in order that I too could appreciate this sacrifice in all its horrific reality.

Little did I know that within hours of having read this article I would be faced with almost exactly this opportunity. And, when I say almost, I mean that whereas the guys in the Gourmet article only watched while someone else dispatched their goat, in my case, I was to be cast in the role of the grim-reaper.

Regular readers of this blog who look at our photographs carefully may have noticed a certain black and white (a so-called “tuxedo”) cat loitering in the background, paws poised to take a swipe at whatever’s in focus should our backs be turned momentarily. This is our cat Windsor and, being our cat, she is a gourmet and a gourmand in every sense of the word that is applicable to felines. A lover of all things dairy (including a recent obsession with the Italian hard cheese Piave), Windsor has a well-rounded palate and is just as likely to nibble on avocado and tomatoes (she is also an amateuse of mushrooms sauteed with garlic and parsley) as she is to be tempted by pieces of fish skin and lamb bones, and of course, this pleases us no end that our pet shares our hobby (and, to a degree, our waistlines).

Windsor aka Bodycount

However, we are not so enamored when her tastes expand to feral beasts. Indeed, several are the times when we have been awoken before dawn on a spring day to the pathetic, plaintive final shreiks and whimpers of some unfortunate sparrow hatchling that Windsor has been tormenting. After which she continues this agonizing soundtrack serenading us with cheerful and proud meows to alert us to her macabre victory over a defenceless prey. This is the cue for yours truly to drag himself out of bed and step very carefully through a dark apartment – now littered liberally with tiny feathers – into the kitchen to retrieve the dustpan and brush in order to usher the late creature to its final resting place as respectfully as I am able to at 4am.

So it was with an extreme sense of foreboding last week when my wife called me at work in the late afternoon to tell me that Windsor had outdone herself and had left us an altogether larger gift this time. Happily, she had left this one outside our back door, probably because she couldn’t carry it inside.

A squirrel. This one, like ours, is very much alive.

It was a large grey squirrel – about two or three pounds (1 – 1.5 kilos) in weight, I would guess. Fully grown with a large bushy tail and some very serviceable-looking buck teeth. The kind of urban squirrel that we had been cursing as vermin for months for digging up everything we planted in our small garden regardless of the amount of chicken wire we tried to protect it with. Ironically, it was precisely the same kind of squirrel that, because of this, we had been trying in vain to encourage Windsor to be more territorial about and go after.

The moral of this story, though, is not be careful what you wish for. No, it’s actually make sure that when your cat does what you want it to and brings you the animals you’ve been telling it to deal with, that said animals are actually dead. This one was gravely wounded but had certainly not yet shuffled off its mortal coil, and it was this liveliness that so bothered my wife. After all, what the hell do you do with a half-dead squirrel?

Hurrying home on the subway, I wasn’t able to come up with a good answer to this question. It seemed to me that the easiest (and most cowardly) approach was to hope that at least Windsor had done enough to mortally injure the squirrel and that it would succumb to its wounds mercifully soon. However, were this not to happen, I was left to wonder just how long I could mentally deal with the fact that a kind of cute squirrel was dying a slow and agonizing death just steps away from where I was trying to sleep.

When I got home however, one look at the stricken creature gave me my answer — I could probably sleep quite well, or if not well, then certainly better than if I had to dispatch the thing myself. My wife though, ever my moral compass, directed me towards a heavy snow-shovel and suggested invitingly that I “be a man about it.”

I shall spare you, gentle reader, the finer details of just how I sent the poor squirrel off to meet his maker, but suffice it to say that both Windsor and I could learn a lot about humane methods of slaughter should this situation recur. If it did, not only would it occasion a great and heroic blog post about killing ones own food, but it would also necessitate an investigation of recipes for squirrel, the idea of which for now, at least, rather turns my stomach…

29 thoughts on “Killing Animals – How do you really feel about it?

