The Conscientious Omnivore: Witness to a Slaughter

While browsing at the Salt Lake City Farmer’s Market, we met some folks who own a small chicken farm a few towns away.  They seemed to run the kind of farm we look for when sourcing our own food, so we spent some time talking with them about their chickens, their feed, and how they handle their processing.  We told them about what we do, and how we encourage others through our work to make ethically responsible animal protein choices. Towards the end of the conversation, they invited us out to the farm for a visit in the spring… and, if we wanted, to witness a slaughter.

Dallas accepted the offer.  Melissa declined.

Dallas’ Perspective

Given that I spent more than 20 years of my life as a lacto-ovo vegetarian, I’ve come a long way with meat. As I learned of the profound health-promoting effects of eating well-raised, naturally-fed healthy animals, I transitioned fairly easily to eating more flesh. I started with “easy” meats like chicken and salmon, but quickly discovered my love of real meat: steaks, chops, ribs, shank, loin, marrow, heart. Depending on the cut, my preference is often to eat it rare. As part of a personal growth project, I took a beef butchery class at 4505 Meats, and plan on doing some deer or elk hunting later this year.

We write and speak about the health and ethical issues related to the use of animals as food. I feel deeply that it is a moral imperative to treat animals in a respectful and humane way, and that this imperative is not negated by the fact that, in the end, we kill and eat some of these animals. The horrors of industrial production of meat animals is a topic for another day, but relevant  for that discussion is the concept of voluntary ignorance about the methods used to raise and kill our meat animals. Factory farming would not be successful without its invisibility to the public, and without purposeful deception and widespread abuse by large corporations like Smithfield or Tyson. These profitable corporations routinely treat your future food in a manner that they’d be arrested for if they were doing it to your dog or cat. That should give you some pause.

However, it’s not just the “evil corporations” that carry the responsibility here. The consumer is also to blame, since the consumers’ collective lack of demand for transparency has allowed the development of a clandestine, inhumane meat production system. Several US states have passed laws that prohibit photographing or recording in meat production facilities. Passed under the ridiculous guise of “food safety”, these laws obviously serve to shelter the abuses of industrial farming operations from public scrutiny. In many cases, we consumers prefer ignorance to the harsh, ugly reality of where more than 99% of our meat comes from.

The other major consideration here is the financial one. Americans spend the smallest percentage of their income on food of any country in the world. A few decades ago, Americans spent three or four times as much on food (by percentage) as they do now. So consumers demand cheap meat and are willing to turn a blind eye to how that meat is produced, and unscrupulous companies are willing to produce and sell large amounts of that industrially-produced meat to consumers at progressively lower prices—but at great cost.

One way out of the quagmire is demanding transparency in food production, and becoming personally involved (to the degree that is possible) in each of our own food chains. If the purveyor won’t tell you how and where their animals are raised, don’t buy their products. And if the farmer refuses to let you visit the farm, don’t support that farm. It is not exactly fun to ponder (or personally observe) the reality that a living, breathing animal must die so that we may be optimally healthy and robust, but that does not negate that reality. After all, look where avoiding the realities of farm animals’ lives and deaths has taken us. Being more personally involved in and connected to the source of my food allows me to both improve the quality of my own food, and to positively influence the food production system by “voting with my fork” (thank you, Michael Pollan).

All of this has been a preamble, I suppose, to why I feel compelled to actually observe the life and, at times, death of some of my food. Admittedly, I have little tolerance for the justification of “I just can’t handle seeing animals die.” If you voluntarily choose to remain ignorant of the realities of food production, do you deserve to partake in the animal whose life was taken? Yes, to many of us, killing animals is distasteful and ugly and messy and emotionally disturbing. But the personal discomfort that we may experience as a result of genuine personal observation of reality serves to emotionally and spiritually connect us more deeply to our food, our world, and those loved ones that we share this Good Food with. The longstanding deficiency of that deep-rooted connection to the animals we eat has facilitated the construction of an entirely immoral food production system. We cannot afford—as an individual or a society—to continue to turn a blind eye to that inhumane system. As Gandhi notes, “You can judge the morality of a nation by the way the society treats its animals.”

