Do-It-Yourself Animal Slaughter Sounds Like a Good Idea. It Isn’t.

What to eat. What not to eat.
June 6 2012 6:42 AM

The Butcher Next Door

Why the rise of DIY urban animal slaughter is bad for people and animals.

Urbanites are starting to keep and slaughter their own farm animals
Urbanites are starting to keep and slaughter their own farm animals

Photograph by Matt Cardy/Getty Images.

When Armageddon strikes, it’s a safe bet that Herrick Kimball will be serving chicken. Known as the Deliberate Agrarian, Kimball grew up “a sissified suburban kid” but decided at the age of 41 to toughen up, drop out of the corporate food system, and seek rural self-sufficiency. Slaughtering and butchering chickens—a multitude of chickens—is central to Kimball’s evangelical quest to liberate himself from the corrupting influence of imported food. Culinarily, he’s unplugged. Plugged in, however, is Kimball’s computer, the pulpit from which he bangs out the gospel of poultry. His tutorial on how to properly butcher a chicken has earned well over a million hits.

Many of those hits have come from hip urban dwellers intent on controlling the food they eat. Urban farming has been happening as long as there have been urban centers, but only recently has it started to reincorporate animals into city space (something Americans stopped doing in the late 18th century due to sanitation concerns). The process began with egg-laying hens, which are now legal for residents to keep in most major cities in the United States. Now, however, urban über-locavores want to eat (and sell) not only eggs but also the chickens themselves, not to mention rabbits, ducks, goats, and even pigs. Municipal codes on keeping and slaughtering animals vary, but most of them are sufficiently vague for backyard butchers to quasi-legally hack the head off dinner within a few feet of the neighbors. A USDA survey found that 10 percent of residents in Denver, Los Angeles, Miami, and New York who keep chickens also kill them.

Decentralizing the act of animal slaughter in the name of taking back the food chain has an empowering ring to it. In reality, it’s a fad rife with trouble. Advocates are quick to justify urban farming on the grounds that the industrial food system is broken. Compassionate carnivores aim to bypass the abattoir, eliminate the distance between farm and fork, and take full responsibility for the animals they eat. Do-it-yourself butchery is said to help eliminate food deserts, empower ethnic groups to maintain cultural traditions, and minimize animal suffering. It’s billed as safer than industrial meat processing on both an environmental and a human scale. These arguments may sound convincing, but they obscure a host of problems that result when urban backyards are transformed into slaughterhouses.

The most obvious concern relates to quality of life. Not every urban dweller wants to live next door to a stable of farm animals. In Oakland, Calif., one resident whose home abuts a backyard farm housing dozens of animals was recently kept up all night by the moaning of a dying a goat (who had eaten poison accidentally left out by the “farmer”), which you can listen to here:

Neighbors eventually filed a complaint against this farm, citing (among other issues), “increased noise, flies, [and] odor.” In another incident, the Los Angeles County Animal Control, with the help of a nonprofit called the Gentle Barn, rescued more than 50 animals about to be slaughtered by a “Southern California backyard butcher” who was routinely abusing his animals. Not only were all his creatures emaciated, but they had “infected lungs, parasites, fevers, and hacking coughs.” Last summer, backyard chickens and ducks infected more than 71 people with two separate strains of salmonella. Urban centers already deal with plenty of daunting health and safety issues. Do we really want to add traditionally rural ones to the mix?

 Another problem has to do with dedication and experience. As Herrick Kimball, the Deliberate Agrarian, consistently notes, animal husbandry is a life-consuming project requiring considerable resources. However, if articles like “A Hipster’s Guide to Farm Animals” are any indication, this newer demographic may have commitment issues. Geared toward Phoenix residents thinking about “jumping the hipster bandwagon and getting a farm animal,” this twee manual instructs potential chicken owners to “prepare yourself to be stunned by how cool [chickens] are,” adding, “imagine it’s like dating a funky hipster chick—no matter how hard you try, you won’t be as cool as that sexy-ass chick.”

