Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Email from a reader: background on slaughter

I received this email today from Nathaniel:

Hello Mr. King,My name is Nathan and am a creative writing major at the University of Washington. Currently I am working on a short story for my class that involves the slaughtering and butchering of a pig (as a bonding experience between a father and son). Presently I have no knowledge of how to slaughter a pig but am seeking to change that. Seeing as how I have come across your blog invitation to observe a slaughter too late, I am wondering, mostly hoping, that you would be willing to describe the process (prep, tools, the kill, cleaning, etc.) in detail? Your blog page mentioned scraping vs skinning, I'm very interested in the differences, processes, pros and cons of each. You also mention on the blog that you use a .22, have you ever used a knife for the kill (this is how I would prefer to do it in my story) and how do they differ, pros vs cons? Must a pig be slaughtered within a year, could one keep a pig for many years and slaughter when the animal is older, say six years old? I'm also very interested in the emotional side of the slaughter; how you felt the first time you slaughtered (did you have a sentimental bond with the animal); how your emotions have changed over time and experiences (do you distance yourself emotionally during the raising of the animal knowing that you will eventually slaughter it); etc.? Whatever information you would be willing to give up would aide me tremendously.

Thank you for your time,

My response:
There's a writeup of the pig slaughter class I did a few months ago here: which gives you a basic narrative of the process.

When you approach killing an animal, there's a mix of regret and relief. Regret because it's time for the animal to go, and you've spent time and effort making sure that this animal has had a good life, and there's always some sort of attachment. I never hate an animal that I'm slaughtering; at most I'm irritated, but it's tinged with humor. "This is the pig that ate all of my greenhouse watermelons!", and whatever my feelings are, there is no reason for me to be anything but respectful and professional in the kill. More often you have fond memories of this animal when it was younger and it's just a little sad to see it go. The time this pig stole my can of coke while i was working on the fence and made me chase it around to get it back, all the while making funny laughing noises and squealing. I try my best to kill the animal by surprise. Relief because the slaughter marks the end of the work and the realization of the fruits of your labor. It means food on the table and money for more feed, and a lower feed bill.

The pig in that pictorial was shot while it was snoozing in the sun, in its favorite spot.

in Washington state, there's only four ways to legally kill an animal, which I reference in this post: . A knife alone isn't legal, and in my mind isn't' as humane as a bullet. I have had customers slaughter pigs with knives alone, for ritual purposes or for religious reasons, but I've decided that I will no longer allow that on my farm. I think that the animal suffers unnecessarily.

tool prep:
On the day of the slaughter, I pull out my .22 rifle and clean it and check its action to make sure it's in good working order. I sharpen the sticking knife, the one used to open the arteries after the shot. I use a 10" carving knife with a long, smooth blade and I keep that knife razor sharp and only use it for the stick. if I'm going to skin the pig I sharpen my skinning knife; if I'm scraping I start the water heating.

thoughts when I'm actually killing the pig:
constant worry about whether I'll make a good shot; hoping that the pig will be still for the instant required, shooting and then watching to make sure that I've made a good shot, ready to repeat it if i need to, carefully but quickly putting the rifle down and picking up the sticking knife to make that first incision in the 10 second window before the pig starts flopping, watching the knife go into the throat, looking for the gush of blood, careful about my knives angle, ready to repeat the stroke if necessary; backing away quickly to avoid being sprayed by the blood, sensitive to any indication that the pig is conscious.

pigs age at slaughter:
most pigs are slaughtered at 6 to 9 months old. The only pigs that typically get anywhere close to 6 years old would be herd-sire boars or very good sows who have had many litters. after the first 18 months we're talking about an animal that will weigh 600 to 800lbs, and trying to stab that big a critter with a knife is a good way to get killed. yes, it can be done, no, I wouldn't want to try it.

thoughts on first slaughter:
my first four pigs were brothers and sisters, 2 of each. the two barrows (castrated males) i hesitated at slaughter because i was attached, but at some point they have to go, and i had to remind myself that they were here for a reason. i knew the animals very well, and it was tough to see them shot by the farm kill guy, but i watched and learned and respected the pigs for their contribution and life. We will all go; farm animals just have a date certain sooner than most. the faces of the first two pigs, when they were skinned, were tough for me to look at because i knew them so well. where they liked to be scratched, their favorite kind of food (apples) and they knew me, too.

Hope that gives you what you are asking for Nathaniel


Anonymous said...

Obviously, it is about cows, not pigs, but I found this article a very informative and interesting description of a slaughter. I don't know whether it would be helpful for your story or not.

Anonymous said...

Hey I learned about a useful organization/website at the Focus on Farming conference, about humane slaughter as it applies to Kosher (Jewish faith) and Halal (Muslim faith) traditions.
I thought it had some good information and guidance on the subject.