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A Supposedly Necessary Thing

Feeding Ravens, Self Portrait (Detail), Agnieszka Sosnowska, 2014. Courtesy the artist.

The Slaughter

To produce food in the form of meat, an animal will be killed. Obvious but significant: You will realize you are about to end a life.

Two goats and two sheep have congregated in the corner of my cousin Chris’s corral, chewing their cud. The air is a moistureless 104 degrees, and the sun is simmering in a light-blue sky embellished with cotton-ball clouds. More than a dozen members of the Chavez family are lingering around, elbows resting on pickup truck hoods, arms cradling newborns, fists gripping cans of light beer. I’m leaning up against the fence, watching one corpulent sheep, placated and docile, chewing obliviously. That’s the sheep I’m supposed to kill.

 

Danielle and I flew out from New York to spend a week in Socorro County, NM, which straddles the Rio Grande with a population density of approximately 2.7 people per square mile, for the Chavez family reunion. We left her city of eight million to stay with my cousin Joe in Lemitar, which is not a city, a town, or a village, but what is charmingly referred to as a “census-designated place.” The reunion is happening about a quarter-mile up the road in another CDP, Polvadera. Since 1620, Polvadera has been home to farmers, most recently of alfalfa and chile peppers. During the summer, the supermarket parking lots three miles away in Socorro are saturated in the smoke of roasting red and green chiles, grown in the county and sold in 20-pound bags.

Modular and adobe homes dot stretches of sagebrush and cactuses. Most people don’t have grass in their yards, and the ones who do are judged by the ones who don’t. Stray dogs wander listlessly out in the open, marking bushes, sniffing out gopher holes, or nipping at the heels of jackrabbits and roadrunners. At 4,500 feet, the air is thin and blood pressure drops enough for the unacclimated to feel tipsy and nauseous.

A number of our long-gone family members have been buried in the small Catholic cemeteries that languish near the freeway, where every cross and headstone is festooned with rosaries and plastic flowers. My mother told Danielle that my great-grandmother tried to bury her dog in the family plot, but the town didn’t permit it because the dog wasn’t Catholic.

“That’s ridiculous,” Aunt Bobby responded when Danielle and I asked her about it. “If the dog was born in Socorro, he was Catholic.”

Bobby, who I like to think of as the grand ambassador of Socorro, made Danielle feel comfortable, helped her acclimatize to the inescapable horseflies and inactivity. And leading up to the reunion, I was growing confident that this was going to be OK. But things got real the day before the reunion started. I went out to my cousin Freddy’s place to help set up, and when my cousin Chris approached me and said, “Ey, Primo! You gonna kill the sheep?” I realized how far from Brooklyn I’d come. And just to be clear, saying, I don’t know if I’m comfortable with this was not an option.

 

Killing an animal is one of the many ways that we celebrate a family get-together out here. No one in the greater Socorro area is looking to debate the relative suffering of non-human species, particularly those bred for consumption. Anyone whose bookshelves housed the works of Peter Singer or Plutarch, or who wrestled with David Foster Wallace’s entreaty to consider the lobster, has probably already packed up and left town for liberal Santa Fe or Taos. In Socorro, the ethical premise that guides the hand of any local butcher simply demands that the killing be done correctly, with as little pain and as much precision as possible. Beyond that, the animal’s suffering is not in question. Killing animals is just something humans do. In Socorro, bumper stickers have slogans like, “Vegetarian means bad hunter in Navajo.”

Usually, the words “hold my beer” preclude an act of incomparable stupidity, like lighting a firecracker between your legs with your pants down.

At the time, I took Chris’s proposition half-seriously. I thought they were only asking me to be the one to kill the sheep because they knew I wouldn’t do it, like inviting somebody you don’t like to a party on a day you know they’ll be gone. But as we pitched tents and assembled a dance floor, and as one after another my cousins came up to me excited that I was going to do it, I realized that this wasn’t just a polite gesture. In New Mexico, people usually mean what they say.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, roughly 310 million tons of meat was produced globally in 2013. While sheep account for less than 3 percent of that sum (about 8.5 million tons), tens of millions of sheep had to be slaughtered to produce it. But by the time the meat materializes on a Trader Joe’s shelf, the transformation from living being to refrigerated cold cut is complete, and it’s nearly impossible to look at one and see the other. The mutton you pick up from your local butcher shop once had a face. It once bleated and chewed on grass. It smelled musky. It rolled in the dirt and it played, and if it’s a high-quality, farm-to-table product then it might have made it to the venerable age of four. It was an animal that didn’t have a name, but certainly had a pair of eyes—a pair of wide, black, glistening eyes, hazed over with a cloud of blue. The more I thought about it, the more I came to see that if I wasn’t willing to slaughter this animal, then I might as well go vegan.

