Of Life and Death

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Sheep suckling her lamb
Creative Commons License photo credit: GanMed64

Our first lamb was born this morning, and everybody melted at how cute it was. Well, except my husband, who has been a cowman all his life; he calls them “meadow maggots” and similar unflattering names. It was not the ewe we have been watching closely, since this is her first lambing, but the older ewe—oddly named “Fly” by her previous owners—who delivered just before sunrise. We’re hoping for ewe lambs from all three of our ewes, as we want to increase the flock. Ewe lambs will also put off the necessity of butchering for a year or so and get everybody used to the idea that “cute” can also be “meat”.

When you raise animals and also eat meat, sooner or later you have to come to grips with the emotional aspects. You can’t escape an emotional connection to animals—at least I can’t—when you’ve bred and raised them through several generations, from their first faltering steps to sale or slaughter.  There are some ways to distance yourself from the emotional impact—for example, we do not give names to animals intended for meat. But the fact remains that if we’re going to eat meat, the animals must be butchered.

Doing it yourself has always seemed to me to be more honest and more respectful of the animal. Instead of loading them into a trailer or truck for the first time in their lives, hauling them in terror (how would you like to go down a freeway at sixty miles an hour for the first time with no knowledge of the noises, sights and sounds?) and unloading them into an abattoir that smells of blood and death, our animals are eating peacefully one minute and dead the next. My husband is an expert marksman and can even shoot birds through the head, which is no mean feat. A head shot stuns and kills in the same moment. I can’t tell you it’s painless—I suspect it is not—but it is over very quickly. They die that we may eat of their flesh and live. We have a responsibility to be expert and quick, so the animal does not suffer.

There are a number of religions that perform a ceremony or say a prayer prior to the butchering. This helps to make of the death and sacrifice a holy event. Diana Gabaldon, one of my favorite writers, has a wonderful scene in one of her books—I think it’s “A Breath of Snow and Ashes”—where she writes: “…it’s that killing without ceremony seems like murder. If you have the ceremony — some sort of ritual that acknowledges your necessity…”. Her character Jamie Fraser also recites the gralloch prayer, from an old Scottish custom of offering a prayer of thanksgiving when a deer was killed for meat:  “O Lord, bless the blood and the flesh of this the creature that You gave me. Created by Your hand as You created man, Life given for life. That me and mine may eat with thanks for the gift, That me and mine may give thanks for Your own sacrifice of blood and flesh, Life given for life.”

I confess that I too say what I can only call a prayer for the spirit of the animal as it dies: “Go now, into the Light, and be free.”

It helps.

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