My personal response to that immorality is to demand transparency, and bear witness to not only the animals’ life, but its death. It may make me uncomfortable or sad, but more importantly, it also makes me deeply thankful for and respectful of the animals that I eat. I’m not saying that everyone (or myself, for that matter) needs to participate in or observe the slaughter of every animal they eat; that is neither practical nor necessary. But refusing to emotionally confront the most uncomfortable aspect of eating animals seems deeply disrespectful to me. Open your eyes, and look into your food’s eyes. It will make the world a better place.

Melissa’s Perspective

Dallas’ perspective above was eloquent and impassioned. Mine is far more plain-spoken and practical, but just as valid.

I have a tenuous relationship with meat.  As mentioned in our Primer for the Meat-Challenged,  I was a mostly-vegetarian for a long time, driven by conceptual challenges and texture issues.  The gristly, sinewy consistency of meat, combined with the slightly repellent idea of eating flesh, has made it difficult for me to be an omnivore. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy a good steak… once or twice a year. I have to be in the right mood, it has to be the right cut, and it especially has to be the right temperature. (Unlike Dallas, I most definitely do believe there is such a thing as “too rare.”)

I eat meat less because I like to and more because I have to—because I believe that meat is a necessary part of an optimally healthy diet, and above all, I want to be healthy. Because of what I know about plant-based protein sources (sub-optimal at best, profoundly damaging at worst) and the health benefits of animal products, I’ve worked hard to overcome my issues with eating animals. I stick with meats that look less like flesh (think burgers versus steak), I prepare them in ways that make it easier for me to eat them, and I’m not very adventurous. (Lamb is still not okay, and meat on the bone remains a challenge.)

It is important that I acknowledge the reality of where my burger comes from. The meat I eat to be healthy came from a live animal that was killed just so I could eat it. I am acutely conscious that the animal once lived, then was slaughtered,  and ended up my plate. I do not deny the reality of what it means for me to eat meat. I research the living conditions of my animals, the food they are fed, the method in which they are killed. I’ve visited my farms, watched videos of both humane and inhumane slaughter processes, and read books that graphically spell out the torture employed by this country’s factory farming operations. I am as invested in the process of eating animals as I can be—but I can go no further. I draw the line at watching someone actually kill my animal, my food.

Should I bear witness to the slaughter, there is a high probability that I will be unable to eat meat ever again. I know this from past experiences–gagging on pork that I first watched roast whole on a spit, passing on freshly killed elk because of the blood running down the inside of the Ziploc bag, losing my taste for an expensive grass-fed ribeye because I bit into a small patch of gristle. I must distance myself from the living, breathing source of my food, or I risk my already shaky hold on an optimally healthy meat-eating existence. And for the sake of my health, which directly impacts my family (especially my son), I cannot allow that to happen.

I don’t believe one must personally bear witness to slaughter to be an ethically responsible omnivore. Burying one’s head in the sand is one thing—denying the horrors of factory farming or supporting that system out of purposeful ignorance is indefensible. I am not denying what it means to eat a chicken breast for dinner. I am involved in my food chain, and I have never shied away from the hard truths about what it means to eat animals. But while I admire Dallas’ willingness to expose himself to every aspect of his decision to eat animals, I cannot bring myself to join him in this venture of witnessing a slaughter. The risk—the very real potential that the experience will snip the remaining  thread between me and my ability to consume animal flesh—is simply too great.

Your Perspective

Do you believe that we should all be willing to bear witness to every aspect of our animals lives and deaths to be a truly conscientious omnivore? Or is it enough to simply educate ourselves and make ethically defensible decisions, without personally experiencing every aspect of the process? Leave your thoughts in comments.

We can help you live the Whole9 life.

Fill out the form below to join the Whole9 Newsletter.


