I watched a documentary about meat last night at the Food Film Festival in New York. The film is full of interesting stories and raises many interesting questions, but far and away the most gripping scene shows a pig being slaughtered. In a cool upstate rain, surrounded by eager helpers, a tall German butcher wearing a long apron and an overcoat tests a rifle by shooting it into the ground. Then he steps into the back of a trailer and fires one shot into the head of a beautiful brown and black pig. A team of butchers instantly wraps a chain around the pig’s ankle and drags it from the trailer onto the wet ground. The pig is dunked in a vat of scalding water, shaved, hung from a tree, flayed, cleaned, and butchered.
Once the hair had been removed it was easy to see the animal as meat—the transition from pig to pork, as the Applestones put it, was complete right there. But when it was dropping heavily from the edge of the trailer to the ground, its body still so warm and soft you could almost feel it in the theater; when thick bright blood wreathed its head, when its body shuddered and its feet were trembling and curling up under it—then, I admit, it was hard to watch. I couldn’t help thinking of my dog.
But I also thought of all the animals I killed as a kid. They were fish, mostly, because I spent my summers on a beach trying to catch pigfish and croakers and as soon as I was old enough to swim I was killing and gutting them on my grandmother’s dock. That’s where I learned to knock a big fish hard on the head to kill it, or how to hold a fish still while you cut it up the belly to clean it. It’s where I learned that animals keep moving after their throats have been slit, and I was taught by my father that those movements were “just nerves.”
It’s also where I learned how to be cruel—to take revenge on the hideous toadfish who’d swallow my hook, for instance. A fish like that could ruin your day. It was impossible to get a hook out of them cleanly, and they seemed to leer up at me, taunting me with this ethical dilemma. There was no point in keeping them—you couldn’t eat them—but there was no way of putting them back in the water without mauling them, yanking their guts out to extricate the hook, or cutting the line and pushing them back into the water with the hook set in their stomachs, where it was sure to kill them.
The impossibility of it made me angry, and their gaping grins made me all the angrier, so I’d just let them sit on the dock in the sun, gulping in the dry air, cursing them with a 10-year-old’s battery of insults, until I’d mustered the anger to hold them in place with my foot while I yanked on the line until my hook was free and the fish was dead, or close to it. I’d push their bodies back into the water and watch the blood trail away in the current, wishing indignities on their corpses—that they’d be swarmed by minnows, dissolved in the tentacles of jellyfish.
These different experiences of killing—killing cleanly versus killing in anger, with sadistic relish—left me with different feelings and taught me another lesson. Death isn’t just the dropping of a curtain but an experience with a thousand moral shades and wrinkles. I didn’t like the way I felt after I’d made a fish’s life end badly—I won’t pretend that it kept me up at night, but I knew when I’d gone too far, when I’d tried on a version of myself that didn’t fit right, and it made me less likely to go that far again.
Watching the pig get killed in the movie last night I wondered how it looked to people who hadn’t grown up with that experience of killing, who’d never seen the eerie way that animals twitch and shudder after they’ve been killed, who’ve never wrestled with that moment when you pull a trigger or flash a knife blade and take a life. It was hard for me to watch, but I’d seen a version of it before. I wonder how I’d have seen it if I’d grown up in the city, like my daughters will, or if I hadn’t had parents who thought it was a useful moral exercise for me to shoot an injured possum in our yard “to put it out of its misery” or to visit a slaughterhouse to pick up a side of beef for our freezer. I wonder how I’d see that beautiful pig then.