It was 1998, and I had moved to Texas for a contract at Lockheed Martin doing website design. The people I was staying with temporarily had a hobby ranch, and the man of the house, named Guy, a retired Marine, was planning to kill a male pig for an upcoming in-ground barbecue. Guy was a good fellow, working to establish a civilian life, coming home with some PTSD from having been an active participant in 'not a war' that was 'not in Central America' for some years.
I asked if I could help/witness the pig's killing and butcher. This completely freaked out everybody who knew me, of course. I was once a vegetarian for nearly five years solely because of my love for animals and my sense of horror about the conditions our food industries imposed upon them. I can't even go to the animal shelter without nearly having an emotional breakdown about all the little sentient furred souls I can't rescue and take home. (As an aside, this explains the title of one of my blogs, The 8-Cat Garden...)
But it was a guilt issue. A moral issue, the way I saw it. I felt like it was unfair that I got faceless meat in shrink wrap in the store. I felt like everybody who eats meat, just once, ought to have to witness that something gave its life for them. I knew it would upset me. But I felt like it was a sort of a requirement: if a pig was going to die so we could have a barbecue, what right had I to complain that I "had to watch" -- surely, the pig had a more legit complaint about all this than me. I felt like you know, if it traumatizes me, then frankly that's fair.
A little surprised, he was, but Guy said, ok, sure. It was getting dark, just barely on the twilight side of dusk, as we were late to start.
For a former Marine, he was pretty dense about firepower--possibly he had not actually killed a hog before, as I know he was pretty new to the hobby ranch. He normally hunted deer. To say hogs have thick skulls is an understatement. He should have been using a .44 or so. He used a .22, I think.
We went into the fenced barn area and put all of the animals into the barn... except that pig. My heart wrenched. I can anthropomorphize inanimate objects, so you better believe I can project entire situational awareness and emotion onto any animal larger than a caterpillar. I imagined a sense of confusion and dread settling over the varied inhabitants of the barn.
I imagined a sense of panic on the hog's part as he realized that he was suddenly alone in the dirt yard, and there stood the human with a rifle. A sense of guilt for what hadn't even happened yet overwhelmed me. I nearly started crying for the pig. I felt so sorry about the whole situation. I felt like, if I were him, I would be looking to me, the other unarmed human, begging, hoping for some miracle to occur and save me. Like a spider in the bathtub, trying so desperately to save its own life that even I, terrified of them, save them and put them outside, just for the ethics of it all.
I had just been talking to the pig through the fence earlier. Had visited it for a few days in fact. Had another animal tried to attack it, I would have defended it. Yet here I was helping kill it. I wondered if doing so out of deliberation instead of 'instinct' like animals made humans sociopathic. Then again, maybe one reason humans are sometimes sociopaths and animals aren't, is because thanks to the addition of some degree of autonomous awareness, we NEED to be able to shift into that when necessary: like for killing our food, even if we loved it 24 hours before, even if we are personally not hungry right that second, but planning ahead.
But I was not about to make Guy suffer me being a wimp about it. So I stood stoically, a rope in my hand for the later hauling, and waited quietly.
Guy aimed and fired. It was a perfect shot.
Except, of course, that only being a .22 and at a little bit of distance, it did not remotely kill the pig. The pig screamed in pain, a truly bone-chilling sound, and took off running. I stood with my back against the wood of the barn, holding the rope he had given me, my stomach clenched, my jaws clenched, not even breathing in my horror. The pig ran blindly around the barnyard, a frenetic repeat figure-8 of no escape, marking its path in blood.
Finally, Guy was able to get a lock on it and shot it again. It screamed again, and now it was -- and fairly, I'd say -- mortally pissed off, in addition to being in horrible pain and terror.
This isn't good. A fairly large pissed off hog is not an animal to mess with. Pigs are only cute and cuddly when they are not large, male, and enraged. The pig loped around the yard and turned, clearly rushing toward me now.
I stood there in shock, thinking as fast as I could, given that I had already completely locked up in trauma. Guy couldn't shoot it again now; at that point, he might have shot ME, as he was nearly on the other side of the barnyard. I considered trying to run out the little gate, but I didn't want to let the pig out, because there were farm dogs all over -- dogs that travel in packs and most definitely will attack anything covered in blood. The pig. Possibly even me.
