On Killing Animals, Insects & Plants

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In the past couple of weeks I killed my first mammals. One, a rat I trapped without watching die, which felt strange and distant. For a deeper understanding of killing, I killed a rabbit at a rabbit slaughtering and butchering class this last week. I’ve often written about how I don’t see a difference in the killing of plants or animals. That both deserve equal respect. However, killing these mammals both changed and solidified my emotional experience and logical interpretation of killing.

A vegan once argued with me that plants do not struggle to live and cannot fight back and therefore, we shouldn’t feel bad about killing and eating them. Some vegans want to believe that plants do not have nervous systems or an electrical impulse system relative to the nervous system of humans. If this held true, plants would not have evolved thorns and toxic properties. Plants do not want to get eaten any more than animals. If we go small enough, everything has the same building blocks: atoms held together with electric impulses. To me, all things have this life and deserve respect. Even sticks and stones.

Using this logic I can say that killing animals and plants does not differ. But from an emotional point, things change quite a bit. The spiritual hierarchy that I have said vegans generally believe in comes from the iconic similarities to those things we eat. Mammals must not die. Then fish. Then bugs. Then plants. Plants have no eyes, no voice and no blood. While they have just as must life and just as much right to life as any living creature, it becomes harder for some to see themselves inside the other living things. I can’t look into a plants eyes when it dies from my hand. I can’t watch its soul leave its body. I can’t feel its blood stop coursing, its warm, still beating dead heart fading in my hand.

I can look into an insects eyes. The larger ones anyway. But I can’t hear them scream and they have no blood. I can look into a fishes eyes, see their blood, but can’t hear them scream. Mammals change everything. A sensory overload of all too familiar sounds and sights. Like a mirror we must literally face the mammals we kill. This can make it a hard experience for those who have not grown up accustomed killing their food face to face.

So the other day I killed a couple domestic rabbits. I know, I’ve called myself a hunter-gatherer wannabe for years now and still have never hunted and killed an animal, face to face. While I plan to go hunting this fall, I wanted to feel connected to the food that I eat. I wanted the experience, the rite of passage, of understanding the most deepest connection, deepest way of relating, deepest responsibility of life; killing a mammal to eat. I have friends who run a rabbit farm in which they run workshops showing people how to slaughter and kill rabbits. I took the class with three of my friends. While I don’t believe animals should ever live in captivity, I also don’t act like a fundamentalist about this belief. I do after all, still buy most of my food from the store, which means everything I eat (plants included) grew up in various intensities of captivity.

You can kill a rabbit in many ways. But most people I know choose between three different methods. Beating it on the head with a stick and slitting its throat. Holding it down and slitting its throat. ¬†And the “Broomstick method”. Beating it on the head has many complications. While it has an iconic primal attraction (the caveman with a club) it can really make the death traumatic for the animal. While no death happens without pain, some can cause much more than others. The club can do this very easily. So can holding it down and slitting its throat. It takes several moments for the animal to bleed out. The broomstick method appears the quickest way, with minimal complications. It involves the breaking of the neck in less than three seconds when done properly.

The emotional intensity of killing feels impossible to describe. I didn’t cry. Instead my adrenaline rushed so fast I thought I might throw up or faint. I had to focus on breathing. The adrenaline really kicks in when you see the rabbit squirm a bit and think, “Oh right. The rabbit will struggle for its life.” Most urban people forget this. Most urban people have never seen it happen. Most urban people have never done it themselves. Vegans have a point in this regard: you can’t hear a plant scream, it can’t run or squirm. It makes killing plants very easy and it makes killing animals much more difficult, both emotionally and physically.

Although, killing the animal felt easy and efficient. Everything building up to the killing felt intense. I realized after cutting the head off and draining the blood into a bucket, that I had never really seen the beautiful radiance of fresh blood. Fresh blood glows almost like a it has a phosphorescence. Seeing the blood triggered a sort of primal feeling of satisfaction in my mind as well. Again, I can’t explain it. Within seconds the animal died. Within minutes I skinned and gutted and butchered it. The whole process looked beautiful and I felt more alive by participating in the process.

The transformation from life, to death, to a meal for another, happens so quickly it made me feel rather comforted by death. A sort of sense of fear that I have had of death for a long time has seemed to have vanished, at least for the moment. By taking this responsibility and ending so cute and so closely another animal to myself, I have seen death up close and personal. I felt the life leave the rabbit. For some reason, this has made death seem less scary to me.

