When we first moved to our farm, we purchased two Duroc barrows for the express purpose of putting them in the freezer. They were meat animals, plain, pure, and simple. We named them so: Porkchop and Hambone. The kids were prepared well in advance that at some point these animals would leave their pen and enter our freezer. Being a family that hunts, this came as no surprise and was readily accepted; the kids gave the hogs a wide berth.
We treated these animals with respect and kindness, they were well fed and comfortably sheltered, and even given a modicum of attention to “keep them friendly.” Despite their dubious futures, we were under the impression that we could pet and care for these animals and still covet the meat. I still feel that way.
The day came when Porkchop, the heavier of the two hogs, was due to meet his fate, so we pulled the trailer around to load him up for his ride to the slaughterhouse. We were not prepared to slaughter this animal ourselves. We did not have the know-how or the facilities to do it properly.
I knew by the angle of the trailer and the proximity of the gate, that if Porkchop so chose he could easily find an escape route. Well, he chose so. He wriggled his way through the gap and was heading for the front gate before I could form the words to tell my husband that he was loose.
He hit the gate and made a sharp left into the neighbor’s pasture and as he passed the property line fence, which consisted of one strand of electric wire, he got zapped. No amount of pushing, pulling, baiting, begging, or reasoning was going to get this pig to come back out the way he went in. We took the fence down and even walked back and forth through the opening to show him the danger had passed, but no cookie.
The thing was discussed and my husband made up his mind that there was only one alternative so that the neighbor could get his fence back up and we could get on our way. He sent my son into the house to get the gun.
I gave the kids, 11, 12, and 15 years old, the option of being present or not, based on their own personal squeamish scales, and they all decided they could handle it. My son hunts regularly and was well prepared for what was coming. The girls and I plugged our ears with our fingers, and alternately opened and snapped shut our eyes in horrible anticipation. My husband baited Porkchop close, and he ambled up like a pig who had never been abused in his life and never expected he would be.
If the first shot had done the deed then I suppose I wouldn’t have broken down and sobbed like a baby, but it didn’t. Porkchop squealed and shook his head like he’d been stung in the forehead by a particularly nasty bee. It took two more shots to accomplish the goal and by this time all three of us girls were sobbing openly. Porkchop was blissfully unaware that we were the source of his pain, I however was not, and at that moment I was the most wretched creature on earth. It felt like the worst kind of betrayal. It was only moments, but it seemed an eternity before the pig was finally still and I let out a low sigh of relief.
My husband crossed the pasture toward me, the gun dangling limply from his hand, his eyes on the ground before him.
“I didn’t want to have to do that,” he said softly, letting out a shaky breath. I got a mental image of him leaning over the pen wall and scratching Porkchop behind the ear, as I had seen him do so many times. There was nothing I could say to make him feel any better.
I forced myself to wander close to Porkchop. Whatever force that made him the big red pig that I had fed day after day was gone. What I saw lying there was not Porkchop but meat. Meat to feed my family. Wholesome clean food to put in the freezer and carry us through.
There is no way to anticipate or prepare for your reaction to an event like this. Self-reliance is not always pretty or kind. There have been numerous pigs that have followed in Porkchop’s footsteps, and I guess I can say that it never has gotten any easier to deal with, really, but there have been no more sobbing spells. It’s now a matter of course to fill the freezer, another job that must be done. Admittedly it is done now with a little more finesse and skill, and not quite so much emotion. We still treat our slaughter animals with respect and care and we still show them that modicum of attention to “keep them friendly.”
The truth is, I know how pork is produced on a large scale. If I am going to eat meat, I would much rather do it my way. Feed them, care for them, let them grow naturally at their own rate in comfortable and pleasant surroundings. The price for this choice is that we must take these animals from the hoof to the freezer ourselves, and therein lies the rub: to kill an animal is an awesome responsibility. If one doesn’t feel a least a little uncomfortable or bad about it, then there is reason to worry. Regardless of whether an animal is killed for food, or threatens livestock, or must be put down for health reasons it must never be done lightly, as it is the taking of a life, it is final, and there is no way to sugarcoat it.
Porkchop made the supreme sacrifice for our family. His journey took him from birth to our freezer, and despite the sadness of his final few moments, I know in my heart that for the six months he was on this earth he lived a better quality of life than he ever would have, had he ended up in a grocer’s freezer.
Our journey took us from the casual meat-eaters, choosing our sustenance blithely from a cold case lined with little Styrofoam packages, to the wizened self-reliant self-maintaining humans, that now know what is involved in filling those cases. Porkchop reminded us that we chose this life, the good, the bad, and the ugly, and taught us that we should always be prepared to do that which we would ask others to do on our behalf, because the day may come when we may be asked to do exactly that. As it did with Porkchop.