This hipster-speak seems to characterize a lot of urban chicken writing. A first-person piece published in Canada’s Globe and Mail recounts the experience of an architect who, after deciding to raise chickens, declares that “the Ladies [his chicks], pea-sized brain and all” truly appreciate his chicken-rearing efforts—efforts that enabled him to achieve “hipster status at last, after all these years.” This quest for hipster-farmer bona fides has even led chicken coop manufacturers to capitalize on the movement: Witness the Nogg, a $2,800 chicken coop designed to resemble a huge cedar egg, which some have dubbed a “chicken coop for hipster chicken.” But the “Hipster’s Guide” is the ultimate source for flippant comments minimizing the gravity of owning farm animals. It notes that while backyard eggs might not be an aphrodisiac, what’s sure to provide sexual enthrallment is “telling that babe or dude whom you found sleeping next to you ... that you have farm fresh eggs to shove in their face hole.” As for keeping pigs, the manual informs our young hipsters how “pigs are crazy smart” and “LOUD.” The authorities on this chicken and pig advice are, respectively, the author of a dating column and the owner of a tattoo parlor.

Hipster questing notwithstanding, backyard butchers commonly claim that an important benefit of raising and slaughtering their own animals is that doing so fosters a sense of dignity for the animals who “gave” their lives for our culinary pursuits. Mark Zuckerberg sang this tune last year when he publicly vowed to personally slaughter all the meat he ate, explaining that it would make him more “thankful” for his food. The claim that DIY slaughter promotes respect for animal welfare seems sensible enough, but it’s routinely belied by backyard butchers who blog. What they publish suggests that killing animals is as likely to desensitize as it is to nurture empathy for our non-human friends.

Examples are all too easy to find. An urban farmer in Austin, Texas, had this immediate reaction after improperly slaughtering a duck and watching it thrash blood all over her yard for 10 minutes: “Good thing i wore old pants and sneakers.” A man who killed his own turkey concluded, “the thrill of killing your own food is an exhilaration better than skydiving.” He was especially pleased to discover how “there is something so pure and animalistic about it.” (His blog is now defunct.) In another case, a father snapped the head off a chicken with a pair of garden shears in full view of his very young son, whom his other son, a blogger, proudly deemed “a chicken murderer in training.” Training, though, is often exactly what’s missing among DIY butchers. As Karen Davis, president of the animal-welfare group United Poultry Concerns, told me in an email, “Most amateur slaughterers don’t know a carotid artery from a jugular vein.” (In a piece about the Foxfire books in Slate earlier this year, Britt Peterson uncovered some examples of amateur-slaughter disaster stemming from this kind of ignorance.)

A final observation about urban husbandry is that, paradoxically, it fails to confront one of the biggest problems with industrial agriculture: It doesn’t provide animals sufficient space to behave naturally. This limitation is illuminated by the urban farm permit approved last April by the city of Oakland for Novella Carpenter, author of the book Farm City and a maven of urban farming.

According to Carpenter’s Minor Conditional Use Permit for her 4,500-square-foot urban residential plot, her farm is allowed to keep more than 40 animals, including ducks, chickens, rabbits, pigs, and goats. While 100 square feet per animal is certainly generous by industry standards, it pays no heed to the fact that, under natural conditions, these animals would cover miles of diverse landscape, including open pastures. Carpenter’s permit actually requires that the animals be constantly confined to prevent their manure from contaminating the crops being grown on the premises. When pressed on the issue of raising farm animals in the city, Carpenter suggested that animal welfare was hardly her top concern. She told Bloomberg Businessweek, “[W]e just want to kill a chicken.”

Carpenter is not alone in this sentiment. Urbanites are increasingly seeking the right to slaughter at home. However, in a hopeful turn of events, Carpenter’s permit contains this unexpected stipulation: “NO onsite animal slaughtering/butchering.” One hopes that, as cities rush to revise their codes, they will realize that the gruesome job of killing dinner—if it has to be done—is better left to deliberate rural agrarians than fickle urbanites whose hipster cred matters a lot more to them than the animals they keep.

James E. McWilliams is the author of Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly and a professor of history at Texas State University.