While staying at at a homestead in Northern California in the U.S., I killed a chicken to understand the true price of meat. Here’s how that allll went down, and what I learned from it.
For those who prefer to listen to stories:
I decided to kill a rooster because I’ve eaten hella chicken in my life. I wanted to get closer to my food.
Isolated in a coop by himself, the small grey silky was crowing with bravado, egging on the multiplicity of roosters living in chicken paradise just 50 feet away. The woman who gave Kelly the roosters informed her that the other roosters didn’t like this silky. This fact led Kelly to prioritize him for the slaughter alongside an old dominant rooster from the henhouse. When I learned this was going to happen during my time on the Barefoot Forest Homestead, I volunteered to help. With fried chicken previously being my favorite meal across our earth for years, I thought that it would be important for me to really understand the process to get a chicken from live creature to tasty treat.
Although killing animals is something routine for Kelly and for a lot of people, I had never taken a life (with the exception of three fish I killed while trying out spearfishing). While I had seen a sheep slaughtered before, I wasn’t the one to extinguish its life force. After seeing the light disappear from that sheep’s eyes, killing an animal is not something I take lightly. I knew that it was time for me to learn the true price of meat, and I was grateful to Kelly for being so open to teaching me.
I was nervous AF when we went to catch the roosters set to be slaughtered.
When Kelly’s text came through telling me that it was time, I was nervous on the five minute walk from my tent to the main house. When I arrived, Kelly had the slaughter station set up on her back deck. Next to a stack of five gallon buckets sat two stools, one occupied by a knife and sharpening steel. When she walked out sporting billowy, low crotch travel pants from some eastern country, she picked up the knife and sharpener. As she slid the knife along the sharpener, the rhythmic shick, shick, shick made what was coming all the more the real.
It was time to feed the hens and grab the old dominant rooster set to be slaughtered. Barefoot, and accompanied by Emma, a beautiful yellow rescue dog integral to operations on the homestead, we walked to the hen house. As Kelly spread out the food, trying to trick the rooster into her proximity, the rooster knew something was up. When she would turn her attention toward him, he would run away. Then, he made the fatal mistake of running into the coop. Kelly was triumphant, saying something to the effect of, “Yup. Gotcha now!” She closed the hatch to the coop, trapping the rooster inside.
Inside the coop, Kelly skillfully caught him and tipped him upside down. Holding him firmly by the legs, he started screaming. Over and over again, the rooster bellowed in protest as we walked back to the house. It was loud and urgent and unceasing. Kelly was nonplussed. “Hmm. They usually don’t do this. When you turn them upside down, they usually go into this kind of trance.” As the rooster continued shouting, we walked to pick up the isolated silky. Old dominant rooster in one hand, Kelly caught the silky easily in the other.
I held the rooster I was going to murder while Kelly showed me how to end it’s life as peacefully as possible.
As we walked up to the slaughter station on the back deck, Kelly stretched the silky out to me. “This one is yours.” As I took the bird by it’s legs, I shared with her that I had never held a chicken this way before. Luckily, the grey silky was much more docile than the other rooster. It clucked a bit, but was mostly still and silent. Inverted rooster in hand, I did what I do with all peaceful animals. I began to pet it, hoping the action would keep both of us calm. As my hand ran up the feathers, I watched Kelly settle on the stool where she would teach me how to slaughter the chicken dangling in a grip stiffened by nerves.
Towel draped over her legs, Kelly placed the white rooster between her thighs belly up, and squeezed him into stillness. She pulled the rooster’s head down by the leathery comb, exposing the bird’s vulnerable neck. She explained to me that to find the jugular, I’d have to feel around for the jaw bone. The jugular was just underneath it, and I’d need to press firmly with the knife to make sure I killed the bird as peacefully as possible. After slicing the throat, she explained that I would have to hold on tightly to the chicken with my thighs. Although the animal experiences brain death right away, the chicken would continue to thrash. She described a few moments where she hadn’t held on tight enough, and the chicken’s body fell into the mess of the compost bucket.
“That’s not the way you want this to go.”
After the explanation, she took the sharpened knife to the jugular, and slid it through the chicken’s throat. The blood immediately poured out over her hands. Kelly’s rooster thrashed just once or twice, apparently having more fight in life than in death. After waiting for a time, Kelly moved its head around, explaining that when it’s all done, the rooster goes fully limp. I watched, mesmerized, still petting the live silky in my hands, feeling its soft feathers travel under my fingers, saying under my breath that everything was going to be okay. Obviously, I was talking to myself, and not the rooster I was about to murder.
