Practically speaking, killing a sheep is easy.
With seven willing volunteers to hold it down, all that remains is to puncture its neck like a football with a sharp knife, poke around a bit, and then holler for a largish bowl to catch all the blood. The lamb might scream, then kick for a moment, but the whole process is over in around five minutes—except, it turns out, for answering the big question: Why?
Mercury reporter Matt Davis found no answers as he knelt alone with "Sammy" for a moment one cold Sunday morning two weeks before Christmas, at Tryon Life Community Farm in Southwest Portland (and yes, it's much easier killing something when it actually has a name). One of the many affable hippies down there had instructed Matt to "listen to what Sammy had to say," before offing him—but there wasn't much to ease anybody's conscience in the slow closing of the lamb's eye, which gave a disconcerting wink—and at the time, Matt just wanted to get Sammy's murder over with.
HE WAS DRESSED IN DEERSKIN
So how, in modern Portland, does one come to murder a lamb? Mercury Managing Editor Marjorie Skinner was originally approached to do the deed by Tony Deis, founder of Portland's urban wilderness school TrackersNW—who educates high school students and other interested parties about sustainability—but Matt's enthusiasm over the prospect, coupled with his growing culinary reputation around town as someone with a pathetic lust for blood made him jump at the chance to slaughter his own dinner.
Much of his obsession started last September, when Matt ate an entire pig's head. He had just met the English chef Fergus Henderson (known as a guru of gourmet offal) and, for reasons unknown, thought ingesting the noggin of a hog "might be cool." Other animals followed, and... well, you know what they say about slippery slopes.
Accompanying Deis and the Mercury's blood squad on the day of death were Al Thieme—a trustee of Tryon Life Community Farm, a couple of high school students (aged 17 and 18—mere children, no less!), Pete Hamar—a self-described "beardy college dropout" from Virginia, and a striking man dressed entirely in deerskin—yes, deerskin—called Kiliii Yu.
Yu, a 27-year-old former designer of Chinese American descent, moved to North Portland a year ago from New York City, and has not worn regular clothes since—the deerskin outfit signifies his interest in so-called "re-indigenizing," Yu's description of a radically sustainable outlook that shuns conventional society. Although for practical reasons, Yu, a part-time wildlife photographer, still carries a cell phone in his pocket. He was to be our charismatic death teacher, as Deis looked on.
And let's not forget li'l sweet Sammy—a $200, 140-pound yearling brought down to Tryon by Marilyn Blen, who runs an organic farm just west of Yamhill. She was kind enough, also, to bring along some organic chutney for ... well, later.
FAREWELL, SWEET SAMMY
"It's best just to let it happen," Yu told the group, when asked for advice on slitting the sheep's neck—before laughing and telling the assembled group an indigenous story about "beetles and the sea." Don't worry, those in attendance didn't understand it either, and it would be a lie to say any of it made Matt feel more comfortable as the murderer-to-be. But despite Yu's acid-trip appearance and demeanor—Jim Morrison would have loved this guy—he soon proved a thoughtful and reverent expert in his craft.
Sammy was led to a discreet clearing, safe from any onlookers—no license is necessary to kill a sheep in Oregon, but to avoid misunderstandings, it's wise to avoid doing so anywhere too public (or without a landowner's permission). Yu swiftly cinched Sammy's legs together with a rope, and was slowly lowered onto his right side, while the onlookers cooed baby talk. Deis stepped up and delivered a solemn and spiritual thanksgiving address, telling the lamb he was grateful it was giving up its life—asking everyone present to agree they were also thankful. Matt was asked to hold the knife and spend his few last moments alone with Sammy before doing the deed—the most uncomfortable part of the day, by far.
"Sorry, mate," Matt said.
When it came to pushing the knife in, things moved quickly. Everyone held Sammy tight and he didn't struggle too much, although there was a lot of blood—about three or four pints, which was caught in a bowl so as not to waste anything. Then, the departed Sammy was hung upside down from a tree by his hind legs to get on with the butchering.
At this point, Yu pulled a mandolin from a case and started playing, explaining that the solemn part of the day was over, encouraging everyone to change the mood to "festive." The two high school kids were eager to start skinning Sammy and everybody took turns in his butchering, which was done with flakes of obsidian, not knives—a nod to Yu's indigenous sensibilities.
"If it ever ceases to affect me, then I'm going to worry about myself," