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Posts Tagged ‘backyard rabbits’

I’ve spent the past month wondering how to write about slaughtering my pigs. I’ve not only been wondering, but I’ve actually been afraid to write. Rabbit meat/slaughter has been getting a lot of press lately and the reaction to it has been, to me, mostly horrifying. (The New York Times article is titled “Don’t Tell The Kids”). Much of the response to the rabbit-slaughter seminar has been one of outrage: “what’s next, eating dogs?” I guess I shouldn’t be surprised because most of the people that find my blog via search engine are entering ‘woman slaughter rabbit,’ and the only negative comments I’ve received have been about my rabbits. But, this post today is actually about the slaughter of my pigs, and while pigs aren’t as sentimental an animal for most people, they are smarter and much bigger than rabbits.

There’s a reason why animals raised for meat are kept in inhumane conditions. A pig in a cramped pen with a concrete floor isn’t going to get a chance to develop a personality, or at least express it. And it’s much easier to kill a pig with no personality than the one that chews on the cuff of your jeans and rolls over to be scratched with a rake. It’s also much easier to send an animal to the butcher than to organize a humane slaughter in your backyard, with guns, gambrel hooks, stainless steel tables and a small army of people early in the morning willing to help with some very dirty work.

For the whole week leading up to Easter Sunday, I had nightmares. I woke up several times in the middle of the night, sweating, my ears ringing with the imagined sound of screaming pigs and blood. Had I given my pigs enough of a life? Were they ever afraid, or uncomfortable? As far as I can tell, they enjoyed food more than anything else in the world and I gave them way more than they actually needed. They also had a good time rooting and flopping in the mud, and I made those activities available to them almost every evening. I gave them the ability to just be pigs, which is, I think what every animal wants: the freedom to express the traits of their species and their personalities. And, in the end, these pigs never even would have existed if there wasn’t a demand for their meat. So, you have to eat them to save them. Again.

Everyone I talked to told me that I wouldn’t be able to slaughter a pig without it screaming, or that a .22 wouldn’t be able to do the job, and there would definitely be a lot of blood. But, after weeks of planning and worry and interrupted sleep, I couldn’t put off the inevitable any longer–everything was in order.
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It’s 7:30 in the morning, and everyone’s nerves are on edge. Our next door neighbor, Mr. George, appears at the chain link fence on the street in front of our house and yells, “They still alive?!” So much for discretion.

Luckily, the neighborhood is still ‘up-and-coming’ (still partially vacant since Katrina) so no one is really suspicious about what we’re doing, just why we’re here in the first place. Once the stainless steel tables were cleaned, the knives laid out, and the chainsaw running (to cover up the noise of the gunshot), there were no more distractions to keep us from the task at hand. Albert revved the chainsaw, Andy loaded the gun, and I grabbed some grain.

Butcher knives

As soon as we approached, the first pig raised his head at the sound of the grain shaking in the can and that was the last thing he saw. The bullet from the .22 hit him point blank between the eyes. The pig convulsed for about fifteen seconds, then was still. The chickens (dirty birds) ran straight to the blood that dripped on the ground and started drinking it. Then we dragged the carcass to a cleaner spot and Andy stuck a knife between the collarbone and the neck and cut the aorta, sending a final gush of blood out onto the grass.

Pig about to bleed out

The cloud of worry that had been weighing me down all week had been lifted, but now it was time to get to work, before the day got hot enough to spoil the meat. We laid the carcass on a stainless steel table, and cut through the tendons on the hocks to hang the hog carcass on the gambrel hook. Once the carcass was hooked, three strong men grabbed the other end of the rope and pulled the carcass upward through the pulley system rigged up. They dipped the pig into a large vat of nearly boiling water, let it sit for several minutes, then hoisted it out onto the table. The rest of us got to work scraping the bristly hair. It was hot, smelly work, and the skin never quite got as clean as I hoped, but we had to move on and get this pig gutted, then packed on ice so we could move on to the next pig.

Scraping the hair off the hog carcass

Half a pig, getting broken down for the freezer

The next pig was the bigger pig and he was harder to slaughter. But, by 11 o’clock, we had two pigs scraped, gutted and cut in half, sitting on ice, and I had a leg of meat in the oven for dinner. There was still a lot of work to do, cutting up the meat in manageable-sized pieces for the freezer. In fact, it took weeks to continue to render the fat, make sausage, and break the larger cuts down. But, for now, it was time to celebrate, because the hardest part, psychologically at least, was over. I broke out the mimosas.

Ham and leg ready for the oven - so much fat!

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I think of this time of year, once Mardi Gras is over and Lent begins, as New Orleans’ New Year – the time to start anew, repent for the sins of revelry from the holidays, work hard, and make resolutions for the coming year. In my case, I make gardening resolutions for the coming season, and I have to get started quickly. By the end of February, I have to have all my garden beds prepared and corn and potatoes in the ground if I hope to get a harvest before the bugs descend in April and May. So, for the next few weeks, I’m planning a giant garden in my mind, sorting out where the corn goes, so that is doesn’t shade the tomatoes, and getting the soil tested and deciding how to save money on organic soil amendments.

At my new house, I’m lucky to have the use of a vacant lot next door. The owner has given me permission to use it as long as we maintain it, so to me that means feeding myself and hopefully many neighbors. The land itself isn’t much, (30′ by 150′) and only the back half gets good, full sunlight, because my very tall house looms over it to the East. So, I won’t be gardening the entire thing, just maintaining it, and maybe someday I can start a pasture for a goat or a sheep. But, I’m getting ahead of myself – first I need to go back to the land.

Since this area was flooded during Katrina, I’m carefully testing the soil for toxicity and heavy metals. But, while digging around in the dirt, I’ve been pleasantly surprised to discover a rich, dark brown soil that has a fairly crumbly texture and even several earthworms (in addition to bits of plastic and debris from someone’s old life). I’m eagerly awaiting the results of the soil test because I’m hoping that the jungle weeds that thrived on this lot for the last five years actually helped extract the toxins from the soil and contributed significant amounts of organic matter in the form of dead leaves and vines.

Here’s a picture of the lot and my backyard in October 2009:

And my backyard now:

And the bare lot now:

Over the course of the last four months, we have attacked the lot with lawnmower, chainsaw, machete and mulch, and now it is beginning to look more civilized. As you can see, it has come a long way, but now it’s a blank slate that still contains trash, compacted soil that has been driven over, or had a giant dumpster sitting on top of it, and many, many roots crisscrossing underground competing for nutrients.

This season, my garden resolutions are: to produce more food than I ever have before, and to focus mostly on the things I’m good at growing, with a few glamor fruits and vegetables thrown in for experimentation. I’m not going to start any tomatoes from seed because that has been a colossal failure the last two years, and I’m not going to try to coerce the plants that don’t do well. More laissez farming so that I have time to enjoy the garden and its rewards. All the animals around here are steadfastly holding up their end of that bargain – the pigs are turning waste food into valuable meat, the rabbits are doing the same, but they’re also turning my weeds into valuable garden fertilizer, and the chickens are laying eggs daily. So now it’s my turn to get to work and be as productive as possible.

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Two does - Nora and Nelly eating Brussels sprouts leaves.

Two does - Nora and Nelly eating Brussels sprouts leaves.

My quest to raise my own meat has led me to rabbits. I had this (slightly perverse, I’ll be the first to admit) idea that since I raised ducks for Thanksgiving dinner, I should raise rabbits for Easter dinner. So, a few weekends ago, four of us meat-rabbit enthusiasts drove to Ponchatoula to buy two does and a buck from a woman who farms rabbits.

When we drove up, Albert said, “This is going to be one of two things – either a crazy lady with too many rabbits, or a very well-run operation.” We found the latter: a woman who had grown up raising rabbits and kept a very tidy garden and rabbit barn. Initially she met us with a lot of skepticism when we explained that we were going to use the rabbits for meat. She didn’t seem to believe me. I was standing on the other side of the barn, taking pictures of her curious rabbits and she looked over at me suspiciously. She definitely had reservations about us, because we came from the city, and at one point, after we continued to ask her specific questions about humanely slaughtering rabbits, she asked, “You all aren’t PETA people are you?” We had a good laugh at that, and assured her that we were only there to buy rabbits to raise for meat. She finally seemed to relax a little and let down her guard a bit when we assured her that all of her rabbits looked clean, fat and happy.

By the time we left the farm, we were headed back to New Orleans with six rabbits in four cardboard boxes. I had decided to buy two of the farmer’s “culls” – the rabbits that are a bit older and not worth breeding anymore that would be going into her freezer – to see what it takes to kill a rabbit. So with textbook from Oregon State University in-hand, me and two friends got to the task at hand. Let me just say this about my first attempt at killing a mammal for my own consumption: it wasn’t pretty, or easy, or even remotely fun. We went with a broomstick method that I researched on the internet where you put the rabbit on the ground, then lay the broomstick across the back of its neck behind the ears, then step on the broomstick with both feet on either side of the rabbit’s head, grab the hind legs and pull hard. This is supposed to be one of the most humane methods to kill a rabbit because it separates the skull from the spinal cord in one rapid movement. The problem is that the only animals I’ve ever killed, I cut off their heads, so I was absolutely certain that the animal was dead, even though it may be moving around in the case of a ‘chicken with its head cut off.’ With a rabbit, the head is intact, but there is still movement involved while the body shuts down. So, in short, it’s pretty shocking, kind of horrible, and left me full of angst. But, if I had let this rabbit go in the wild, it would probably get preyed upon by a hawk, where death would come in the form of tearing claws, or eaten by a coyote, where a rabbit’s death could be having its guts torn out alive. Nature is not always graceful or kind. And, as a committed omnivore, and former vegetarian for seven years, the purpose in learning how to raise and harvest my own meat is so that I have control over the quality of life of the animal and the quickness of death (hopefully).

First unlucky rabbit

First unlucky rabbit

Two dead rabbits

Two dead rabbits

Then it was on to the skinning, which seemed more difficult than it should have been. The textbook we were following had instructions that said the pelt should peel off “like a sweater.” After I’d been working on my rabbit’s skin for over ten minutes, I started grumbling “off like a sweater my ass” after every few downward tugs – it’s like peeling off a sweater that’s glued to skin!

Off like a sweater - sort of.

Off like a sweater - sort of.

Some professionals can kill, skin and gut a rabbit in under a minute – I’ve obviously got a long way to go.

Ready for the freezer.

Ready for the freezer.

I think that I had no problem killing the ducks because they went from being living creatures to food in my mind the instant that their heads rolled off the chopping block. But the dead rabbit seemed to look at me accusingly with its wide-open eyes (just my perception – because it was actually dead), and then I had to actually cut its head off with a knife that was much too dull. I definitely had to put the carcasses in the freezer for at least a week before I could even think about eating them. But because I did it myself, I felt a grave respect for the future meat that I raise, and made me promise myself to rehearse and practice, and outfit myself with a better knife.

Bogart the New Zealand buck and Nick the Californian

Bogart the Silver Martin buck and Nick the Californian

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