Kelly immediately began plucking her dead bird, explaining that it was easiest to do the wings right after the death. With dexterous, experienced hands, she began pulling and sorting feathers. Some were going to the compost to be fed back to the chickens, and others were put in a smaller bucket, set aside for jewelry-making and art projects in the slow winter months. I watched her pluck, live silky still dangling upside down in my hands. She broke me out of my hypnosis, by pointing at the stool next to her. “You ready?”
Killing the rooster took less than a second, waiting for it’s life force to fade fully took minutes.
Not really ready, but committed to understanding the true price of my food, I said yes. I looked into the chicken’s beautiful left eye, which was the color of fire. I thanked him for giving his life so that I could have this experience, and I sat down on the vacant stool. Kelly handed me a towel, I draped it over my lap, and I put the chicken in between my thighs. Ironically not wanting to hurt him, I didn’t squeeze tight enough. He almost struggled loose, but I caught him, squeezing him much tighter so he couldn’t move. I wanted this to be as peaceful as possible for him and for me.
Kelly handed me the murder weapon. As I held it in my hand, I felt along his chin for the bone, and found the soft spot where I would make the kill. After a helpful critique from Kelly to turn his head for proper knife position, I squeezed my thighs just a little tighter, pulled the comb tight to fully expose his throat, took a deep breath, and cut. It was way easier than I thought it would be, the sharp blade slicing through the fragile flesh with almost no resistance. His head fell back as I pulled, white severed neck ligaments poking out in a jagged pattern like the smile of a cartoon monster.
The chicken’s blood was a deep, dark crimson, and poured over my left hand and into the bucket. As the warm liquid and viscera drained out of the silky, I could feel the impact of what I had done reverberate through my whole body. The silky thrashed a lot more than the other rooster, and I held on tight with my thighs, feeling the life force flow out of this creature who had just been quietly clucking in my arms just moments before. Finally, the thrashing slowed, and then the rooster was still. I wiggled the limp head and said to Kelly, “I think it’s done.” She warned me to be sure, because sometimes it seems done but isn’t.
But there was no more thrashing. The life in this chicken had been fully extinguished. All that was left to do was pluck it. As I mimicked the grip I saw Kelly use earlier, she told me that it would be obvious which way to pluck if I paid attention. She also warned me to try not to tear the skin when plucking. It wasn’t a huge deal, but would make it harder to pluck nearby feathers if I did. She also said not to worry too much about perfect plucking. This tiny silky was going to her dog, Zoey, and Zoey’s digestive systems can handle feathers.
Plucking the rooster took forty minutes.
As I plucked enough feathers to create a bald patch, I was astonished when blue skin greeted me underneath. It was actually quite beautiful, and Kelly informed me this was how all silkies looked under their feathers. As we sat next to one another, plucking, Kelly said that there are easier ways to pluck chickens, like dipping the dead birds in boiling water. But she said that she preferred hand plucking because it was cleaner, it made it so that she could use the feathers for art, and it connected her more deeply to the process. She also described the way industrial farms basically put chickens (sometimes still alive) into centrifuge-like devices to get rid of the feathers.
My body still physically impacted by my kill, the body of the chicken whose life I had taken still warm in my lap, the idea of this made me fucking sick. If I hadn’t already been on a path of rejecting factory farmed meat, this experience definitely would’ve pushed me in that direction. I just imagine that eating something killed and processed in that way couldn’t possibly bring good energy into the body of the person eating it.
For the next 40 minutes, we sat and plucked and clucked like hens about life. The rhythm of plucking was quite meditative, and I found the earlier tension in my body release as the chicken began to resemble what I’ve seen in the grocery store aisle my whole life – just more blue. When I got to plucking the tail feathers on my chicken, I noticed two really beautiful ones that I set aside. I needed a new set of earrings, and these two simple grey feathers were going to become that set. It seemed only fair to honor the first life I’d ever taken by carrying it’s essence with me. Plus I’d get to tell my young nieces and nephews they were chicken butt feathers, something I was really looking forward to.
When we both finished plucking, Kelly put the blue corpse of my chicken on the deck for her dog. Zoey wouldn’t eat it at first, so Kelly cut off a leg and the head. She laughed as she reflected on how Zoey only ate the chickens if they were cut into little parts. So unlike her sister Emma, who would eat the whole thing at once if she could. As Emma and Zoey gnawed on chicken heads, we walked into the house so Kelly could finish my lesson in chicken processing.
