Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Day at the pig farm

I woke up with yet another headache. It’s been like this for a week. I figured I should get up and eat something. But what do you eat on the morning of a slaughtering?

Most mornings, I eat eggs, but that didn’t sound good today. In a few hours, I’d be recording audio of a pig’s death.

I showered then settled on a Snicker’s bar. It wasn’t a healthy start, but what can I say? It’s what I chose.

I’ve never seen an animal’s death — not in action, anyway. In high school, my freshman year biology teacher often brought road kill to show off in class. But I had never seen the actual moment where an animal no longer is.

Most men in the South hunt, but my father wasn’t that kind of guy. He wasn’t masculine or focused enough to sit out in the woods with a gun, waiting for dinner. Our meals were never so direct. We ate hamburgers every Monday night — the ground chuck bought in bulk from Wal-Mart then stored, in aluminum foil, in our freezer.

This was the South in the ‘80s. No one I knew bought organic or grass-fed or local. We bought what we could afford. Vegetables came in cans. Hamburger came pre-ground, all pink and raw, but resembling nothing close to a real animal.

About 20 minutes after my Snicker’s bar, I felt hungry again. I might as well eat an egg, I thought. Who knows if I’ll want to eat lunch.

The eggs I buy now are cage-free, grain-fed. I started buying them earlier this year in an attempt to impress a girl. After a while, I kept buying them because they tasted better. I hadn’t been saving much buying the cheaper eggs anyway.

I fried my egg in Country Crock Shedd's Spread — one last, solid hold-out from my youth. Real butter just seems so inconvenient compared to the spreadable Country Crock.

After breakfast, I packed up my gear and headed out for the hour-long drive to Pure Pork Farms. On the way, my iPod, shuffling through thousands of songs and podcasts, chose an episode of the radio show Fresh Air. In this broadcast, Terry Gross was interviewing a New Yorker writer about a CIA program that uses unmanned drones to kill high-ranking Taliban officials. Soldiers in Virginia operate the drones, which fly almost noiselessly through Pakistan, looking for targets. What does it mean when a soldier is killing without being — physically — there?

“We’re morally insulated to this horrific thing that’s going on,” the author, Jane Mayer, tells Gross.

Still, the soldiers are reporting high instances of PTSD. Even at a distance, death diminishes a person.

For years, I was a vegetarian. I wanted nothing to do with death, even death I could not see. But gradually, I started eating meat again. These days, I rarely eat it, certainly don’t cook it. But sometimes — at a friend’s for dinner or on a busy day when fast food is the only option — I do eat meat. By the time the food reaches me, there’s no animal there, no life to confront.

The road to Pure Pork winds past several other farms, each with a stunning view of Mt. Hood. In the eastern part of my county, the volcano seems so much larger than it does from my apartment. Out east, it’s bonafide, imposing.

By 11 a.m., I pulled up to Pure Pork. Roosters crowed. Piglets ran loose. And my subject — the unnamed, unweighed 5-month-old sow — rested in a stall by herself. The kills-on-wheels guy wouldn’t arrive for a few hours, but I wanted to record the pig alive first.

The photographer, Beth, was already there, chatting up the farm owner in the barn. My pig -- the pig I had come to record -- had mostly buried itself in hay, so I started by taping some of the piglets sleeping in a pile. The microphone amplified their sleepy breathing. I watched for about 10 minutes before a whole crew of people arrived.

We were there to document something Levi Cole does once a year. Half-a-decade ago, he decided he didn't want to be a vegetarian or a hypocrite. "The only other option," he told me, "was to kill the animal myself."

He paused to take a sip of brandy. Levi had showed up with students from the Robert Reynolds chef studio. They came with a prosciutto lunch and a bunch of booze.

"It's a party," Levi had said when I first met him.

Now, we were in the back of my SUV -- the quietest place I could find for an interview -- talking about why he started killing his own meat. Today, he planned to shoot the pig. But his first time (five years ago with an 80-pounder), he had stabbed it in the neck.

"It was terrible," he said. "I don't like to talk about it."

He took another drink. "Yeah, it was terrible."

Levi is a critical care nurse, a guy who spends his work day easing pain. That first kill went all wrong. The pig didn't die instantly. It suffered, he said.

Even today, even with the hand-gun waiting in his truck, Levi seems more nurse than killer. While we waited for a mobile slaughter guy to show up (Levi would do the shooting, but the other guy would drain the pig's blood then skin her), Levi played with the pig. He scratched her back. He talked to her. He brought her beer. Six Blue Moons in, the sow was drunk.

"Pigs love beer," he said. "Plus, if someone is going to kill you then eat your ass, the least they can do is get you drunk first."

In my car, we locked eyes then he said, "It's a living thing that looks at you with human little eyes. The thing has no hatred for you. It has an interest in you. It's just like any other pet."

"You saw me in there with her," he said. "It has no idea I'm gonna shoot it in the head."

He paused. Took a drink. "It has no idea. And I feel terrible."

We stayed that way for a few seconds, crouched in my car, looking each other in the eye with a long microphone wedged between us. The car smelled like apple brandy.

I started to ask another question, but Levi interrupted. "He's here," he said. "It's time."

I looked out the window. The mobile slaughterhouse was a truck with a huge trailer and a few silver hooks. Levi downed the rest of the brandy then climbed out.

***

What can I say about the shot? I wasn't ready for it. The recorder was on, capturing, but I wasn't looking. I turned just as it had gone off, after the noise, after Levi had pulled his hand back then dropped to the ground to catch her.

The pig seemed to fall in slow motion. I had expected it would die immediately, that a shot to the brain would be it. But Levi cut the aorta and blood gushed as the sow flailed.

I thought I'd vomit watching all that blood pour out of the pig's neck. Then, when it kicked the microphone out of my hand, I clasped a sweaty hand to my mouth and cried instead.

I hadn't actually expected I would cry. But there I was, kneeling in a barn with a microphone pointed toward a sliced aorta, crying.

"That's okay," Levi whispered to the pig as he held her. "It's okay."

Where was he finding this balance? The killer then the nurse within seconds.

Later, after the slaughter guy had skinned and split the pig, after its head was gone, once it started to resemble food, Levi and I walked back to my car. He grabbed a beer.

"I couldn't have done that sober," he said.

I asked him about holding the pig. He was quiet for half a minute.

"Every time I've done it, I've held it, so it doesn't writhe around."

"I hold it while it dies," he said quickly.

"I don't really like people to die alone, to die without my being there," he said. "As if that means something. It probably doesn't. But there's a reverence for that minute when the pig dies. For me, it's important to take note of that minute."

Our minute -- the interview -- was coming to a close. He didn't have long to talk now. The pig had to be put on ice. The blood washed from the barn. We climbed out of the car. The roosters were still crowing.

1 comment:

mandy said...

This pig did not die in vain. With your help, I've been touched in a way I hadn't planned today.
I've been disturbed by my eating meat my entire life. Not for the reasons this story describes (the actual killing of the animal, the hypocrisy...). My reason was more that I just hated eating anything that had blood in it at one time.
While reading this story I broke down in tears. My love for animals and feeling their humanness- now feeling my own hypocrisy...
Thank you.