  1. Okay what a masterful post and interweaving these two situations.

    I have only had to take on the grim role with mice…thank goodness. It does make you wonder how it would be killing animals you have to eat. I guess we would be more respectful?

    Anyways nice writing.

  2. This is a great post. Beautifully written and makes a very important point. I am from Mexico City and as a city boy I shouldn’t have never witnessed how my food was killed. However my dad was a country man and in several occasions at his little town in the Sierra Madre I witnessed how rabbits, goats, cows, iguanas, chickens and hogs were killed for food. I guess I bothered me at first, but then I realized that this is life and some animals die so others can eat. This is how every single species of the planet survives and we humans are not any different than the rest of our neighbors. However sometimes we have to humanely put a poor creature out of their misery. It’s never pretty, but who said life was pretty? hehe

  3. Thanks for the post. I’ve never really looked at carnivores, and food consumption quite that way. I believe that for the most part, today’s generation is totally clueless as to how slaughtering gets done. I personally have no idea. I’ve helped clean a deer, but that’s about it. Close to 100 years ago, many people were still butchering and killing their own food for their families, where today it’s just so simple to go shopping. I don’t know, just something to think about.

    Oh and I’m gulity of flushing goldfish down the toilet. Please don’t hate me…

  4. Just in point of fact, the kashrut (kosher) methods of slaughtering were around 1500 years prior to halal. There are a whole set of Jewish commandments that pertain to humane treatment of animals. Halal methods were based on the prior methods. We can discuss whether those original ideals are being followed today, in terms of policy treatment towards groups of humans, but the ethical issues of the ancients were interesting (for example, not only did people have to rest on the Sabbath, but animals did, too).

    If you choose to eat meat, it’s better to know what you’re getting in to. It seems today, though, that there are more and more movements towards humane treatment of animals. We are still carnivores in our household, but try to keep to grass-fed, free range, etc., animals. I want to move to vegetarianism, just due to what it takes to grain feed animals, etc., but then I’d probably have to move to veganism and I’m not sure I’d do that successfully. One step at a time.

    In terms of Windsor, I think it’s just in his genes. 😉

    Very thoughtful (and thought provoking) post.

  5. Aw damn. That’s not a situation I’d like to find myself in. You for sure did the better thing by putting the little guy out of his misery… but I don’t envy the task you were faced with. Still. It does drive home the point I suppose.

  6. What is it with tuxedo cats and prey? Ours has done the same thing, leaving half dead mice on the patio and sometimes a live one on our kitchen floor. He has, thankfully, never managed to catch a squirrel. I guess we can blame/thank his lame leg for that one.

    We did have to dispose of a gopher that we captured in one of our drain pipes a few years back. I had chased the thing around so much that by the time I caught it, I was more than ready to murder the little rodent; I stuck it in a garbage bag and performed the merciless windmill maneuver. At least Windsor didn’t catch herself a goat.

  7. I’ve witnessed livestock and poultry being “dispatched” at a farm in Greece when I was a kid. I’m glad I got it out of the way.

    Tomorrow it’s steak!

  8. Well written!

    No one, I think, ever wants to find themselves in a situation where their heart strings are pulled due to their humane instincts. I hate to say that my old s’kool Ranger attitude would be to simply eliminate the…the…animal, but I am not THAT hardcore. I have walked in your shoes, my friend, on more than one occasion. My cat used to bring my, um “presents”, and I actually had squirrels get into my home. My unsolicited advice would be to feel justified in having eliminated the apparent suffering of the animal. Not much more that you could have done.

  9. A great post!!!
    Poor little squirrel… with those little black round eyes…

    What about the process that some animals have to follow so that we can eat them after? I’m talking about ducks and gooses’ livers. Isn’t that foie delicious? Is it worth? Could we get that with other methods?

    There’s something for you in my blog darlings!

