Thursday, November 20, 2008

A Compassionate End

From the moment Head Chef and I decided to raise birds for meat, we knew it would mean killing them. Yes, the joy of holding day-old chicks in your hands and raising scruffy young birds into beautiful specimens is a big part of the fun. But the killing was a part of the process. Part of these birds' life cycles.

So we did a lot of reading on compassionate butchering techniques for the backyard flock. And we gasped at the horror of factory farm techniques that often enough entail dismembering live animals. Not dead or unconscious birds, but fully awake, screaming creatures, being plucked and quartered for the American table.

We knew we could do better in our sleep. We could do better than that accidentally. So we raised our birds with attention and care, and planned for their respectful, quiet end.

We think they have had marvelous lives. They receive as much good quality feed as they can eat, table scraps, and as much roughage as they can forage on the three acre yard we have enclosed around the house. We shoo them from the flower garden whenever they start to dig, but they've had their way with it anyway. They obviously love the soft moist soil and the insects that live beneath the surface. The flock of turkeys and chickens runs to us when the see us, so we think they're happy with us, and by extension, their lives.

But Thanksgiving is coming, and that means it's time. Time for two turkeys and a guinea hen.

So yesterday we set up the ladder, a table, and filled the turkey fryer with water. The water approached 150 degrees so we went to the coop and selected a turkey hen.

The birds were all locked up to prevent roaming, as it wouldn't be appropriate to have them pecking around as we sealed the fate of their peers. And within, we wrapped Hurty Gerty within an old bath towel and covered her eyes.

Gerty was a broad breasted bronze turkey, another of those unthinkable abominations we humans have bred from something wild and noble. Wild turkeys are quick, agile, and such good flyers they can leap 20 feet vertically into a tree, or fly for hundreds of meters across the treetops. But broad breasteds have a unique genetic mutation that causes their breast muscles to overdevelop. They become so large that they waddle awkwardly when they walk and are completely incapable of flight. But their instinct-driven brains don't know that. So they manage to get to high perches they can't get down from. Then believing they can fly, they plummet to the ground like bowling balls with pointlessly flapping wings.

And this is how Hurty Gerty got her name. One night she managed to hop from limb to limb up to a reasonably high branch in a pine. The following morning, she spread her useless wings and fell to earth, tumbling across the ground like a snowboarder who's just edged in at 35 miles per hour. By the time she stopped rolling, she had damaged one leg. Gerty was now hurty. She refused to move on her own for days. We lifted her and moved her to the food, then the water, and watched her carefully. But she was improving. Eventually, she walked on her own, but never without a slight limp in each burdoned step.

So yesterday, with her eyes covered, Gerty fell calm. She stopped struggling in Head Chef's arms, and just sat silent. This was what we expected and were surprised none of our research had suggested. Most birds have terrible night vision, and so moving about at night is a bad idea. In fact, if you're a bird, remaining calm and quiet is the best bet for survival whenever it's dark. So barnyard fowl benefit from this same effect. Cover their eyes or make it dark, and they feel calm and stop moving.

We felt that making use of this instinct was a critical step in the compassionate experience we wanted to be these birds' last minutes. The bird would be calm and quiet, making it less stressful for everyone. They would be cooperative in their last moments, and they would not become alarmed, struggle, or call out.

And we were more than satisfied with the results. We tied Gerty's feet together, and cradling her massive weight within the towel, we slipped the hook between the ropes we'd strung from the ladder. She was relaxed, and her breathing was slow. We thanked her for being a good companion and for making this so easy on us. Head Chef pulled out the knife and made one quick and decisive cut across the neck, and I released her weight so that she hung by her feet.

Head Chef was moved. He was flushed and we stepped away for a few seconds and I hugged him. He breathed heavily a few times. It was tough to take a life, but we said nothing. This was the food chain in action, and we were trying to be responsible participants in that process.

Gerty lost consciousness within a minute, and as she hung bleeding, she never called out or struggled at all. Within three minutes her breathing stopped and her brain was dead, and we removed her body from between the ladder and began the process of dressing her for the holiday.

The process was not nearly as yucky as we expected. Head Chef removed the head and we dipped the body into the hot water and counted to 25, then moved it to the table and began plucking. The feathers came out in generous handfuls. We discovered that a 25 second bath had been too much, and some of the skin was fragile as result. But we managed to deal with the repercussions without tearing the skin.

Then Head Chef cut around the vent without severing the intestines, and reached up into the body cavity, removing the package of organs without any trouble at all. We rinsed and tidied the body one more time, soaked it in a cold water bath, and bagged it. It looked exactly like a thawed bird from Safeway. A 25 pound bird. It was amazing. And the process had taken us just under an hour.

Gerty and an unnamed sister of hers now sit in the freezer. One will be shipped to Head Chef's mother for her own holiday, and we will enjoy Gerty here at our home with family and friends.

It is odd to have meat that has a name, but it also seems OK. Hurty Gerty had been dealt an unfortunate card upon conception. She would be a monstrosity, and butchered before her first year. But we feel grateful that we got to hold her as a chick, raise her into an impressive bird, nurse her wounded leg back to function, and say thanks before taking her life ourselves.

It's been rewarding, humbling, and empowering to know her. Thanks, Gerty.


Anonymous said...

Awww....Hurty Gerty, I will miss thee. You were such a sweet bird, your gentle clucking noises and inquisitive eyes...

But if ever I were to be genetic-freak destined for Thanksgiving dinner, I would have wanted to "grow up" under the care of Head Chef and Pastry Chef. They are good turkey daddies. go easy on them and be as tasty as you know you want to be.




Jeff said...

Romanticizing aside, I'm pretty sure god never endowed a turkey, natural or naturalized, with nobility.

I mean, they're so dumb that they can drown themselves in a rainstorm. How? By looking up to figure out what's hitting them in the head--and failing to stop looking up as their lungs fill with rainwater.

Makes for one moist turkey, though.

Oh yes, I went there.

Pastry Chef said...

They don't actually drown looking up into the rain. That's legend.

I would agree that nobility isn't real. I mean, it's real to me, but it's a human construct. And a coroner friend of mine says there is no dignity or nobility in death.

But that doesn't mean we can't try.

Beatrice McKookin said...

It has of course been proven now that animals release a toxin in their bloodstream when stressed. Pig butchery has been revised greatly after that discovery, and apparently affects the taste of the meat intensely.

Kill it nicely, it will reward you.

I don't know if that goes for birds too but I wouldn't be surprised.