  1. Courtney says

    I was lucky enough to grow up spending time on my aunt and uncle’s elk ranch. It was totally normal for me to go out and feed the babies in the morning and then see a deer draining to be butchered. I am so so grateful for that experience, because it taught me how important it is that animals be treated with care and respect, and also that it’s ok to eat meat that only had one bad day. However-about a year ago I enthusiastically accepted an invitation to slaughter and roast a chicken with a friend who raises them. The morning of I started crying and told my husband I couldn’t go! So I think there is room for both perspectives. I have a responsibility to know where my meat comes from and how it was treated, but I also know that if I had to kill/butcher my own I would be a pescatarian by default. Knowing that about myself makes me even more grateful to farmers and butchers who do the work so I don’t have to!

  2. says

    As a farmer (raising pastured meats), I really appreciate both of these perspectives. Obviously, Dallas’ perspective is the one I identify with more closely (and take a few steps further by caring for and petting those pigs every day until I send them off to slaughter, or do the job myself). However, I feel like I’m in business to serve the Melissa’s of the world even more than the Dallases, who I suppose would find ways to hunt or raise meat if farmers like me weren’t here. Those who are acutely sensitive to treatment and lifestyle of the animals they eat need access to a farmer who can tell them exactly how life was for those animals and assure them of a quick and humane death, without too many details. I’m glad that people increasingly have access to just that.

  3. says

    I could have written Melissa’s words to a tee, and Trent could have written Dallas’. I am glad I’m not the only one who is trying to eat a nutrient-dense optimal diet but has an aversion to meat! – Dawn

  4. says

    Great topic, and one that more of us need to think about more often to deprogram ourselves from the full consequences of our dietary choices. Meat does not, in fact, just magically appear perfectly bloodless and wrapped in plastic.

    I killed a Thanksgiving turkey a while back, posted on it here: http://paleoperiodical.com/2012/11/19/spilling-blood-and-giving-thanks/

    We just bought 20 acres, and at some point when we’re up and running, I fully plan on having meat chickens, and perhaps lamb, pigs, and cattle at some later date. I plan on being part of all of it, the whole process from start to finish.

    I also think people should consider the lost arts of hunting, foraging, and trapping, the ultimate in food sustainability and security.

  5. Kathy says

    I grew up on a grain farm in Nebraska,where now they sadly raise all the GMO corn and soybeans crops…but that’s another story. We also raised enough pork, beef and chickens to feed a family of 5 in the 60s and 70s. I have seen the entire life cycle from the piglets and calves being born to helping with the butchering of the animal when it was time. We played with the animals when they were little, but knew that is part of the life cycle that we are all a part of…we are born, we live and we die, animals just have the opportunity to nourish the world at their life’s end. I am quite thankful that I grew up eating “clean” meat and fresh eggs, vegetables grown in a garden and canned and frozen for the winter…I give the credit for my health today to the opportunity to eat food fresh from the source for the first half of my life. I wish the same health for everyone and I do agree that it could be helpful for people to see the complete cycle of where their food comes from.

  6. Leslie says

    Melissa, I relate to everything you said! You really summed up what I’ve had a difficult time putting words to.

  7. says

    What a thoughtful and eloquent article, on both sides. I definitely relate more to Dallas’ perspective, and from some of the comments above I think a lot of that has to do with upbringing and the general worldview I’ve developed over a few decades.
    I was born in the country too, and whilst our property didn’t have animals (except the ubiquitous dog and cat!) my friend’s properties did and we were all aware of what those animals were for. I didn’t see animal slaughter directly in my childhood, but I certainly understood that meat came from those cows and sheep and chickens running around outside, as did eggs, cheese and milk (unlike a disturbing number of school children, as Jamie Oliver showed us all). That understanding of the true sources and, yes, sacrifice needed for our food is something I will 100% be striving to teach my children – from picking berries and apples, to explaining that whilst chickens, lambs and kangaroos are cute and fun, we also eat them and we need to show respect for that.

