Animal Harvest

I wrote the following article in 2009, for an anthology relating to sacrifice in modern paganism, which I now think will probably never be published. Anthology notwithstanding, I still find it a strong piece of writing, and it goes some ways towards articulating what we do here, and why, with regard to raising our own meat animals. As this has come up recently in conversation, I thought it might be useful and informative to reprint the article here.

Sacrificing our Innocence
Fall 2009

Kat Heatherington
Sunflower River Farm

I spent the morning killing poultry. I have blood on my jeans and my skin, and haven’t eaten yet today because I still have the smell of wet feathers in the back of my mouth. This is the fourth animal slaughter I’ve participated in since we bought our land and settled into organic farming a bit over two years ago. It doesn’t get any less significant with repetition, but it does get easier, both physically—I am getting better at doing it—and emotionally—I no longer spend as many days processing how I feel about it. I am not deeply distressed to discover blood speckling my work jeans, and the feel of a dead bird jerking in my hands while his warm blood flows over my fingertips does not haunt me the way I once thought it might. I’ve achieved acceptance, movement into balance with my choices and the necessities of raising livestock on a small farm.

The act of harvesting our own animals is a weighty one, profoundly significant to our spirits. We balance ourselves between the need for this, and the doing of it, and sacrifice a small part of ourselves each time we take the lives of animals we have raised and cared for. Yet with each doing of it, the importance of it, for ourselves as spiritual beings and for the earth in whose harmony we strive to walk, is reified and magnified. This work is hard. It is very, very real. And it is deeply important.

I live this way because I feel very strongly that I must act with the greatest possible responsibility for the earth around me. I must act in accordance with my ecosystem, or I am damaging the land I live with, the land that made me, the land I am made from. If we are all Her children, it behooves us to respect our Mother and treat Her as best we possibly can. Even those of us raised in the post-industrial consumer wasteland of contemporary America, as I was. Perhaps particularly us, given that we consume 80% of the world’s resources.1 And that includes acknowledging myself (and all humans) as one node in a web of life—not the pinnacle of the evolutionary process, but one strand in a very complex network, whose actions impact the lives and well-being of many others in that network.

So, being a child of the Earth, and being a person to whom it is clear that our culture needs to change direction, it is imperative that I act upon that conjunction of belief and reality, and do my level best to change the world we live in, to create, every day, with every step, a world that is better than the one I grew up in, to create a world that could possibly survive what our culture is doing to it right now, and still be someplace future generations will want to inherit.

So, what does acting in harmony with my ecosystem mean? For me, it means not driving unless I absolutely can’t do what I need to get done any other way. It means using the most ecologically friendly materials available for every project I undertake. It means going light on my electrical use, natural gas use, and use of every other natural resource that I consume. In particular, that means using as little water as possible—recycling greywater, saving and using rainwater in the garden, and installing a composting toilet in the house, to avoid the appliance that wastes the most water of any device in the average household.2

And it means eating within my foodshed. Eating organic, locally produced foods whenever possible—which turns out to be pretty much all the time, except at restaurants. It means eating sustainably-raised meat, meat that was raised with consideration for the life of the animal it came from. Of course, vegetarianism is another ethical way to approach the question of factory farming atrocities, but it’s not nutritionally appropriate for everyone. Sustainable organic farming is another solution. And our community’s ability to eat well is significantly increased by the food we grow and raise, that others around us can participate in growing, raising, harvesting and eating.

On my small farm, we raise chickens for meat and eggs, turkeys and rabbits for meat. All our poultry is cage-free, raised without hormones or antibiotics, as healthy and as well in-balance with the natural rhythms of the animals’ lives as we can manage. We make sure our animals aren’t too crowded, have plenty of room to run around and do whatever they enjoy doing—that the turkeys have room to fly, that all the poultry get regular “play days” out of the barnyard where they can scratch and peck around on our full acreage, that they have access to natural foods and their pens are clean and well cared for.

We are responsible for each of our animals having a healthy, strong life with us, and also over generations. Neither they nor we choose our relationship; it is constrained by the shared history of our two species. We as individuals choose to raise chickens, yes—but we humans domesticated chickens thousands of years ago, and in doing so, we entered into a kind of compact with them. They give us what we need: eggs and meat, and sometimes feathers—and we give them what they need: enough room to run around and fly, good natural feed, others of their kind to socialize with, protection from other predators besides ourselves, continuance as a species. The best life that we are capable of providing for them, both within their lifetimes, and over many generations for them. And within that constraint, we can make both of us better, on our own individual terms.