 

The stragglers are driving their pickups and 1990s sedans out onto the field, rambling down the dirt road, parking behind Chris’s barn, and soon the field is a veritable mix of Mexicans, Apaches, Chinese, Philippinos, Samoans, and Anglos (perhaps the third-most common term in New Mexico for Caucasians, right behind güero—blondie—and gringo). As everyone crowds around the corral, I know it’s about time to get started.

Freddy slaps my back and then, in a redneck accent that the whole family agrees sounds strange coming from someone half-Chinese and half-Mexican, asks, “Y’ready?”

I respond, “Just a sec,” and take another drink, hoping it’ll stabilize me. As the cool brew hits my throat, my family hoots and hollers, so I drink deeper, transforming what I’ve been using as a crutch into spectacle of nonchalance.

I turn to Danielle, offer her the can, and say, “Hold my beer.”

Usually, the words “hold my beer” preclude an act of incomparable stupidity, like lighting a firecracker between your legs with your pants down, or riding a unicycle down a waterslide, or defending yourself on a DUI charge. But for all the times that things turn out wrong, you keep doing it anyhow, on the off chance that it’s going to go right. You’re saying, Fuck it, let’s do this, and you’ll worry about the consequences later, because you want the person watching to see you at a party and say, That’s the dude who shot off firecrackers bare-assed on the fourth of July and lived to tell. It’s the reason that Jackass and Beavis & Butt-head are American institutions. It’s a social cue, for better or worse, that lets people know that you’ve committed to what you’re about to do. It’s not about the gloves coming off. You’re saying, This can is half-full. Take care of it for me, because I’m coming back for it. At least, that’s what I’m trying to imply, even if it’s antithetical to the rumbling in my guts.

I nod at Freddy, who cracks a big wide smile and says, “Let’s bull-ride this sumbitch.” We each plant a shoe on the bottom bar of the fence, brace the top with both hands, and hop over.

As soon as our feet touch the ground, the sheep and the goats move hell-for-leather from one corner of the cage to the other. A full-grown sheep can weigh anywhere from 100 to 350 pounds. And if you don’t catch one quick enough, it doesn’t take much effort for it to jump clear of the fence and out to freedom. If you’re not careful, that Free Willy moment might come with a kick in the face.

The sheep I’m after weighs about 200 pounds, and she’s now up in a corner, where Chris is getting ready to shoo her in my direction. I’m behind her, hunkered down, and when she turns to me, I leap, swinging both arms around her neck.

I’m supposed to wrap my arm around one of the sheep’s front legs and yank it up as I pin the animal to the ground, and this should happen mechanically. But I’m not very tall and my arms aren’t very long, and I’ve never had to wrangle a sheep. So instead I’ve got her around the neck and she’s booking it across the corral.

It’s hard not to think about how soft the sheep feels, how this is an animal that kids run up to in petting zoos.

I’m pretty sure she knows what’s going to happen. There’s no amount of heel-digging or neck-tugging or weight-shifting that’s going to stop this sheep’s beeline to freedom. She just keeps plowing ahead toward a trough full of water upon the edge of which she intends to find purchase so she can jump clear of the fence and out of the corral, with or without yours truly. But I’ve manage to weigh her down just enough to keep her from leaping, like a little boy wrapped around Daddy’s ankle, so instead she slams me into the side of the trough. As much as it hurts, I’m finally positioned to grab her leg and get her in a firm hold.

We roll side to side for a minute, and if she gets loose she’s going to right herself and trample me, so I’m focused exclusively on gripping that leg, and she’s breathing fast, still trying to kick free. It’s hard not to think about how soft the sheep feels, how this is an animal that kids run up to in petting zoos and drop quarters into vending machines for the chance to give it a handful of feed. Chris and Freddy run up and Freddy grabs the sheep’s haunches while Chris ties three legs together with a wire.

“Stewart, this is sorta like CrossFit!” shouts Uncle Dave. He’s from Jersey.

I stand, and dust off my pants. My heart pummels my ribs. Freddy slaps my back with his beer-free hand (where did the beer come from?) and lets out a holler. “This here’s one Got damn bull-ridin’ sumbitch!”

And it feels good. Scoring the game-winning point good. Winning the drinking contest good. Shouting the right answer at the TV during Final Jeopardy good. It’s a completion of the first step in my rite of passage, a confirmation that my office job and New York apartment haven’t softened me, haven’t extracted from me that which makes me a member of the Chavez family—a Got damn bull-ridin’ sumbitch.

