"Now, you don't want to do this half-assed," Rob stressed. I imagined Molly running around the yard in terrible pain while her half-severed head dangled from her neck. Molly's nerve endings were a mini subway network in her tiny little head. I had to cut off the control center.
"You just want to take the knife, and saw through its neck like this." He demonstrated by sawing on the edge of the cutting board. When he lifted up the knife, there was a gaping gash on the edge of the board.
I thought of all the times I'd sawed through a piece of grilled chicken wing--that's what it would be like, like cutting through some chicken breasts I was about to put on the grill, or a steak. I'm just taking a bite of a steak. I looked away, gnashed my teeth together, and sawed. I sawed like I was cutting through a concrete block.
Then there was chaos.
As soon as I felt the blade reach the board, I dropped the knife and jumped backwards, though it wasn't a conscious decision. When I looked up, Molly's headless body, freed of my grip, had jumped to the ground, where it began running in circles, squirting blood onto the grass. Her head lay on the board, her eyes suddenly cloudy and gray. Andrea, the photographer who had been hired to document the slaughter, was saying, panicked, to no one in particular, "Is there anything around here I can use to wipe off this blood?! There's blood on me. There's blood on my arm! There's blood on my camera!"
There was blood on my arm, too. It was warm and red, just like my own blood would have been--which both surprised and comforted me. As I watched Molly's body slow down to a trot, I was a little sorry and glad I had done it, but mostly I was relieved. The body finally came to a stop, and as I reached down to pick up the carcass, it suddenly leapt, taking a few more steps forward. I jumped back and was unable to move. Rob, witnessing my attempts, bent down, scooped her up all in one motion, and dropped her decapitated body into the box. Molly jerked around for a few more moments--and then she was still.
How to Buy a Chicken
I decided to buy and kill some chickens after a particularly delicious barbecue one night. I had taken a bite of chicken breast and realized that maybe I was only enjoying it because I didn't have to face the conditions the bird was raised in, or see the way it was killed. Out of guilt and curiosity, I decided to see if an animal would be as enjoyable after being killed by my own hand.
At first, I'd wanted to kill a cow, but when I called Carlton Meat Packing, one of the biggest slaughterhouses in the Portland area, the manager told me, "We don't give tours at all, to anyone from the public. Too much heavy equipment. Too dangerous." I heard similar stories from the other slaughterers in town.
So I drove out to a place called Burns Feed Store, 20 minutes outside Portland, in Tualatin. "Um, I'd like to purchase a chicken," I said to the lady behind the counter. All around me were piles of various kinds of grain, lighting equipment, horse saddles. Outside, mine was the only car that didn't have four-wheel drive.
"Just one?" she looked surprised. "They don't do very well by themselves. Sometimes they get lonely and die. You might want to get two."
"Okay, two," I consented. I hoped I could afford two chickens. "How much?" I asked.
"Oh, they're eighty," she told me.
Eighty dollars? Oh shit.
"Eighty?" I said, trying to make sure I'd heard right.
"Yes," she responded matter-of-factly, "Eighty cents."
The chickens were kept in a back room, which was hot and reeked of sour chicken poop. The chickens were smaller than I expected--the woman explained they'd be full grown in about three weeks, but guessed I could eat them now--and their white feathers weren't even grown in all the way. They were soft and quiet, and in places their wrinkly skin showed all the way through. Their feet, however, were incredibly ugly, and huge. Not only were they covered in dirt and chicken poop, but the skin was thick and reptilian.
After paying $1.60 for my two chickens, I loaded them into my car and brought them back to my apartment, where I lived with them for a week. Originally, I named them Molly and Lisa. But then I couldn't tell them apart, and I was sure one of them was Molly but the other one looked like Molly, too. Before too long, they were both Molly. My two chickens: Molly and Molly.
A Week with the Mollys
On the morning of the planned slaughter, I was proofreading an article about the film Dahmer, based on the life of Jeffrey Dahmer. "Jeffrey Dahmer fried the flesh of his victims and ate it with steak sauce," read one line. Right then, my boyfriend called from home. "Hey, I just wanted to tell you that the chickens are really making a lot of noise today," he said.
Oh god. "Do you think they know?" I asked.
"Well, probably not," he reasoned. "I think they're really hungry." The book I'd ordered off Amazon, Basic Butchering of Livestock and Game, had said not to feed them for 24 hours before the killing, so that they didn't defecate too much after they were killed.