I couldn’t believe how much the muscles continued to twitch after we killed it. As I gutted it, the intestines fell into the pan below and continued to contract for several minutes. Outside the body. 10 minutes after death I pulled the heart out and it still beat, just slightly. Moving parts after death make me wonder how much of the nervous system really controls functions outside of the brain. This has all kinds of spiritual implications as well.

I believe that while the experience of killing a mammal may look closer to killing our own selves, and therefore scare people away from doing it (i.e. vegans) a person can extend the feeling of empathy beyond the boring five senses and iconic animals that share similar facial features to our own. While it felt harder for me to kill a cute little bunny rabbit than an annoying mosquito or a fresh dandelion green, spiritually and ecologically I still see no difference. But I do feel the emotional difference. But it didn’t make a vegan. If anything, it strengthened my connection to killing animals. It seems that killing this rabbit has actually connected me with a deeper spiritual connection to death in general. Most of those emotions came and went and now I just feel gratitude to the animal whose life I took to feed my own. And it tasted great! Seriously, have you ever had rabbit before?!?

17 Comments on “On Killing Animals, Insects & Plants”

  1. I understand where you are coming from. I killed my firt mammal (a domestic goat) a few years ago with two friends in order to perform a gutting/skinning demonstration at a survival camp. I had killed numerous plants, insects, etc. before killing the goat, and just like you report about the rabbits, killing the goat was harder both emotionally and physically.
    We slit the goat’s throat next to a beautiful stream, and then we held the goat down as it bled out. I will never forget watching its life slip away. I cried, but at the same time, I knew that killing-to-eat was something that all animals do (even if they kill plants). After eating the goat later in the week, I felt more connected to the food process and, therefore, to life in general.
    I know you have mixed feelings about TB, Jr. and the Tracker School, but the story of Tom’s first hunt really rings true after I had killed my first mammal. Tom comes back to Stalking Wolf after hunting a deer for the first time. He’s crying, and he throws the deer at Grandfathers feet. Tom tells Grandfather, “If this is what learning survival skills requires, I don’t want anything to do with it. This is cruel and senseless.” Grandfather replyed simply, “The moment you feel the same about plucking a blade of grass as you do about killing this deer, you will truely be one with all things.”
    Our culture has built, as you said, a false spiritual continuum with humans at the top and plants at the bottom. We can understand this intellectually, but we can only understand it emotionally by developing our empathy though thanksgiving (or some simelar practice of reflection). For everyone, but especially for domesticated humans, the journey to “oneness,” is just that, a journey.

  2. Thanks for sharing your experience! I still have yet to kill a mammal though we were planning on trying to trap some rabbits on the farm this fall. Have you ever heard anything about there being certain times of year you can’t eat wild rabbits? Someone told us they have a disease at a certain time of year- but maybe this is an east coast thing.

    I can definitely relate to the process of death to food, though. When we kill chickens it astonishes me how one minute there is a live squawking chicken and then you have defeathered it and cut off it’s head and suddenly it is chicken, the meal. After you do it a couple times it becomes almost totally blase. That’s the part that fascinates and terrifies me the most- how easy it is to get used to the process of killing. But I guess it is still instinctual, somewhere deep down under all the brainwashing.

  3. I can’t write with any certainty as to whether plants have souls, or anything spiritual. But I do believe that there is something different in the killing of an animal versus a plant, that extends beyond their capacity for evoking our sympathies.

    If plants and animals are conscious, then we’d expect them to have the sorts of experience that serves plants and animals respectively. The will to live is something that serves animals, because they’re afforded the ability to make decisions in light of their preferences. But a will to live doesn’t serve a plant. So while a plant may be conscious, we’ve no reason to believe that we’re violating its will in killing it.

    If you follow Buddhist thought, then you might consider plants to be in a perpetual state of unadulterated consciousness. As experienced meditators will tell you, bare consciousness includes no preferences.

  4. Like martha, this is probably my favorite thing to have read from you. It’s good to see you take an important step from theory into practice.

    @Joe: It’s good that you have an understanding which helps you to live in the world, but many of the assumptions inherent in what you’ve written are not necessarily shared by others. To give an example of alternative thinking, to prefer the will of the Other to one’s own will is not something that is shared by everyone. Some choose to see life as a natural struggle of predator and prey (with those roles becoming more complex along with the entities involved – thus, plants are nearly always prey while humans vary the roles so frequently and with such subtlety that some can’t even comprehend the nuances, to say nothing of the struggles of whole ecosystems or the roles of extremely simple entities like minerals). In my opinion, this is a view that is more common to those with animist tendencies, who see all of existence as alive, than to those with more dualist ideas, some of whom see life/mind/consciousness as alien to existence.