Industrial animal production has focused on making an animal better suited to the needs of that production system, without giving anything back to the animal. They are bred to be of uniform size, for faster processing, quickly growing, for a quicker profit. But they are not given healthy conditions, or bred to be healthy and strong, and they are therefore that much less healthy for us to eat. We damage the animals as individuals, the compact our species implicitly made with them by domesticating them for our own use, and ourselves as predators of those animals, by allowing industrial agriculture to grow them for us under the conditions that they choose. It also creates an unbalanced relationship between humans and the animals we eat. In the industrial system, we use animals, but don’t give them anything back. Not the respect due another living creature, not whatever dignity they are capable of experiencing as creatures, not happiness, not freedom. As small organic farmers, we do our best to give our animals all of those things. Respect for their needs, protection for their weaknesses, the dignity due to other living beings, wild or domestic, with whom we share this Earth, and the freedom to live the best lives they and we can co-create for them.

Our species’ compact with the species we raise, comes also from the reality that we are predators, and they are among our prey. So long as we choose to eat meat, we are predators, and the act of raising meat animals and processing them ourselves puts us in a position to examine and embrace that animal reality of our own human psyches. Because we can examine it, we are in a position to take responsibility for that relationship, and for us, on our particular small farm, one of the things that means is recognizing the sacrifice that we have raised our animals to make.

We try to give them the best death we know how to, as well. Fast, and as painless as possible. Like raising animals has been, this is a learning process for us, and we have had to learn how to forgive ourselves, for doing it wrong, and causing pain to an animal when we were unable to swiftly and decisively slit the throat as we had planned. Our first experience killing livestock was deeply traumatic for all of us, partially because it was traumatic for the animals. Over the course of that day, we learned a lot. The second one was not half so bad as the first, and the third was better still, in terms of the amount of pain the animal went through before brain-death. It took a lot to recover from, to forgive ourselves for not doing it right the first time. But we managed, not least because we have found as swift and painless a way to do it as possible, where brain-death occurs within seconds. That matters. And our spirituality helps us move forward, into forgiveness and then into the next steps, understanding ourselves as children of the Divine, even when our actions are very imperfect. We have not let those imperfections deter us from our path, but taken them as painful learning experiences, so that we can do better next time. And we have. And then, it turns out, we still have to forgive ourselves for doing it right. For killing an animal. For the blood running down our fingers. The act is one of self-sacrifice, and forgiveness of the part of ourselves that is capable of this action, even as we understand its necessity, even as the animal gives up a much greater sacrifice.

We begin with ceremony, always. We cast a circle, light quarter candles and then perform this small ceremony:

Mother Hecate, Queen of the Night,
accept this offering,
a child of your own for children of your own,
a short life for long ones.
His death is our sustenance.
Take him into your dark embrace
and make his passing an easy one.

Mother Demeter, Goddess of the Harvest,
Mother of all life, all growing, caretaker of crops and animals,
accept this offering for the abundance and success
of our garden, our farm, our lives.
Let this creature nurture and provide for us,
a child of your own for children of your own,
a short life for long ones.
Take him into your embrace, accept his sacrifice
for our health and abundance.

Father Cernunnos, Green God of the Hunted,
bless our offering, and watch over the passing of this spirit of life.
We thank you for the great cycle of sacrifice,
renewal and rebirth between us and your children,
for we are your children too.
We give honor to the Creator and the Created,
the verdant and the fallow,
the blossoming, and the sorrowing,
to all that is born and dies, and yet lives again.

Turkey spirit, swift and whimsical,
playful and silly, we honor you.
We thank you for your sacrifice,
and honor your presence in our lives.
Gentle spirit, go swiftly and easily
to your rest, to the gods, to your next life.
We bless and honor you.
Thank you, Turkey.

We each take turns evoking each deity or spirit, so if one of us evokes Hecate one time, someone else does it the next time. This way our roles continue to expand and grow, as our understanding and feeling for this process does, as well.

We’re sharing the two most important moments in life with most of our animals: birth and death. If we’re not there at the birth of each one (often enough they come to us a bit later in life than that), we are there for their passing, and it is a powerful experience for both the predator and the prey. It’s considerably more than just meat: it’s a relationship. A covenant we have with them: to raise them well, and care for them, and to kill them well, honoring and thanking them for the sacrifice they are making for our livelihood.