  10. It’s very easy to feel guilty about eating animals for food if you live in a situation where you don’t have to. A farmer once said to me that it’s very easy for a rich city person to sit in their penthouse and shun how others eat when they have no concept of others’ livelihood or needs. All of my friends who have gone vegetarian have never killed anything in their lives. Yet I know many people who have lived on farms and witnessed slaughter and were fine with it and ate the meat with no problem. We’re very lucky that in this country we don’t have to worry about starvation. We can choose to keep animals around for companionship and spend money feeding them. There are starving people on this planet who would love to have the luxury of keeping a cat or a dog as nothing more than a pet.

    Animals kill each other all of the time. Your adorable kitty killed that squirriel without remorse. Hawks don’t feel guilty over catching sparrows. Foxes don’t feel guilty about catching rabbits. Every species does what it has to do to survive. On a regular basis when I go riding I see the barn cats catching mice. I may feel sorry for the cute little mousy, but that cute little mousy and his buddies if not kept in check would eat the grain that my horses need to survive. I say let the cat have at ’em (However, no one was happy when the stable owner’s dog devoured the guinea hens that had been specially purchased to help control the tick population.)

    Do I feel that slaughter practices and factory farms need to be controlled? Absolutely. I’ll shell out the extra cash at Whole Paycheck to get something humanely raised, but my guilt ends there.

  11. Great post. I am a very ‘careful’ meat eater. I like to know how it was reared, where it was reared and I like to be sure that it was killed humanely. I think that it is important to consider where your meat comes from, and also to think about the fact that meat has been killed, yes, someone did slit the animals’ throat but they also will have stunned the animal first. I think that if you are going to eat meat then you really should have a good long think about what happens to the animals and how they are killed. I feel though, that killing something like a mouse (or a squirrel in your case!) is hard becasue it goes against instincts to kill something. Well, for most anyway. I also don’t think it’s unnatural to find it difficult to watch something being killed, instincts again.

  12. Great post. I read that same article recently and I knew exactly what they were going through, only I experienced it firsthand when I was much younger. Our family used to buy live poultry and headless chickens still running around are a normal sight in the kitchen. Looking back at it, every edible part of the bird was used and nothing went to waste, and now I know that it was not merely a matter of frugality but also a way show respect to the animal by making the best out of it.

  13. Obviously Windsor has no such scruples, but I wonder if she would also be that way if she were sentient. That is, are these qualms that many of us have due to our intelligence, or due to being an omnivorous species where we have the choice?

    I fish often, a lot of the time using live bait, so I’ve caught and cleaned more fish than I can count, plus I’ve done the seafood standbys of cooking live crab and lobster, not to mention opening and eating live oysters. No one has a pet flounder or mackerel, though, so I don’t know how much seafood relates. Maybe there’s a fellow-mammal component.

    With fish, there are right ways and wrong ways (in terms of speed and technique), and you learn by doing, so I would guess I could probably do the same with pigs or chickens or deer, though I have yet to be in the situation to do it. I would think I would be more nervous to do it quickly and correctly than anything else.

    Interesting thoughts you’ve spawned in many of us!

  14. Wow-
    in a week when I have been eating vegan (somewhat successfully, I had a bite of feta at lunch, so shoot me) I have thought a lot about the American “dependency” on meat. For 15 years I did not eat any red meat, pork, etc. I ate fish and free range chicken sparingly (twice a week) and wouldn’t touch anything else. For three of those years I was a complete vegetarian and didn’t miss a thing. I now have a more varied palate, I eat chicken and fish and have the occasional bite of a good steak or a piece of prosciutto. I have yet to order anything like that in a restaurant though. But I think that we forget that those shiny pink chicken breasts are actually part of an animal that used to be living and breathing.
    I always ate fish because I said that I have fished a lot in my life and I have caught fish and cleaned them. But I figured if I couldn’t kill the animal on my own, I have no business eating it. More Americans should maybe think this way…