After work, probably because I knew I'd never see them again, the Mollys were looking cuter than ever. I lifted them out of their box and let them run around the apartment one last time. I noticed one of the Mollys was apparently trying to fly; when I dropped her from a few feet she almost gracefully hit the ground, rather than crashing as she had the week before.
In the week I lived with the Mollys, I thought I would grow more attached. But because chickens are so dumb, it was hard to have any real affection for them. They didn't appear to notice my presence, were unable to distinguish one person from another, and didn't seem to have any sense of danger--later, when I killed one Molly, the other Molly stood a foot away and calmly watched.
Plus, they smelled terrible and pooped all the time. Within five minutes of letting them out of their box, there'd be several huge piles of runny chicken crap on the floor of the apartment. While at first I was attending to their every need, by the end of the week I was begging my boyfriend to feed them or clean their boxes. I preferred to pretend they weren't there.
The Chicken-Killing Permit
The logistics of killing a chicken in the city of Portland are harder to decipher than one might think.
At first, I assumed it would be perfectly legal, since slaughterhouses kill chickens every day. However, I then remembered Portland Organic Wrestling; once a week at Satyricon, this strange and violent performance art show takes place. Recently, one of the performers was charged with animal abuse after he killed a rabbit, rubbed rabbit blood on his penis, and stuffed the decapitated body of the rabbit down his pants. He was caught when a Fuji film worker noticed the pictures while developing them, and told the police. Could that happen to me? I wasn't planning on rubbing the chicken blood on my genitals, but I was planning on decapitating the chicken.
I called Derrick Ashton, the prosecuting lawyer in the Portland Organic Wrestling case, and asked him if there was a difference between slaughtering a chicken for private consumption and what happened with the wrestler.
"Factually, you're on another planet," he told me, "Olson [the wrestler] is charged with cruelly causing the death of an animal and maliciously killing and torturing. Maliciously is defined as intentionally acting with a depravity of mind."
True, I guess, but what about farmers or slaughterhouses that subject their animals to torture? Wouldn't that be malicious?
Ashton referred me to ORS 167.335, the Oregon law under which the wrestler was charged. The animal abuse laws prohibit sexual assault of an animal, animal neglect, and aggravated animal abuse--yet specify that these rules do not apply to, among other kinds of livestock, "commercially grown poultry."
Alright, so if one is killing a chicken for commercial purposes, they can basically do anything they want to it. But I doubted I would qualify as a commercial owner of poultry. Would I need some kind of private chicken license? I called the Oregon Department of Agriculture, who referred me to the Multnomah County Animal line, who referred me to the City of Portland's department of licenses and permits, which is only open Monday-Friday, 7 am-3 pm.
Finally, I got the right person on the phone. "You're going to raise chickens in the City of Portland?" she asked me incredulously. It was clear this was an unusual question.
"That's right," I told her.
"Well I imagine you might have some complaints from the neighbors," she said. "And I know for sure you are not allowed to have any roosters in the city. But hold on, I'll check."
After a good five minutes on hold, she came back and informed me that as long as I had less than three chickens in my possession, I didn't need any kind of license to possess or butcher them. I was legally cleared for the killing.
Skinning the Body
When killing a quantity of chickens, it's best to soften up the skin by boiling and then plucking. With just one chicken, however, it's easier to simply skin it.
"The skin will come off just like a T-shirt," Rob told me as I stared at the carcass, now unmoving, lying on the cutting board. It did come off like a T-shirt, pulling away with little resistance on most of her body. In some places, the ligaments and fat made it harder to pull off, but I learned how to stick the tip of the knife in and slice off any crucial juncture. I cut the neck again, this time cleaner, at the base of the body, and then sawed off the legs. Sawing through bone, or cartilage, or whatever chicken legs are made of, is like sawing through no other material.
The guts of a chicken look like a little tiny model of what you'd expect your own guts to look like--the purple intestine, snaky and translucent, and the heart, a dense little ball of muscle. The kidneys, the lungs, the liver, there is no mystery to any of it after you clean it out. As I lifted Molly up to wash her off, her organs remained on the cutting board, shiny and wet.