We drag the sheep across the corral to the back of Chris’s Ford pickup. It takes all three of us to heave her up onto the bed. Then Chris latches the tailgate. I can still hear the sheep’s heavy, hoarse breathing. Danielle runs over to us, hands me my beer, and I take my celebratory swig.

Just a short way away, two of my nieces are crying because they know we’re going to kill the sheep. I try to explain that the animal had a good life, and she was going to give something back to us in exchange, but suddenly I start feeling stupid. Here I am trying to give them a life lesson like I’m Pa from Little House on the Prairie with cheap beer on my breath, and I only half-believe what I’m saying. Yeah, this sheep has lived a comparatively good life. She wasn’t slaughtered as a lamb or bred in a small pen. She had land to graze on and sunshine and clean water and was probably patted every once in a while. But she has no reason to be grateful for her treatment, just as a gazelle doesn’t appreciate when a leopard sinks its teeth into his haunches. Simply put, this animal was bred to be eaten. In fact, it is the product of millennia upon millennia of selective breeding that eventually evolved into an animal that is even better to eat than its ancestors were.

There is no way to raise an animal for food that doesn’t involve suffering at some point. But how do you tell that to a six-year-old girl? How do you explain that the alternative for this sheep is the abhorrent torture that’s probably gone into almost every piece of meat she has ever consumed?

 

A sheep that is born and bred at a major US slaughterhouse has a much different experience. After a life in a small pen, she is one day led into a large room with four or five other sheep and a worker wielding what looks like a pair of oversized Walkman headphones, only they’re connected to a high-voltage cable descending from the ceiling. The worker then positions the pads on the sheep’s temples, subjecting her to electronarcosis, a shock that according to the Humane Slaughter Association instigates “a gran mal epileptic fit, during which the brain is stimulated, the body exhibits tonic/clonic activity, and the result is complete loss of consciousness.” The sheep collapses and stops breathing. Her front legs extend rigidly while her hind legs contract, pulling them inward like child’s pose in yoga. Then her body relaxes, her legs involuntarily kick, her body shakes in spasmodic fits, eyes dipping in their sockets as if she were experiencing a spiritual awakening. She might urinate or defecate, but there is still no pain. Then the worker straps her hind legs to a line that raises her through an entrance in the ceiling leading to the killing floor, where another worker “sticks” her, slicing her throat with a sharp knife until she bleeds. In a kind and considerate world, this happens within 15 seconds of electronarcosis, and the sheep doesn’t feel a thing. But this isn’t always the case.

This little baby could go without ever consuming a piece of meat and still have a perfectly balanced diet.

The typical slaughterhouse worker is a Latino who nets $12.50 an hour and quits within a year, leaving employers little incentive to invest any time or money into training, which makes operator error—to say nothing of outright disregard and cruelty—a frequent occurrence. If the pads are misplaced on the sheep’s temples, she might not be fully unconscious. And even if they are placed correctly, the operator might take too long to attach her to the conveyor belt, and the poor sheep begins to recover, to breathe rhythmically and regain awareness of her surroundings—and to be able to respond to painful stimuli—just as the worker’s knife sticks her in the throat, leaving her wide-eyed, panicked, writhing, and struggling to breathe for up to a minute as the conveyor belt transports her soon-to-be carcass down the line.

And the only argument in favor of that method over what I’m about to do is that the sheep at the factory gets knocked out before it’s killed. In exchange, a slaughterhouse can treat the animal basically how it wants. That system can confine, mutilate, beat, and traumatize the animal, as long as there are 15 seconds of uncomfortable numbness before its blood is spilled on the killing room floor.

I would prefer to tell the girls this truth some way, to let them know that really caring about an animal means showing it as much respect and consideration while it’s alive as you do when you put the knife in. But instead I stick with the softened and malleable truth I’ve already spit out.

 

Chris parks by the shed behind Freddy’s house. Michael, Freddy, and I squat around the sheep in the back of the truck. Two lengths of wire hang from a rafter above the door. We each hold a leg so Chris can cut the wire he wrapped around them earlier. Then we rotate the sheep and tie her up to the rafter. Michael hops down and rolls a wheelbarrow underneath where the sheep is going to hang. Then Chris drives the truck away as we ease the sheep down until her head and neck are resting in the wheelbarrow. Michael holds her front legs so she doesn’t flail. Chris pets her neck. Everyone wants the sheep to be as calm as possible, in part because a calm animal makes less noise, but also because an animal under duress releases a flood of adrenaline and hormones, which tighten up her muscles and toughens the meat.