  5. I was just challenged last night by a vegan friend to kill a mammal and eat it. Where’s the class?

  6. Thrill of the hunt, testing skills, pushing limits and the will to power flowing through an ecosystem. Powerful stuff. Killing domestic animals isn’t the same though, just as a goat in a zoo doesn’t live like a goat killing a goat in a zoo or a farm would not be the same. The captivity makes the act into another part of the spectacle, a charade and an illusion of life, death and the will to power. And as part of the spectacle it can easily be twisted into suiting dominance culture and the death-worship of judeo-christian culture, which has distorted most surviving humans in the world directly or indirectly.

    A small point – the notion that vegans are ‘scared’ to kill things that look like humans does not explain many of the lengths some would go to in order to end the institution of domesticating animals. There are however barriers to full consciousness which prevent many from recognising how civilised institutions are domesticating humans and plants, and how it *all* must be dismantled. The only sensible and non-abusive way to live is one modelled on paleolithic lifeways. But I have to admit that the concept that a civilised person could stumble upon this connection through civilised imitation is somewhat odd. If I’m honest, I tend to doubt that such de-programming can ever be achieved.

  7. Hi Urban Scout, I’ve admired your work for a long time. Nice going with this piece, and with confronting death by killing a rabbit with your own hands. I’m curious to learn more about the “broomstick method.” Interestingly, I recently had, and wrote about, a similar experience, though my prey was a rooster. If you have a few spare moments, I think you might appreciate it: http://davidscottlevi.blogspot.com/2010/07/killing.html

    Thanks for all your good work,

    David

  8. Having no experience myself with this as of yet, I thought I would share another’s that I found to be quite fascinating.

    One third of “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” is about a small, sustainable farm in (West?) Virginia. The way they work really is quite fascinating. In one particular passage, the farmer spoke about the days they had to slaughter chickens. Now, he is of the more historical Christian mindset that animals have no souls, so killing them is a-ok. Nonetheless, he speaks on how the process is somewhat dehumanizing. It is still taking a life, and if performed too often by any one person, it really leads to a callousness and lack of respect for that life. He said it is why, long ago, the Jewish Rabbis would alternate just who had to kill the livestock so no one was doing it every time. He does the same with his workers in the killing shed. And, of course, there’s a good bit about how awful and desensitizing factory butchery can be.

    In a nutshell at least. I hope it was worth sharing.

  9. @tony,

    one could argue that by thinking that the animal is somehow lacking something that Humans have (ie: a soul) the person has already lost respect for the animals. I think you could butcher animals all your life (as many indigenous peoples seem to do) and not lose respect for life but have even more respect knowing all too well how in order for one life to live so many must die. It seems to me that the Jewish Rabbis alternate the butchering not because they will lose respect for life (as it seems they never had to begin with) but in order for the workers not to be come to this conclusion on their own.

    However, without this respect I agree with you that it can be awful and desensitizing for factory butchers. But maybe it is our culture who is truly desensitized because we never have to kill what we eat.

  10. There is a logical difference between killing a plant or an animal and scout’s piece illustrates this point. Had this been about killing any plant he would not have felt the emotions and revulsion inherent in taking SENTIENT life. We know that other animals are sentient and have minds capable of experiencing pain, distress, and suffering. Its asserted by some that plants are sentient too but this is questionable; animal sentience and minds is not questionable. I refer all who believe that to this article – http://unpopularveganessays.blogspot.com/2009/06/plant-sentience.html

    Anyways, scout will not post my comments so I doubt this one will appear.
    From my perspective, a vegan with indigenous heritage, if its unnecessary to kill other animals, especially when you know it feels wrong to do so, there is no justification for doing so.
    I’m disgusted at your displays of domination and exploitation to live out your anti-civilization fantasies, you privileged white urban scout who does not need to kill other animals to survive.

  11. Great piece, thanks for sharing this. I’ve been straddling the fence about taking the plunge to take on this kind of thing and ultimately my cowardice has won out (so far). I work at a small nature center and I often have to take lives there, but never exactly with my own two hands (we get a lot of injured animals in, and the ones we can’t save go into the freezer or become food for our raptors). It sucks. However, everytime it happens, I feel the kind of connection to the animal that makes me feel like I’ve been punched in the stomach. I go home and eat my Whole Foods chicken and go out into my backyard with tobacco and cry.

