A Half Dozen

A Half Dozen

I’ve been dreading the last two days.  Fear of the unknown, I suppose.  Professionalism, reverence and respect prevailed, however, along with a little luck.   Yesterday afternoon, I drove six pig carcasses to a butcher a half hour outside of Bangor.  They’ll come back as chops, roasts, bacon, ham and fat.  I instructed the butcher to save everything.  There are five pig heads in our freezer along with hearts, livers, kidneys, and some caul fat.  We didn’t weigh the pigs; I’ll know weight when I get the butcher’s bill a couple weeks from now.

Several friends of mine had urged me not to participate in the slaughter of my pigs.  I had, after all, spent the last several months enthusiastically formulating arguments for their survival.  When push came to shove, however, my inclination toward pragmatism provided the path forward; I knew that keeping twelve pigs, more or less as pets, was not an option.  Shipping them off to a slaughter house, the simpler and cheaper solution, was also not an option.  If they had to die, I wanted to be there to make sure that they lived free of fear and stress until the very last moment.  And that they did.

Here’s how it worked.  Just inside the single low strand of electric fence, I spread a thin line of grain, perhaps twelve feet long.  The pigs, after some jostling for position, stood along that line, heads down, enjoying an unexpected snack.  Rob Cushman, of Blue Hill Itinerant Slaughter, selected one of the larger pigs and, on one knee from a few feet away, steadied his rifle for a clean shot to the middle of the forehead.  It’s at this moment when there’s just a small amount of luck necessary for things to go as painlessly as possible; even a slight movement at the last fraction of a second could result in a wounded, but not dead, animal.  Fortunately, each execution, in both senses of word, was flawless.  The rest of the slaughtering process wasn’t much different from that of chicken killing, just on a much larger scale.  Scalding, scraping, decapitating, eviscerating, chilling.  I could not bring myself to watch the moment of execution, but once that was over and the dead pig was hauled over the fence, I had a role to play in the remaining work.  We processed four pigs the first day, and, on the second day, with two pigs to go, we were finished by lunchtime.

The selection process had been clear from the start.  We would slaughter the six largest pigs, but Rob, having experience with this sort of thing, noted that killing the largest, most dominant pig should be saved until the end to avoid upsetting the balance of the social order.  Of the twelve there were four clearly larger animals. Determining the fifth and sixth largest was where it was possible to let subjectivity get in the way, and my friend Mona was arguably the sixth largest, or at least the sixth heaviest of the herd.  The boss of them all was a large, friendly gilt distinguished by a streak of white hairs along the top of her neck.  On the second and final day of slaughtering, it was down to the boss and one other pig.

Michelle was in her office doing her best to ignore the gravity of what was going on in the yard below her window.  There was some conversation between Rob, Tao and I about which pig should be killed.  I had already shared the story of my relationship with Mona, but I told them that sparing Mona would be delaying the inevitable.  Also, I was uncomfortable with the idea of playing favorites with the life of a pig.  At 9:25am I shot a text to Michelle:  Mona is going to die soon.

It’s true that I didn’t want Mona to die.  I didn’t want any of them to die.  But the life and death of my pigs had boiled down to a matter of practicality.  They were to be killed for human consumption, a destiny cast at the moment of conception, and to deviate from that story was no simple matter.  The rifle’s shot broke the morning’s silence.  When I turned to face reality, I fully expected to see Mona lifeless on the grass.  It was the boss, however, who had met her end.  Fate, in this case taking the form of Rob Cushman, had intervened, and once the boss had died it was easier, somehow, to rationalize that Mona was, in fact, not the largest pig left.  Or at least it was a toss up.  There was another barrow who was a little taller than Mona but not as heavy looking.  Favorites played, Mona would live.

Now I have six pigs.  Six fewer mouths to feed as the first snow of the season falls on their thick black winter coats.

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10 Replies to “A Half Dozen”

  1. Thank you for the beautiful and thoughtful read. Your prose reminds me a bit of Annie Dillard, who wrote a Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and other books. I will be contemplating my lunch more carefully today!

    1. Thinking about the issues surrounding the life and death of my pigs, I re-read Dillard’s
      The Deer at Providencia. I’m not sure it helped.

    1. That the Boss was going to be slaughtered was never in question. I had assumed that she would be killed last. When she was killed second to last, somehow sparing Mona seemed more possible. Rob’s only instruction was to kill the six largest pigs, and at the very end when it came down to Mona and another, nameless pig, it was somehow possible to rationalize sparing Mona. It was all the same to Rob; I, however, was relieved.

      1. Thank you. Also, are the pigs shot in sight of the others, and if so do they react in any way? I’ve often heard stories about animals sensing their impending doom and panicking/bridling, but it sounds like they simply continued to feed. Even if the slaughter was out of sight, surely they heard the shots?

        1. I had the same question on slaughter day, but Rob assured me that there would be little, if any, reaction from the other pigs. They were more or less shoulder to shoulder when the killing shot was fired and didn’t appear to have any reaction at all. Business as usual. Back to eating. In fact, as the dead pig bled on the ground, others would consume the blood. They were not penned into a tight area on slaughter day; they had a few acres at their disposal if they needed to find a safer place. I had noticed this summer that if they were startled by a loud noise, (the UPS truck banging down our driveway, for example) the entire herd would scatter and disappear into a stand of trees in a matter of seconds. That they were just eating in their familiar place with no reason to be stressed or afraid is what’s important. Here one moment; gone the next.

  2. More than anything the fact that the death of a member of the herd doesn’t upset the rest, in the least, gives me the most comfort. Alternately I’ve seen pigs be thoroughly distressed at the sight of an injured friend pig. So interesting.

  3. Do you keep the meat or do you donate to homeless shelters, soup kitchens. I’ve only started reading your blog & have gone back but just starting. Feeding others might soothe some of the hurt you feel at their loss.

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