Killing my own dinner taught me about my relationship with animals AND humans.
A photographic feature about two days on a smallholding, challenging my ability to be open-minded.
Warning: this photographic feature contains graphic images of birds being killed and butchered. I discovered on Twitter that it was particularly triggering for vegans. Please be warned. And please keep comments respectful.
‘The human mind is a lot like the human egg, and the human egg has a shut-off device,’ said businessman Charlie Munger. ‘When one sperm gets in, it shuts down so the next one can’t get in.’ There is a danger that once an idea ‘fertilises’ your brain, you will not be receptive to other ideas.
Being actively open-minded is an important skill to practise. This is why I decided to kill, butcher and eat my own meat.
I love animals and have always had pets, but I also love eating meat. I’ve never dirtied my hands with the business of killing. My meat comes in white and clear plastic wrapping from a supermarket, sterile and disconnected from the living, breathing source. I wanted to know if killing, butchering and eating an animal would dent my commitment to being a carnivore. I wanted to open myself to a new experience and, more importantly, to change.
I asked a vegan to set me a challenge, to see if I could be deterred from eating meat. His first proposal was that I should go vegan for a month - a terrible idea. I have tried and given up vegetarianism a few times. I warned him this would fail and to come up with an idea that would put me off meat, not have me praying for it. He suggested killing and eating a dog. It’s the classic vegetarian ‘gotcha’ - you wouldn’t eat a dog, so why do you eat other animals! I really don’t want to eat a dog - although I would do it - but the main problem is that China or Korea are a long way to travel for dinner. The idea we settled on was that I should meet and pet an animal that I would kill with my own hands, before eating it.
I knew this would be hard and that was enough reason for me to try it. I think it’s vital to consciously keep an open mind and challenge our assumptions. It’s a tenet of my new book Free Your Mind, co-authored with psychologist Patrick Fagan. Could I challenge my own deeply held assumptions and preferences?
I contacted Zoe Chinman, chair of the Small Farm Training Group and owner of company East Sussex Smallholders. She told me which way she thought it would go: I’d become a vegetarian. She explained that looking after animals from conception to death has changed her relationship with meat completely. In fact, she doesn’t eat meat outside of her own smallholding anymore, because she needs to know it has lived and died well.
She and her husband Lindsay agreed to let me spend a couple of days with them to see how a smallholding operates, befriend some animals and then eat them. She suggested starting with a quail as it’s small and might feel less physically and emotionally difficult, then go on to tackle a bigger bird, a turkey, culminating with a rabbit.
I have written about the experience for The Sunday Times. If you missed buying the printed newspaper, you can read it here. I do recommend you read The Sunday Times article which contains a a very personal account of the experience. Unfortunately I couldn’t take over the whole magazine and so, inevitably, many photographs, and some of the anecdotes were cut. I would like to share a fuller photographic account of this profound experience with you, my substack subscribers.
I thought I was going to challenge my relationship with meat and animals. I thought that the violence and finality of death might turn me veggie. In the end, I have been more surprised by the violence of the reaction to the article.
I arrived one cold January at Zoe’s bucolic idyll, just before the arrival of a male goat in a trailer. ‘We saved this for today,’ said Zoe. ‘So you could see what goat sex looks like.’ She physically mimed goat sex for me, which involves a lot of urine. The recent Sam Smith video is tame in comparison. The ice was broken.
I was lucky enough to watch the male goat arrive and be introduced to the girl goats on the smallholding. Lo and behold, within minutes they were ‘getting in the mood’ and performing their own courtly version of goat flamenco, albeit with rough head-butting.
This smallholding was earthy and beautiful. Earthy as in sex and earthy as in mud everywhere. ‘You’re so Surrey,’ Zoe said, taking a look at my inadequate boots. She lent me Wellington boots which were up to the task of touring the sodden acres of woodland, sheds, and livestock.
At one point they had 52 pigs, 500 chickens, seven goats, 700 turkeys, and about 30 guinea fowl. On this occasion the poor birds were enduring their own version of a miserably interminable lockdown, thanks to Avian flu. The birds must be locked away by law to prevent being infected with one type of illness, but in the meanwhile are more prone to other illnesses as a result of the unnatural lifestyle.
Warning before you read on: this photographic feature contains graphic images of birds being killed and butchered, including blood and innards.