    I probably would be one of those people who, at the collapse of civilisation, would pick up bow, arrow, machete and snare and go have-at in the wild, but I can also appreciate that our modern society’s incredible disconnect from nature has led to more people like Melissa, and that really as long as those people understand animal welfare and make ethical choices, they don’t have to be like me – meat proteins are so essential for living, I’d rather everyone eat (appropriately farmed versions of) them than turn into vegans (and watch our species potentially wither and die, living against our natures). Watching an animal die doesn’t distress me, but I totally get that for other people it does, not matter how humane it might be.

    Though, maybe it’s just an Aussie thing – we are the only country on the planet that eat both our national emblems after all! (The other one is emu, for those who were wondering).

  8. says

    Thank you all for sharing your perspectives. This piece was a really interesting one for us, as this was a conversation we had many a night over the dinner table. It’s nice to know that we’re not the only people conflicted in this question, and especially nice to know that our community cares as much as we do about doing the ethically responsible thing when it comes to eating meat–whatever that may look like.


  9. says

    If you are uncomfortable with watching someone take the life of an innocent animals, consider going vegetarian! Killing others is always unnessesary, as we don’t need animal products to thrive. If you are uncomfortable watching someone kill an animal, it is because your morals include animals. How amazing it is to live by your values!

  10. Caryn says

    I completely agree with Melissa – I think if I had to watch an animal be slaughtered, I would probably never be able to eat it again. Even thinking about it too much makes me want to cry. I have to say Dallas’ opinion was actually a little disturbing. It’s an animal. I took it’s life so it could be my food. Even saying it makes me want to refrain.

  11. Emily says

    I wholeheartedly agree with Dallas’ perspective, and while I disagree with Melissa’s, I respect it. I think the disconnect from the food we eat has contributed significantly to the problems we’re facing in matters of human, animal, and environmental health. I disagree, however, that the decision should be left to/forced upon the consumer.

    As an animal scientist, specialising in sustainability and animal welfare, I strongly believe the producers and retailers have a responsibility to adhere to standards that optimise human, animal, & environmental health. This is accomplished through policy, 3rd party accreditation, certification, etc.

    The consumer has to deal with information overload (and it’s not always accurate information). It would take a significant amount of effort and study to be clued up on the real impacts and costs associated with food. Good animal welfare doesn’t always mean good environmental/sustainable practices and vice versa. Local doesn’t always mean better. Neither does organic. We like to vilify big corp farming – they’re not always bad when it comes to animal welfare and slaughter. I personally don’t buy them, but I also don’t automatically trust local farmer Joe just because he produces down the street.

    Take home point: an animal only died for you to consume it if it’s lived a life devoid of any natural behaviours. Animals live very much in the present (as we should) and don’t contemplate the meaning or end of life. We humans determine or justify in our minds what their purpose, but the truth is, they’re very content being animals until they’re not. Rather than get philosophical on their purpose or meaning, we need to become responsible for the way they’re raised and the way they’re slaughtered. The only way we can do that, if you’re in the consumer-determines what you get camp (which, in the present situation I don’t believe is wrong BTW), is by witnessing how the animal is raised and slaughtered.

    • K.K. Wilder says

      Yes, animals live in the present, but look at an animal facing death from another animal (or human). They know they are in mortal danger and they cry out, run as fast as they can away from the danger, and die in pain. I’m not a vegetarian; I’m a person who eats mostly small farm raised flesh and am still constantly in moral turmoil over it.