Cleaning and processing the rooster for eating took Kelly fifteen minutes.
At the sink, Kelly began to flow into what was obviously a well-practiced routine. She cut off and soaked the feet so she could clean them, and they would eventually be used to create broth. She cut sections of the digestive system at each end so she could remove the innards. As she tutted about a liver that wasn’t quite fully healthy, she explained to me that it was actually important for her to see the insides of her animals to get a sense for the health of the whole flock. If something was up in one chicken, her knowing it could help the rest.
As she struggled to remove the crop – a food filled sac that she said usually came out pretty easily – she also shared how slaughtering animals had helped with her own healing process. In seeing the way animal bodies worked, she actually came to understand her own body more deeply. Once the rooster was completely clean and gutted, Kelly said she was going to put the chicken in a vacuum sealed bag and throw it in the freezer.
My hands and legs still covered in chicken blood, I thanked Kelly for inviting me into the experience. Kelly had inherited dozens of roosters from a hen-selling operation that didn’t need them, and I found myself volunteering to go through this again, should she need my help. For all the chickens that I’ve eaten in my life, it felt right to have to experience this intense hour long process a few more times.
The image of the chicken’s death kept popping up in my mind long after it was all done.
I grabbed my two beautiful chicken butt feathers and walked down to the shower, hearing Kelly try to continue to persuade Zoey to eat the chicken I had killed. I hoped that Zoey would deign to eat the silky. I wanted to make sure the chicken’s death wasn’t for nothing. As I stripped off my dirty work clothes in the shower, I looked down at legs covered in cuts from days spent in hard labor. I couldn’t tell where my cuts ended and the dried chicken blood began. Pink scrub cloth covered in biodegradable soap, I had to scrub quite hard to wash away the evidence of my earlier murder.
That night, I dreamed for the first time in months. Strange dreams of me becoming a part of a group of happy high-school aged prostitutes in an underground ring run by a teacher madam on site at a school. I was pulled out of happily servicing my first John by the crowing of the roosters early in the morning. Every morning before this, the sounds were a mild irritant. This morning, the sounds drew into my mind’s eye an image of hot, crimson blood pumping over the silky’s torn neck ligaments, across my hand, and into the bucket. It was enough to get me out of bed at 6am to write about the experience.
Later in the day, as I helped another volunteer work on an electric fence to provide Kelly’s goats with more freedom throughout the day, I walked by the chickens several times. While before, I thought only of the tasty eggs they provided, and thought they were so cute, my thoughts on this day were much darker. I knew that if I wanted or needed to, I could take one of their lives. Very, very easily.
Being involved in a death so intimately gave me words to describe what it feels like to transition.
Over the weeks that followed, the grisly murder was still in my mind when visiting the chickens, thinking about the chickens, or talking about the chickens. However, over time, the power of that image was fading. As my mind’s eye picture was losing power, the power of being a part of this chicken’s death was gaining power in the form of perspective about life transitions.
Here on this homestead partially to figure out what to do in the face of the death of yet another stage in my life’s journey, I marveled at how similar the transition felt to the way the rooster died. When I first became aware that my time with the Limitless World Tour was over, the pain was as immense as having my throat slit and the outpouring of emotions was as strong as a river of blood. After the first experience of pain and outpouring of emotions, I experienced calm for a time. Then, despite understanding there was no going back to this life that was over – I experienced a resurgence of pain and another outpouring of emotions. It was far less intense than the initial moment, but, like the rooster, there was still energy from this life pumping out of me. After that, more calm, more relapse into pain and emotions. More calm, and then one last shudder of pain and outpouring of emotions so small it lasted only a few hours. And then, finally, just calm. The life was over, I was in full acceptance, and I had no more resistance left.
I thought about my entire life up until this point, and I marveled at how this pattern had been true in so many of my life’s transitions. Some cycles lasted years, and some mere days, but almost all had that same undulating pattern the chicken’s death helped me to see: pain, emotional release, then calm; pain, emotional release then calm, over and over until stillness. And while, just as Kelly warned me, it’s not over until it’s fully over, and there may be a resurgence of pain that I can’t anticipate, at the time of this writing, it feels like it’s done. And in this stillness and acceptance, I feel ready to begin the next chapter of my life in freedom from the past, excitement about the unknown future, and as fully in the present as I’ve ever been. I’m especially excited that this new life begins with a beautiful set of chicken butt feather earrings.