“You wouldn’t think it makes much difference,” Freddy says to me, “But trust me. I’ve been on hunts when we put a deer down with one shot before it could blink, and I’ve chased down a wounded deer, and when you taste that meat fresh after the kill, yessir, it is definitely different. I don’t know what it is but you can taste it.”

The younger ones have gone inside to watch Spongebob. I prefer it this way. My sister Katherine and her fiancé, Chess, are standing behind me, one with a camera and the other with a newborn. My nieces might be too young to see this, but the baby is too young to care. He looks around at all the strange people, smelling all the strange smells with his little baby nose, oblivious to the social customs he’s participating in, unconcerned with the moral ambiguities of the human diet, perhaps highest among them being the possibility that eating meat is not necessary to human survival. This little baby could go without ever consuming a piece of meat and still have a perfectly balanced diet.

Which makes me wonder if Plutarch was right, and that maybe our very anatomical configuration makes the consumption of flesh anathema to our being, and if—despite a lack of claws, talons, sharp teeth—a person still insists that eating animal flesh is natural, then that person should kill what he intends to eat, but not with a knife or a gun. “Rend an ox with thy teeth, worry a hog with thy mouth, tear a lamb or a hare in pieces, and fall on and eat it alive as they do.” And if he can’t break this sheep’s neck and bite into its flesh, isn’t that proof that human beings aren’t meant to eat meat at all?

Then again, Plutarch’s theory is predicated on a pre-evolutionary worldview. It disregards the idea that maybe we were once not the species that we are now, and maybe, as we prowled the Savannah and grunted out our coordinated efforts, and as we followed herds of wooly mammoths across the arctic tundra and stored the flesh in cold caves, our mandibles shrank along with our guts as they adapted to our dietary changes, and the compact energy of animal protein helped us to divert our energy from constant foraging to devising ways to share the spoils of the hunt. According to this process (referred to by anthropologists as the expensive tissue hypothesis), large brains evolve in inverse proportion to gut size, and since meat is more compact and has a higher caloric content than vegetation, we no longer require the large intestinal systems necessary for consuming enormous amounts of plant matter. This all, hypothetically, occurred in a span of 1.5 million years along the journey from afarensis to sapiens. So the very act of hunting and consuming meat might likely have played a significant role in our ability to contemplate and deliberate the ethics of doing so. And the little dude resting in his daddy’s arms behind me is the product of that evolutionary lineage.

But a byproduct of that evolutionary practicality is that we as a species devised intricate rituals and etiquette around killing. In order to justify the slaughter, we devised ideas of sacrifice, of thanking nature and animal spirits, and now I am in one of those moments, when the act of participation is meant both help provide sustenance and to assert my own desire to be included in this family—a sort of rite of passage for me and a gesture of inclusion and love from them. And for better or worse, that’s not a situation that a person can easily back out of.

 

I had brought my own Buck knife with me from New York, “just in case,” I told Danielle. “In case of what?” she asked me. I didn’t have an answer at the time, but now I’ve reached into my pocket to grab it, feeling perfectly smug about my own foresight. But then I relax my grip. On the drive to Freddy’s, I was thinking about how the kill might be more meaningful if I used my own knife. But standing here next to the sheep as I await my cue, I decide it would be a bad idea. I’ve never sharpened my knife, and the last thing I want to do is hurt this animal for the sake of a little symbolism. The end of this sheep’s life should be as quick and clean as possible. Chris throws up an arm and ushers me over. He hands me his knife.

This is the part where my family stops hollering quite so much. Everyone’s still watching, but many of them have seen this a hundred times, and even though they’re familiar, it never stops being exactly what it is: a slaughter.

I hope that no one can see that my hand is just ever so slightly trembling. Mike takes both of the sheep’s front legs in one hand so he can use his other hand to describe how I should do this. He plunges an invisible knife into an invisible throat, and pulls it across. Chris does the same. Invisible sheep corpses surround me as I look to the knife gripped in my right palm. I look down at the real sheep, and she’s looking up and around, more concerned with Chris, the one holding her mouth, than with me. My hand is close enough to feel the warmth coming off of her. Her throat is flexed, her chest heaving, but otherwise, she’s calm.

It’s hard to describe how it feels in these moments just before the moment, because I already have so many assumptions about what this is going to be like, and my mind is running through scenarios where the cut isn’t good enough and the sheep expels an agonized bleat, or else the blood sprays comically all over everyone as if I’m in some macabre production of Titus Andronicus. Then I inevitably imagine what it might feel like to have my own throat slit, and that’s the thought that convinces me to turn my mind off, as best as I can.

Once you go through this sort of experience, you realize that, yes, this is what you do to produce meat. Something has to die.