Then I made preparations to eat her. According to the book, a chicken Molly's age is best broiled, so I dressed her in olive oil and gingerly wrapped her in tinfoil, folding some fresh rosemary into the cavity where her organs were. The smell, once she began to cook, was familiar in a good, comforting way.
I took the first bite. Her breast muscle was more stringy than I'd experienced with a grocery store chicken breast, but the flavor was better, more complex and smoky than standard chicken.
I couldn't really eat Molly. I did, however, manage a few bites, but it's hard to forget the sensation of crunching a knife through the bones of a neck, and every time I took a bite, the memory would return. Had it not been such a recent kill, or even if it wasn't my first butchering, I think I would've been fine. However, with the help of the small group of people who witnessed the killing, we finished her off. Afterwards, I scraped her carcass into the box with her guts and threw it in the dumpster outside my apartment.
My friend Stevhen, who lives in a crazy punk rock house, offered to take the remaining Molly as a companion for his pet chicken, in the event I didn't want to kill them both. After killing, skinning, and eating the first Molly, I decided I really didn't want to kill other Molly. Several of the boys who witnessed the butchering were willing to kill the other chicken; I told them I didn't care either way. Eventually, none of them wanted to, though afterwards they were kicking themselves in regret.
And so Lucky Molly was destined to live another day. On the way home, I stopped at Stevhen's house to drop her off.
"Well," I said nervously, as I set her down with Stevhen's pet chicken--who started making a deep, siren-like sound and pecking at Molly's neck--"Umm, you might want to feed her tonight, I mean, she hasn't had any water or food for quite awhile." Stevhen nodded, and I began to have a bad feeling about the care Molly would receive. I mean, Stevhen's other chicken was already full grown, but Molly Molly didn't even have all her feathers.
"I'm not sure if it's okay for her to be outside tonight or not," I told Stevhen. "I've been keeping her in at least 75 degrees at night, and it might get pretty cold."
Stevhen nodded, looking at something behind me. I started to suspect he was stoned. I was the mom, dropping the kid off at daycare on the first day.
"I've got a big bag of feed, which, I mean, I'll totally bring over tomorrow," I told him. A friend of Stevhen's, a former roommate, had once told me that chickens would eat anything humans threw away, including other chickens.
"Yeah We'll see what happens," he said, nonchalantly.
I had no other choice. I turned and walked away. In the car, however, I imagined all the deaths that Molly might endure. Freezing to death seemed most likely. Her death would be lengthy in that case, as she endured hours of hypothermia. She could get pecked to death by the other chicken, which would probably be even more torturous than being frozen. Or Stevhen's cat could kill her. The cat was bigger than Molly, and could easily attack her. I considered going back, but then where would I keep her? In my apartment?
Me: Chicken Torturer
In the end, knowing that you're a part of the food chain in the most direct sense isn't that hard to reconcile. If I was confident that the chickens I eat were being killed as I killed--directly, humanely--then I would go on eating chicken regularly. That part of the process has been demystified and is therefore manageable, though not pleasant.
It's the suffering I may be contributing to that has now scared me away from eating meat. The night of the killing, I dreamed of cutting off chicken heads, crunching through a million bony necks, and then of chickens starving, freezing, and of chicken blood covering Stevhen's backyard. I couldn't stop thinking about Lucky Molly, now suffering because of my own neglect.
On a vegetarian website called GoVeg.com, associated with the animal rights group PETA, the group claims that 280 million male chicks per year are disposed of by being shoved into plastic bags and left to suffocate. It also mentions that most broiler chickens (just like Molly) annually suffer from "dehydration, respiratory diseases, bacterial infections, crippled legs, heart attacks, and other serious ailments."
Worse yet, the website says that, according to John Webster, a veterinary professor, "rather than being euthanized, sick birds may be beaten to death with a piece of pipe or may have their heads 'whacked' with a nail driven into a piece of pipe. Others are simply left to suffer and die on their own." And while I had read all about this stuff in Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation prior to the killing, none of it had a direct impact on me until I abandoned Lucky Molly. And of course, with our silent endorsement, I know that the suffering that continues across America is our own fault--even if the cruelty is indirect.
As for Lucky Molly, at least she's one less statistic. I've since heard she's alive and well--living at the punk rock house, doing her bit for the food chain. Happily eating trash and chicken bones.
Butchering Molly by Katia Dunn
photos by Andrea J. Wright I Bought the Chicken, I Killed the Chicken, I Ate the Chicken