I was very small when my mother explained death to me. Everything alive eventually dies, she told me. Pets, plants, grandmothers. You and me. And it is death, she has always said, that makes life precious.
But that’s not strictly true. It isn’t death that makes life precious. It’s knowledge of death.
Something our six turkeys, fortunately, didn’t have.
This year’s flock was different from last years. Last year, we had three toms and one hen, a ratio that makes for plenty of strutting and posturing, and some out-and-out fighting. There was a clear alpha, Drumstick, two clear subordinates, Beta and Gamma, and a lot of chest-bumping
Edith, the one hen, seemed unaware of the discord she generated. Freed from the biological necessity of fighting for a mate, she spent her days plotting her next escape. (The play-by-play of last year’s flock is here, in all its chronological glory, but you can read the executive summary in a piece I wrote for the Washington Post.)
This year, by chance, we had three males and three females, and there was peace in the pen. I’m no turkey behaviorist, but it seemed that they paired off. There was very little in the way of displaying or gobbling, and we never once witnessed a fight.
When there’s no displaying, and no obvious alpha male, there’s not much to distinguish individuals. Only one hen earned a name – we called her Lefty for a sty on her left eye – and the name faded when the sty shrank and eventually disappeared. Our turkeys were oddly anonymous.
But we liked them. Last year, I thought turkeys were charmless. I didn’t warm up to their eerie one-eyed stare or the way they never learned not to peck at the Levi’s tag on my jeans pocket. (Of course, I never learned to not wear Levi’s in the pen, so maybe I shouldn’t be throwing stones here.) This year’s turkeys weren’t so different, but in between the two flocks we’d had ducks, so we understood just how unpleasant poultry could be. What we found charmless last year looked more like quiet dignity this time around.
I’ll never look forward to a slaughter day (even for a flock of smelly, messy, alarmist ducks), but it makes it easier to have done enough of them that we know what to expect. It keeps the anxiety to manageable levels.
Going into this, we not only had experience, we had help. We cut a deal with our friend Christl whereby she got a turkey in return for her plucking assistance. And our friend Amanda flew in from clear across the country to take part.
The plan was to do it exactly the way we did it last year, minus the plucker Kevin made out of an old washing machine, which met a tragic, fiery end last slaughter day. We kill the turkeys by severing the blood vessels in their necks (without damaging trachea or esophagus) so they bleed out, and we had a cone set up to hold them while we did it. We had a garbage can of water heated to 160 degrees so we could scald them to loosen the feathers. Kevin set up a kind of scaffold with two hooks and a tarp underneath for plucking.
After plucking, we’d remove heads and feet and bring them into the kitchen for eviscerating. I had the table cleared and covered with a plastic cloth with a layer of newspaper on top of it, and we had the big cooler filled with ice for the finished birds.
We sharpened two knives. And then we sharpened them again. The only pain we inflict in this process – if it goes smoothly – is one cut to the neck. We want our knives sharp.
Everything did go smoothly. We killed, plucked and gutted without incident. It wasn’t cutting their throats, or sticking my hand in a their still-warm bodies to pull out their insides that knotted my stomach. It was the cries of distress from the turkey left behind as its mate was taken from the pen, never to return.
There’s a movie scene that sticks in my mind, although I can’t remember what movie it’s from (if you know, please tell me). It’s a scene where someone who I think is on the run from the law comes across a woman who lives alone in the woods. She has goats, and she isn’t afraid of the fugitive. They sit down and talk, and she has a goat standing at her feet with its head in her lap. She strokes the goat gently, and then, without interrupting the conversation, calmly cuts its throat.
That, I have always thought, is how to kill an animal.
What makes killing so significant isn’t the physical pain inflicted. It’s the awareness that there is such a thing as life, and that it is ending. Minus the awareness, it’s only the physical pain that matters. The knife stroke that takes my birds’ life is not nearly as significant as pain or distress we might cause by mistreating them.
Amanda said that taking their feeder away the day before was more difficult than actually killing them because there would be some suffering involved in twenty-four hours of hunger. Leaving a hen in distress because we’ve taken her tom away makes me unhappy, and we tried to take them in the order that minimized their pain. The actual killing, while certainly not pleasant, feels constructive. We raised these animals for meat, and we cared for them and are killing them responsibly.
Amanda was with us last year, too, but only as an observer. This year, she decided she wanted to participate. She found the prospect of killing a turkey, pulling out its feathers, cutting off its head and feet, and sticking her hand in its guts daunting, but she didn’t want to be the kind of person who shied away. And so she made herself do it – all of it.
Some time late in the afternoon, when the birds were on ice, the kitchen cleaned, she sat down for the first time in many hours. “You know,” she said to me, “it was a good day.”
And it was. It was a good day.