Spilling blood is a release of energy no matter what, so by offering it in ceremony as a sacrifice for the abundance and prosperity of our farm, we give that blood energy a focus, an intentional direction in which to flow. This prevents it from doing or becoming something that we don’t want on our land, and it makes use of the energy we are creating anyway, and it honors the spirit of our animals. “A short life for our long ones, a child of Your own for children of Your own.” 3

We also sacrifice of the part of ourselves that is innocent of this contract between farmer and livestock, between human and animal, predator and prey, that honors life without spilling blood (or is removed from such spillage on our behalf). A lot of people these days go through life without having to consider their role as predators in this ecosystem. Yet predators we most assuredly are, whether we hunt our meat, raise it, buy it at the farmer’s market, or buy it in styrofoam at the grocery store, having outsourced the raising and killing of it to another organic farmer, or to a corporation with questionable ethics.

At the end of the day, I have a lot of sympathy for our live poultry. I let the hens out of their yard, to roam the property for the rest of the daylight, scratching up bugs and seeds and generally enjoying themselves. Though they live in a large open enclosure, they love their days out in the garden, which they get whenever we can supervise them. Their yard is protected against predators, but the expanse of our farm is not, and it’s not particularly well fenced yet, either. A lot of predators live in our neighborhood—coyotes, dogs, hawks, owls, skunks, raccoons—and without good fences, our young livestock guardian dog can’t patrol our property unsupervised, so everybody lives in the large, well-fenced barnyard, and enjoys the garden and fields whenever we are home to keep them safe. And they put themselves to bed at night, returning to their coop as the sun drops toward the west, accepting our protection and the life they have with us. We protect them from every predator but ourselves: part of our compact. The irony of the situation is not lost on us.

We take a few days to recover from the slaughter, each time we do this. We’re kinder and more compassionate to each other, ourselves, our other animals–and we do strive for kindness and compassion every day. But a slaughter really highlights it. It makes us gentle. We go easy on each other. We spoil the cats and our barn dog positively rotten, let them walk all over us, pet the rabbits, croon to the chickens. We’re more vulnerable, because we have opened our spirits to this interaction with death, because we have given death to another creature, and allowed ourselves to have a relationship with it.

As a primal force, death touches our lives, deeply and continually; we cannot look away from it. We don’t hold it at a remove. We’d rather walk the path of our ancestors, and do it ourselves, cleanly, with love. Killing animals, blunt survival at its most immediate, pulls our ancestors close to us, reminds us of the parts of them that live inside ourselves. There is a way in which their hands guide us through this, and our hands reach back through the past, through the fabric of our lives, and take the shape of those who have gone before.

Touching death, we walk hand in hand with our farming and pioneering forebears. And, living this way, we don’t allow the atrocities of factory farming to be committed in our names. We’d rather have a hard day, that wounds our spirit a little bit, that we have to recover from, doing difficult, dirty work with our own hands, with knives that we have consecrated for this purpose, than participate in a system that fails to honor our relationship with these animals, and fails to take seriously the needs of the animals themselves. Corporate agriculture commits their atrocities at a remove, distant from our backyards. But they do it, and they do it with our permission, every time we buy a chicken from them. I can’t do that. I can’t buy that chicken, I can’t participate, even economically, in the system that allows that. I would rather get blood on my own hands. I would rather spend seven hours on a cold November morning, swiftly thrusting a boning knife through the jugular arteries of turkeys and chickens that I have raised with my own hands, fed and talked to every day, walked in my garden with, enjoyed the whimsy and silliness and quirky personalities of every day for many months or even years. Birds I know personally, have a relationship with. Birds to whom I have given the best life I am able to give—birds whose lives I honor and respect, both during their daily lives, and in death, in their sacrifice for our well-being.

This, then, is our animal sacrifice: the sacrifice of the part of ourselves that holds itself apart from the predatorial animal being that we are. And the blood sacrifice of creatures we love, to sustain ourselves, our friends, and our community, and transform the world, one day at a time, into the best place we can make it.



2. The Humanure Handbook, Joseph Jenkins. Chelsea Green Publishing. 2005. Pages 16-17

3. Some language in this ceremony came originally from our friend Gaelan, at Frijolito Farm. Many thanks to him for the inspiration his words provided, upon which we based our ceremony.