Marine training apparently kicked in. Boy did he move fast.
Guy took three steps running sideways across the yard at an angle and literally leapt into the air, flying over the top of the pig as it ran under him toward me, and landed on him like a wild scripted TV wrestling stunt, a big serrated hunting knife in one hand, his other wrapping around the pig's neck to hold on, which after faltering once under his weight (though he was a fairly thin fellow), instantly started half-dragging him forward.
The pig was now really screaming. Blood was gushing all over the pig, Guy, the ground, and the pig was still running toward me. Guy pulls himself forward and with his right hand literally starts sawing through the jugular of the pig's neck, trying to stop it before it got to me, trying to kill it the only way left, given the total failure of the gun to do the job. Saw-saw-SCREEEEEEEAM-gush, pig falters, pig resumes dragging, saw-saw-SCREEEEEAM -- I think you get the idea.
Guy is kind of yelling something at me that I can't make out over the pig's screams, as they get closer to me. (This is all happening at ridiculous speed, although my retelling makes it sound much longer.) The back of my head translated all this to, "He is probably saying something like, 'Get the hell out of the way!'", but I'm wondering what I can do to help him -- I have a rope in my hands, and I hold it tight in my fists, leaning over a little, ready to try and wrap it around the hog's neck and twist tight while moving to the side if it reaches me, probably futile and dangerous, but the only thing I could think of.
But just at the last moment, the pig faltered again and finally fell, overcome by Guy's weight and its own blood loss, gushing from the neck, bleeding at my feet, as a pool of thick red spreads over the dirt where we are all gathered in a tight little frantic knot by the barn door. Guy is still hanging on to him like a linebacker on the ground with a tackle, breathing hard. He looks up at me, covered in blood and dirt, and meets my eyes for a rather long moment.
Forget the pig. Never piss off a Marine.
Through this entire event I've made not a single sound. Inside my head though, I had a "thought loop." That is something I've gotten at times in my life when I am so mentally affected by something -- extreme mortification or fear -- that literally some single, simple thought just plays over and over and over in my mind. I couldn't stop my head.
I'm so sorry. I'm so sorry. I'm so sorry. I'm so sorry.
Guy got up, and took the rope from me, and wrapped it around the pig, tied some special knot I guess, and starts dragging it. I carried the rifle, and we left the barnyard and went around to the front of the property, an out-building next to the house, and he took the pig and hung it up in this area where he normally skins other things (like deer I think).
Guy went to clean up a little. Silently, with every muscle in my body still tensed, my stomach feeling like iron, I just stood there and looked at it for a long time.
It was chilly outside, not that I felt the temperature. Its head hung down, with a big terrible gash at the neck, and as blood ran out in a small but steady stream onto the dirt, thick steam rose up from the gaping wound where body heat hit the air.
I'm so sorry. I'm so sorry. I'm so sorry. I'm so sorry.
But as I stood there for quite a long time, a curious thing occurred. My perspective started shifting. I felt it happening inside me, like a change in awareness of some kind.
I began to realize that for me, it was not the pig anymore. I no longer felt like, "This is the mangled body of the pig I was talking to yesterday." Rather, I felt like, "This is a carcass." I no longer had a sense of spirit, of identity, of sentience.
It just seemed like meat now.
The next morning its butchered carcass went into the barbecue pit.
I didn't really like the taste of it though. I never much liked pork aside from bacon and sausage (though I've learned to like loin) and I dislike anything even slightly gamey. If that death experience didn't get a lot of nasty chemicals running through it, nothing would.
I feel that spiritually, I brought that trauma on myself by basically feeling that I deserved trauma as part of this event. I certainly got a little.
I do wish the whole death had gone better, for goodness sake. For the pig's sake. And even for Guy's.
But I don't feel guilty.
And the odd thing is, I haven't felt guilty for eating meat since that night.
We are hunters. Animals are prey. If we were not killing them, something in the wild would be. If I had to, I would hunt. And while I would be sorry it was necessary, I would not feel guilty about doing it.
P.S. I was reminded of this experience thanks to a post and comments over at Tracy's "Fear and Loathing in the Kitchen" blog. (Which seems almost appropriate for the subject matter of today!)