  12. Steve Marshall says

    I am much closer to Dallas than Melissa.
    I have chosen to be very involved with my meat. I grow pigs, goats, rabbits and poultry. I have slaughtered all of them myself and we butcher and process everything. Pigs now go to the abattoir as cleaning the hairs off the skin is difficult and time-consuming. The abattoir we use only takes in ‘family’ animals on Wednesday afternoon so we hope it is a gentler process. We use a local chicken farm to slaughter the poultry because as we age plucking them gets tougher.
    I know from experience that animals kept with freedom to act naturally and not bred for maximum weight gain are going to produce denser, more flavoursome meat. If we rate success based on numbers than the most successful animals after humans are the ones we use and the ones we eat – horses, cattle, pigs, goats, etc. The animals I eat would never have existed unless I was going to eat them. I do what I can to give them a natural life and a clean death.
    Should every meat eater attend a slaughter. For adults this is a personal choice. Before I thought about the animals I ate I would have said it did not matter. But once you think about them, of course it matters. I would find it very difficult to eat something if I wanted to avoid the process that put it on my plate.
    For children I think the rearing and slaughter of animals should be part of their education. If you show someone the mechanical recovery of meat and the processing that goes to produce a chicken nugget, very few of them will eat them again.
    How we produce out food should be transparent and available to all.

  13. says

    I’ve really enjoyed the discussion that this article has brought about. Thank you to all for sharing your perspectives in such a well-spoken and respectful way. I appreciate hearing all of your different viewpoints.


  14. Thomas says

    When I was a teen I assisted a butcher in turning a live pig into a massive pile of meat. It was eye opening.
    As a twenty something I went over a year as a vegetarian and not even killing a mosquito during that time, it was eye opening.
    I woke up one morning dreaming about eating raw bloody liver and immediately went and bought and ate some steak, regained some serious health and energy and have never looked back.
    Much later in life I have become a hunter and fisherman, purely to fill the freezer and have good clean meat to eat.
    It has made me a more appreciative, considerate meat eater. I kill and process my own. For now I feed on other organisms, when I die I want my non processed body to be food for other organisms ( micro or large).
    It has always been this way. Nothing is more natural.

  15. Marielle says

    Interesting blog…

    I grew up on a farm and I knew that regularly animals would be slaughtered for meat. I hated it. I’m very emotional attached to animals and it makes me so sad when you realize that the animal is slaughtered to sustain you.
    Most of the time I want to be ignorant and just enjoy my steak.

    However I also know that there is no better meat than meat from your own animals. having meat from a 3 year old cow that you have raised yourself, that had a happy life in the pastures is a gift that you can very rarely experience in Holland. (too many law and regulations).

    I’m not sure if I would be able to witness a slaughter of an animal for meat. It would be heart breaking but I think it would be an almost religious experience as well. That’s how nature works. You’ve got to eat, just as a wolf has to eat. It’s like Elton John said, the circle of life.
    we humans have grown too emotional attached to everything (car, ipod, pet, farm animal), we have come to see something as cute and cuddly while it has for thousands of years served as food.

    I’m not sure if we should ever strive to break that attachment, or should we strive for a world in which you slaughter 1 cow a month and eat that while the other 20 live happily in the field and give you milk… It would be my ideal to have a small farm with a few chickens, goats, cows, sheep and pork…

  16. Kristina says

    I have never witnessed a slaughter, but I would be willing to do so. I don’t think it’s for everyone, though, nor do I think witnessing the sticking point is necessary for having compassion toward food animals.

    I DO however have a “no-babies” rule about meat. I will not knowingly consume veal, and I was 100% against eating lamb until I read up on the labelling (lambs sold for meat are full-grown at 9 months old, and are simply called lambs until they are 1 year).

    Our agricultural situation is a sad one, but its a problem to which there is no simple solution. The reach of our system is so wide and varied.

  17. Kelly says

    Dallas, I agree 100%. I was vegan for a few years (for health reasons, but it made me sicker!), which made me very aware of the lives of the animals we raise for food. When I had to begin eating meat again, I was determined to eat ethically-raised meat because of what I knew. It’s important to have respect for the lives of these animals, even as we eat them – I remember hearing of a Native American tribe that thanked the deer’s spirit after the hunt. Because we do need to eat, but we still owe that respect to animals’ lives. Being present at the slaughter – even better, performing the slaughter – is a strong form of respect. Kind of like Ned Stark having to swing the sword himself if he put a man to death. It’s a way of taking responsibility for your decisions and actions and showing respect for a life you feel you need to take.