Sunday, July 22, 2012

Mabel and the Hog--a Slaughterhouse Experience

Time is flying so quickly! There have been so many wonderful things going on, so many huge things going on, so many intense and uncertain things going on, that it is hard to stop long enough to write them down.

What happened today was so amazing that it demands my full attention, documented by recording the experience in this post.

It was a pretty routine take-cull-ewes-to-the-processing-plant day. We got everything ready last night, loaded them at Oh-Dark-Thirty (a.k.a. 5 a.m.), remembered to check the gas gage and take appropriate action, and chugged down the road to Bowsers Meat Processing.

There was a short wait while they did the two hogs in line before us, starting the morning off at a leisurely pace. As we whiled away the time on the back loading dock, another batch of hogs came in. The folks wandered over to talk to us after they unloaded--unexpected until we realized they are fellow Farmer's Market vendors. We rarely see one another except across the lot or on the way to the port-a-potty on Saturday mornings, so it was nice to exchange a few words.

When we went back inside, they were skinning our first ewe. That left Mabel alone in the kill pen, but the market vendor's hogs were in the pen right beside her. She was a little anxious about being the only sheep (just as she is at home if  she is separated from the flock for some reason), and "bahhed" a couple half-hearted protests. We spoke soothingly to her from across the room, while focusing mostly on the   skinning operation with the other ewe. Seeing the carcasses is important to us, because only without the skin can we really fully understand the body condition of our animals...wool hides a lot of fat and/or bones.

I glanced over at Mabel, and saw that she had turned to face the hogs. In fact, she had stuck her head through the bars of the kill pen, into the hog pen. Then I saw the hog! He moved over and touched noses with her. I expected her to pull away, because hogs can be pretty predatory with non-hog animals that they perceive as "food", and sheep are pretty wary about ANY new animal, even if it's just a sheep they don't know yet (or a friend that's just been sheared).

But she didn't pull away. Not even when the hog began exploring her face. She held perfectly still, not panicked or afraid, while the hog's wiggly snout moved over her cheek from nose to ear. I was poised to shout an alarm if the hog bit her. I've skinned out hog heads, years ago when I worked for Bowser. They have very sharp omnivores' teeth. In my imagination, the hog suddenly turned into a bloodthirsty monster and ripped poor Mabel's face off. Not so far-fetched when you consider that by this time I'd seen most of Mabel's right ear disappear temporarily into the hog's mouth, only to be released when the hog suddenly became interested in her eye. It  worked its mouth around her eye, then moved back to the ear. The only thing that kept me from screaming was the fact that Mabel had not tried to back off or stop the hog's overtures in any way.

By this time, my co-farmer, BH, had moved to my side. "He's calming her down," he observed. He has an almost uncanny understanding of herd animals sometimes, a real gift. I realized how quiet she had become, after her initial complaints about being flock-less. I watched the hog with a more open mind. Maybe he wasn't sizing up a meal, after all.

I realized that Mabel was relaxed. She was perfectly free to withdraw her head from between the bars and move a long way from the hogs. But she didn't. She stood perfectly still, eyes soft and not scared, and let the hog's face move alongside hers.

I realized the hog wasn't smacking his lips and salivating like some fiendish monster. He was gently lipping at Mabel's ear and face, caressing even. He withdrew slightly for a moment, and she stayed in place, apparently waiting for more of his exploration. He resumed after a pause, beginning with        sniffing her nose, then lipping at her eye and putting her ear in his mouth. He toyed with the plastic tag in her ear, and I held my breath, worried, that he might grab the tag and pull it out of her ear. But no, he  gently released her ear again.

After several minutes of this, she slowly withdrew her head from between the rails, and calmly waited for the rest of her time.

Usually, my sheep are afraid of the hogs--in fact, Mabel had NOT wanted to enter the building with the first few hogs in it, even though she had willingly stepped off the truck into the loading pen. It was very strange to see a sheep interact with a hog like this.

When I shared this novel experience with a friend later, they wondered whether it had changed my attitude about slaughtering my livestock. Now that I had witnessed this "act of compassion", would I have doubts about the ethics and morality of sending my sheep to be slaughtered.

Well, no. My thoughts on this haven't changed. Because my thoughts on this are very, very secure.

Mabel did not get to choose the time of her death. Well, I won't either. That means someone else (most likely God or a virus) will be choosing my death, just as I chose hers. Her death could also have been chosen by God or a virus, or a stomach worm, or a coyote. In most of those cases, it would have been much more drawn out and stressful for Mabel.

The death I chose for Mabel was mercifully quick, as always. A little stress from unfamiliar surroundings...probably akin to my experience of flying to Winnipeg about 7 years ago. A stranger stepping in to offer some unknowable sort of comfort or distraction. And then, in less than the blink of an eye, gone. I am not alone in thinking that I would wish this same death for myself were I suffering from a terminal ailment. Callous? Not the least. Pragmatic: "Natural causes" tend to be slow and full of pain and suffering. As I've said before, the slaughterhouse is the most humane end possible for a sheep life.

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