Sunday, November 13, 2005

Lamb to the slaughter

Today I came across this story, which tells us that when he slit a fully-conscious lamb's throat on television, many viewers reacted with horror. Now, Jamie Oliver's bloody stunt has earned him the position of second lamb in line for the slaughter.

The reaction is predictable, but what I want to know is this: when people sit down to their Sunday roast, where do they think the meat comes from? And what's the big fuss about the lamb being conscious? Do people think that in slaughterhouses the lambs are sedated before they are killed? Perhaps they think there is soothing music, too, and a last request.

This whole thing reminds me of a time, many years ago, when my father had agreed to swap a lamb for a side of beef from another farmer. He brought the lamb home from the farm to slaughter it, but on the day he was supposed to do the job he was drunk and incapable. My younger brother, who was thirteen at the time, volunteered to do the job instead. (My father's alcoholism was the family secret and shame, and we'd do anything to prevent people from finding out.) We told him he didn't have to do it, we'd think up some excuse, but he explained that he knew how from watching my father doing it, and it would be hypocritical not to, wouldn't it? After all, he ate meat, too. And the job had to be done at some point, so why not by him? The farmer was coming to get the meat today, and my father had said it would be ready. Promises should be kept.

My brother was always a thoughtful kid, and very, very serious about being a good person.

At this time we'd been having problems with the neighbour's kids and their friends, who were a bunch of bullies. They used to lean over the fence and throw rocks at our little collection of animals in the back yard at home - chickens, ducks, a goat and her baby, a puppy, and I can't remember what else. We'd told them to stop, and complained to their parents, but they took no notice. They used to taunt my brothers with being sissies for not fighting with them, and were giving them a hard time at school. We were a weird family, and natural targets.

Anyway, that Saturday morning my brother sharpened the big knife and caught the lamb. That was the easy bit, as it was fairly tame, but he was not looking forward to the next part and wasn't really sure that he could do it. While he was contemplating the task, four heads appeared over the fence. It was the neighbour's kids and their bullying friends. They started taunting my brother, as usual, and threatening to throw rocks at him.

My brother looked up, thoughtfully, annoyed at the interruption but seeing an opportunity.

"I wouldn't do that if I were you," he said, matter-of-factly. "And you guys better stop throwing rocks at the animals."

"Oh yeah?" they jeered. "What are you going to do about it?"

My brother gazed at them seriously.

"Well, if you keep doing it, you just never know what might happen," he said.

Then he picked up the knife and cut the lamb's throat. It was a fast, clean cut, and the lamb died quickly. He had learned well from my father, who hated to hurt animals.

Hearing gagging sounds my brother looked up again, awash with blood, just in time to see four green faces slipping down behind the fence. He was rather pale himself, but told me later that actually their presence made the job easier. He didn't enjoy slaughtering the lamb, but it gave him enormous pleasure to frighten the shit out of those horrible kids.

The incident probably didn't do much for our reputation as a weird family, but we certainly had no more problems from the neighbour's kids after that.


Cheryl said...

If that was a page of a book, I would be hooked from here to the end.

BerlinBear said...

I second Cheryl's comment. What a great post. And I agree with you about the kerfuffle surrounding the killing of a lamb on TV.

One query about animals being sedated before they're slaughtered though, perhaps you can clarify for me. I was under the impression that cows at least, and I thought also sheep, were stunned with an electrical charge just before being slaughtered in big slaughterhouses (not private kills, obviously) so that they were barely conscious when their throats were slit. Is that not the case?

Badaunt said...

BB: I'm not sure about the stunning - I think they do it, but I'm not sure how much it really helps the animals. I'm sure it helps the workers, who can deal better with a stunned animal than a kicking one. In any case, the animals are frightened and confused, I'm sure - they've been transported there in packed lorries, out of their usual environment, and I'm sure that can't be good.

When my father was pig farming (he was all kinds of farmer - he got easily bored and liked learning new things) he had a Judas pig. A Judas pig is the one that goes to the slaughterhouse with the other pigs, leads them in, and is the only one that comes out the other end. It fools the others into thinking everything is just fine, because it is used to the procedure. This makes the experience less traumatic for the other pigs, so is humane in that sense, but my father had REALLY mixed feelings about that particular pig, which was, of course, extremely tame.

BerlinBear said...

Yes, I'm sure you're right about the stunning being more for the workers than the animals, and you're certainly right about their confusion and distress. And that's fascinating about the Judas pig. I had no idea. The only kill I've ever seen was a pig kill. There were two pigs and it was pretty unpleasant. They were NOT happy about the situation at all (who could blame them?), especially not the second one, once it had seen what happened to the first.

Badaunt said...

Hmm, I just Googled Judas pig, and discovered that it's generally used to refer to a system of controlling the feral pig population, whereby one pig is captured, given a contraceptive shot, fitted with a radio transmitter and released. It is tracked using the radio, and the pigs can then be located and shot, with the exception of the Judas pig which is spared so it can do its job again.

Maybe the idea of using a pig to lead the others into the slaughterhouse was my dad's original idea...? But I don't think so. I'm pretty sure he read or heard about it somewhere and just called it 'Judas pig' because it was logical.

kenju said...

I am not sure I could have done what your brother did, but it was great that he was able to scare the neighbor kids and run them off.

Megan said...

I'll echo the comments about if this were a book, I'd also be hooked. Very interesting. I always feel like I'm learning something new here at your blog, whether it be about teaching, Japanese culture, New Zealand, or...farming. Fascinating stuff.

Lippy said...

It's a strange paradox isn't it - knowing that animals must be killed in order for us to eat meat, but getting squeamish about the killing. I've never had to kill an animal, but know I'd be a complete sobbing mess if it was ever necessary. Your brother was very brave.

Faerunner said...

I couldn't even humanely kill a chipmunk that our cats had already gotten to. I agree, your brother had more guts than most of us.

Natalie Bennett said...

I was once in a curiously similar situation. I was jillarooing in north Queensland and there were three sheep to kill and butcher, and two blokes and me.

I'm not sure I could have gone through with it had the jackaroo not said to me in a sneering tone: "I suppose you want me to cut its throat for you?"

On the other subject, it is not a Judas exactly, but I've known of sheep trained like your pig to go through the yards, then the others will follow - particularly useful for getting sheep up narrow races.