The tip of the blade is at the sheep’s throat, and I don’t know when I should do it (mors certa, hora incerta). I don’t look the sheep in the eyes. I just breathe in, clench my teeth, and finally puncture the skin, plunging the knife to the hilt. The knife slices deep and quick across the sheep’s throat, and I feel the blade catch on ligaments as if I’m plucking at a set of guitar strings. Blood flows. The sheep’s eyes shoot open, and the way she bleeds isn’t like the steady stream of a faucet. It’s like a water pump, gushing soft then strong, pulsing every time she tries to breathe but fails to get air in through her severed larynx. Chris grabs the knife from me and continues cutting at arteries, tendons, and veins. My hand is now shaking, quivering with my own adrenaline rush, and it hangs down at my side. I’m not sure what to do with myself. There’s blood dripping from my fingers and leaking onto the concrete floor through a crack in the wheelbarrow, and I can hear the teeth-clenching sound of the knife hitting the sheep’s vertebrae over and over until Chris has cut enough flesh and can tear the head off, setting it on a nearby table like a fetish. It stares out at us, seeing no one.

Chris has set to making a few precise cuts into the skin. “When you do it right,” he is saying, “It just pulls right off.”

“Can I try?”

The question comes from my sister.

“Ha ha!” Chris responds, excited. “Sure.” He hands Katherine the knife and she walks to the sheep’s backside, grabs at where the skin has been cut free, and pulls down hard. It doesn’t come off as easy as Chris says, but he shows her how to take the knife and cut the skin from the meat and soon enough she’s got it loose, and with the help of Chris and Mike she yanks it right off. Less then five minutes ago the body that was hanging in front of everyone was alive and breathing. Now it looks like a curing slab of lamb prosciutto.

I ask Danielle how she feels. “Honestly, I thought I’d feel more, but I don’t feel a thing. And actually, I wanna skin the next one.” Her answer surprises me until I remember that her three-generation-deep Brooklyn roots come with their own harsh reality lessons.

Once you go through this sort of experience, you realize that, yes, this is what you do to produce meat. Something has to die. More significantly, something has to be killed. And in the process, a mental trapeze act has to move our perception of a sheep from being a body to being meat. When you think about it in the abstract, it’s hard to imagine how you’ll be able to do it, but our brains are smarter than we are, and they process the transformation before we know what’s even happened, so that by the time Chris has cut open the stomach and removed the entrails (delicately pulling out the gall bladder to keep it from bursting and spoiling the meat), and well before he has taken out a chainsaw and begun the more artful task of carving the carcass into its respective boucherie-friendly cuts, we no longer perceive the carcass as having ever been alive. This is how we cope with slaughter. At least, that’s how Danielle and I have chosen to cope.

 

We’ve got two wood-burning stoves and a barbecue, Freddy and Chris are cutting up meat for carnitas, while I’m with my younger cousins (Freddy calls us the young bucks) wrapping the intestine around cuts of backstrap for a barbecue dish Mike calls boreñetas. I’ve never heard of boreñetas, but everyone around me seems to know what it is, and they’re all anxious for it to be done. “Better than bacon,” Mike says. When I show Mike how I spelled it to check my Spanish he says, “Meh. Looks good to me. I like how you threw the enyay in there. What’re ya writin’, anyway?” A quick Google search turns up nothing. Maybe it’s just a New Mexico thing.

The sun descends in inverse proportion to the rate of familial liquor consumption. I’m drinking another Coors Light, sitting with a few relatives about my age, and one of my older aunts shows up and takes a seat under our tent. She’s got a Camel non-filter hanging out of her mouth and a Keystone Light in her hand. She wasn’t around for the killing earlier, so she just asks us how the day’s going.

“It’s been fun,” Danielle says. “This guy here killed a sheep.”

My aunt takes the Camel out of her mouth, exhales the smoke, and shrugs indifferently. “I don’t need to kill another animal. Done it a million times. I’m over it.”

Had I grown up in Socorro, I probably would have killed my first animal before I turned 10 years old, and I would’ve seen it done plenty of times before that. My aunt’s indifference left me deflated, but there’s a comfort in this belated rite of passage. If I were from here, the idea of slaughter would be so ingrained in my psyche that I wouldn’t think twice about it. It would be as normal as ordering a Big Mac. But it’s nice to be a young man in his mid-twenties, and to be forced into a situation where you have to confront the things you take for granted.

Stewart Sinclair’s work has been featured in New Orleans Review and The Millions. He now lives in Benshonhurst, Brooklyn, and can still see the ocean just past the highway. More by Stewart Sinclair