Animal rights activists and Hindus alike will surely not love me for it but, this week, I decided (for reasons that will be further expounded later) that I should participate in killing and butchering a cow. As a person who does not well abide mistreatment of living things, one who abhors abuses of both domestic and wild animals, and whom also cried for hours the last time he struck a deer in a car, the notion of being present, let alone assisting in the killing another living creature is daunting. I had previously worked up the stone to kill a chicken by my own hand several months ago, an experience which was less traumatic than I had expected. Since then, I have been giving serious thought to the nature of my food, my diet and the environment and the ethics surrounding the relationship between these things. From this, I determined that killing a cow would be a morally defensible way to justify my continual consumption of meat. The principle is such: one should only consume the food he/she is willing/capable of producing/acquiring--in the case of meat, one should only eat what he/she is willing to kill. Obviously, this is far from an absolute and given to infinite speculation and debate, but at least for me personally, I knew that this was a step the I must take to further understand and redefine my place in the food chain.
I awoke at the earliest of dawn, the hours of the morning that are still indistinguishable from the night except for the flickering of sunlight over a very distant horizon. A cup of coffee--the stimulation necessary for what I was fully expecting to be an intense morning. Leaving my house, I mounted by bike and clipped along the dirt road with my stiff, unwashed hair folding and flipping in the surprisingly cool morning air. When I reached Don Ramon’s house, I was immediately greeted by a chorus of angry dogs snarling and barking, muscles tensed and ready, before the Don could call them off. He appeared at the front his wooden house, his feet bare on the dirt floor, smiling and remarking how happy he was that I decided to come.
Don Ramon is a wonderful man and neighbor. His abode is simple enough to be considered a shack but happy enough to be called a home instead. He laughs constantly and smiles even more. His head is topped by a bed of unblemished gray hair, always well combed. He looks like he could fit into a business suit on some New York street corner, but alas, his dark, tanned skin and thick Guarani accent count him as Paraguayan, campo Paraguayan to be exact. This is a fact that he is proud of, however, and I have the distinct feeling that it is more than just economics that have tied him to the life of a rural farmer and carnicero (or butcher). He is satisfied with the life he leads and is ecstatic to share it with me as I have shown an interest in learning about his trade.
The act of butchering a cow is a process not to be taken lightly or quickly. We begin the morning by sipping maté and observing our quarry tied to a tree someways off in the shadows. He tells me about this particular cow, how old it is, why he decided to purchase this one for slaughter, and about how much money he can hope to make for the day’s work. It is a smaller milk cow, about 3 years old that has not showed any signs of producing milk or young. It has had a nice life wandering the Paraguayan campo, grazing on the thick and abundant vegetation. Now, that which has been fed will feed, and the Don places his empty cup of maté on the table and disappears into the house.
Two other men arrive to help us with the process. We approach our prey, Don Ramon standing in the background silently sharpening his knife. One man lassos a foot, while the other grabs for the tail. He then moves so suddenly and forcefully that I almost can’t follow what’s going on. He jerks the tail and spins around the cow’s side, catching the animal off-balance and pulling her to the ground. With the cow now on her side, the other man continues to tie up all four feet to the effect that the animal is quickly unable to move. We hold the ropes to steady the struggling cow as Don Ramon moves in quickly with a bucket in hand to catch the blood. He is going to cut its throat.
Using a small machete and infinite poise, he levels the blade to the cow’s neck, locates the jugular vein and plunges through the skin. The cow gives an initial cry of pain and surprise and begins to breathe heavily blowing dust from the front of its nose. I feel as if I can sense what is happening in this poor animal’s mind--such a trauma leaves one stunned so that the automatic bodily processes must assume manual function. Each breath must be premeditated, each beat of the heart is felt like an earthquake through the rest of the body, each consecutive one must then be willed with immense, seemingly impossible determination. It is a lost cause, however, as the blood from the wound is flowing freely with a color that I cannot forget in its brilliance of red.
The animal gives one, maybe two other strong efforts of escape before surrendering to the inevitability. Its breathing becomes more steady as the loss of blood, I am sure, inhibited any more manual mental function. Its head moves around a bit on the dirt ground, almost as if finding a more comfortable spot upon which to lie. The animal, which moments before was living and breathing is dead within 3 minutes. The Don makes one final cut to the spinal column to rid the animal of any more pain and to ensure its death. The butchering can now begin.
The rest of this process takes only an hour or so. As the neighbors begin to arrive, the meat is sold almost as it is cut from the bone. The entire animal is almost gone by nine in the morning. The eyes, which burned with life even for the first minutes after this animal’s death, gradually glean over in a bluish-metallic gray. Each and every part of the animal is used (except for the contents of its stomach). The meat is most expensive and sold in small quantities. The intestines and blood are saved for making blood sausage while the stomach (being the cheapest part of the animal) is used to make mondongo. Even the entire head is bought by a family in order to make akágue yvygu’û, a popular Paraguayan dish where the entire head is wrapped in foil and cooked on coals under a thin layer of dirt. On this day, the entire community, the dogs included (who rarely get a decent meal normally) are able to get their dose of protein.
In poverty stricken countries (Paraguay being the second poorest in South America), it is hard to say whether food ethics have been given that much thought. Enough thought and effort is invested in acquiring just enough food to keep one’s family fed. The space rarely exists to begin exploring that slippery slope of morality in regards to food. Instead, food is a very practical calculation, one that is made in the interest of economic efficiency, but even so, one that is also not well informed due to lack of education in the most remote rural areas. Still, many members of the community in which I live practice organic agriculture and recognize the long term benefits of organic farming. While this may seem to approach notions of food ethics, these practices are still endorsed because of the benefits that farmer’s can expect to see--it is still an economic calculation after all. This does not necessarily mean that impoverished rural farmers are not good environmental stewards, just that the questions and the consequences are different in these parts of the world.
I believe the following quote from the extended segments of Discovery Channel’s Planet Earth really helps to summarize here. A Costa Rican farmer is offered subsidies to allow his fallow fields to revert to rainforest. When asked what would happen if the government stopped providing financial assistance, the farmer replied, “I love the forests and the trees, but think about it like this: if you had the choice to cut down a tree or feed your children, what would you do?”