  15. I try to be a responsible meat eater. I raise organic chickens and ducks, and I have fattened out 3 hogs (named Cheney, Ashcroft & Runtsfeld…) I slaughtered and butchered the chickens & ducks myself, but I let professionals do the hogs. I have also cut up a slaughtered and skinned goat, but I couldn’t do the actual killing. But then, I didn’t raise that animal. The killing is the hard thing to do, and yet I feel I must do it myself, and do it as quickly as possible. It is hard on the psyche. (I use a big cleaver and chop their heads off with one stroke — that is the only way I can know that they are feeling nothing and are not suffering.) I talk to them and apologize, and say some kind of prayer for them, and then I slaughter each one, out of sight of the others. Once the head is gone, it is meat to me. And I appreciate that meat in a way that people who buy neatly packaged red slabs of flesh on styrofoam cannot.

    As for cats, well, it is their nature: you can’t ask a cat not to be a cat.

  16. My 18 year old niece visited me here in Valencia and we went to the market. She was a little freaked out when she saw an entire pig sitting in the display case at my butcher’s stall (not to mention her reaction to the horse meat stall). I explained to her that meat doesn’t come in shrink-wrapped plastic, someone has to put it in those things back home in her supermarket.

    I have been trying to get my head around bullfighting (I hate that terrible translation). The first thing I noticed when I attended my first corrida was that the bull goes from the ring directly to the butcher and is carved up for meat. I would never defend the spectacle of the corrida except to say that, all in all, the bulls have a better life than most livestock.

    I’m not big fan of squirrel meat so I am not disappointed that you didn’t post a recipe.

  17. I’m so sorry about what happened to the squirrel, it was so adorable. Yeah I guess it’s easier to be detached from this eating animal moral issue when we’re not the one doing the killing 😛

  18. This was a well written post. I’ve always wondered how I’d respond if I were involved in the raising and slaughter of the meat I eat since I’m such a sucker for cute, fuzzy animals (e.g. I just picture a lamb)…but I also love meat. One of these days, I suppose I’ll figure it out.

  19. Good read!
    My Boston Terrier, Wilson, is a true terrier. I was walking out the door when I noticed a stuffed animal on the couch. You know that split second of realization, wait, we don’t have any stuffed animals. It was a huge possum! He killed it, brought it in through the doggie door, and left it on the living room couch. Thanks a lot Wils!

  20. thanks all for your comments. i’m glad so many of you read the post and enjoyed it, and made offered such interesting thoughts and shared your tales of experiencing slaughter or just murderous pets.

    we drove past a halal butchers in sunset park, brooklyn, the other day that purportedly had live goats, sheep, rabbits, calves, chickens and more, so we’re steeling ourselves for a visit there later in the year, and wondering whether there is a “gateway” animal’s death to witness before we move on to the larger creatures. I mean, i’ve killed fish, a pheasant (it threw itself under my car) and now a squirrel, what’s next?

  21. Recently, my husband & I were at the library and caught a video showing how these animals are killed in a brutal manner. My husband has always feel that animals are his family and friends. Upon seeing that, he insists on wanting to be a vegetarian. He cuts down on poultry and haven’t had it for a week now. And this will cause some problems in my cooking as I have to take on a completely different course. Ironically, my hubby can’t resist the Double Cheese Burger from McDonalds….

  22. excuse me, isn’t that cat’s name Dover???? It looks just like my old cat Dover who ran away. Anyway, nice post – i am eagerly awaiting a recipe for slow-cooked squirrel.

  23. I’ve only been involved in killing chickens – although recently went to a foie gras farm to learn about the process. I’d like to think that I can handle seeing an animal slaughtered, but in all likelihood, I would have a hard time watching. Seeing the ducks at the foie gras farm didn’t affect me very much because I could see that they were treated well on the farm and killed humainly.

  24. I love that “blood, cat, death” are tags for this post.

    Every carnivore should be fully acquainted with the source of his or her food. You don’t have to kill it yourself, but you should know that it died for your dinner.

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