    I’m glad that you published Ty’s comments. He calls you privileged, but there’s nothing more privileged than a vegan; indigenous cultures were not vegan, and it must be a little medal of honor to claim indigenous heritage when berating someone for trying to understand what it means to actually be human. It’s more than clear that we’ve all essentially forgotten that.

    I got to see you in Bend and it was a pleasure. Thanks again for what you’re doing.

  12. Who is killed?

    Even if plants have some sort of nervous-system, if they have no ego then any ‘distressed’ sensations, emotions or proto-emotions do not constitute suffering. Think about it. Who?

    A muscle suspended in a beaker with an artificial blood-supply will move and register pain but there’s no ‘one’ to suffer that pain.

    An animal has some (unknowable) kind and degree of consciousness, and it seems reasonable that we form some kind of rough scale of sentience by which we prioritise the suffering we wish to prevent the most. It is our best guess until we learn more. Sam Harris’s latest book is probably very relevant to this.

  13. I had my daughter in late 2004 and breastfed her, and at some point my cycle returned. When it did, it was ugly. It was really, really heavy, month after month, for something like three years. Some months it was so bad I had to stay home the first day or two and break out the rag bag because otherwise I couldn’t leave the bathroom for any meaningful length of time. I had a small child to care for so that was just unacceptable.

    I had no health insurance, so I couldn’t get checked. Didn’t have the cash for Planned Parenthood. Was terrified that something was really wrong with me, and me with a small child I’d just brought into the world.

    Then I read something through the Weston A. Price Foundation about how some people can’t convert beta carotene to vitamin A. I took a multivitamin when I remembered, and I like carrots, but I hadn’t really been eating enough animal foods that had vitamin A in them. Eggs have only a small amount, and I hate liver. So I found a vitamin A supplement that was sourced from cod liver oil and began taking it regularly.

    The effect was miraculous. In just a few months my period got as close to normal as it’d been in quite a long time. This weird cramping, always on my left side, that I’d get the day before it started suddenly dwindled down to almost nothing. I can tell when I’m running short on A anymore because that cramping will come back, but it’s never gotten as severe as it was, and my period’s never been that heavy again. I don’t even give myself a chance to run out of reserves now. I know better.

    I wonder how many women have had to have hysterectomies because their doctors didn’t think to check their vitamin A status. I mean, how would the average doctor know? They don’t get nutrition training.

    It gets worse. Come to find out that just as the WAPF said, vitamin A is also necessary to kidney development in a fetus. My daughter was born with vesicoureteral reflux, where her ureters (tubes running from kidneys to bladder) had not inserted into her bladder properly during her fetal development. The pediatric urologist said it was probably genetic because kids with VUR have a thirty percent chance of having a sibling with the disorder.

    Well, recently I found this:

    http://www.biology-online.org/articles/vitamin_activates_gene_guide.html

    What’s a ureteral bud? Well, it grows in two directions. In one direction it grows into nephrons, those nifty little branchy things in the kidney that do all the blood-filtering. In the other direction, it becomes the ureter.

    Lack of vitamin A prevents the ureteral bud developing properly. By the way, babies and small children can’t convert beta carotene into vitamin A, so it follows fetuses can’t either. And you can’t get vitamin A from plant foods, no matter what vegans and the USDA might claim.

    Don’t need to eat animals, huh? Don’t tell that to my daughter, who (I have it on pretty good authority from a transplant clinic worker) is now at greater risk for end-stage renal failure later in life. Which is so serious that anyone who gets it is automatically eligible for Medicare in the United States no matter how old they are.

    Scout, you’re way too nice to vegans. If they kept their dumb ideas to themselves, it would be one thing. But they’re preaching. And I wonder how many other small children have become future kidney transplant patients because of their B.S.

    By the way, I’ve had rabbit too. It is awesome. Too lean to be one’s sole source of animal protein, but nice once in a while.

  14. Oh, and one more thing. Just because a child hasn’t been diagnosed with VUR doesn’t mean they don’t have it. I’ve heard of people who weren’t diagnosed for more than ten years, or who didn’t find out they had it til they were adults. You still function, just not optimally. We found out my daughter had it when she came down with a bladder infection at four months of age. Hers was pretty severe; even her right kidney, on the side where the VUR was worst, was noticeably undersized on the scans. Many kids’ VUR isn’t that bad. But they’re still at risk.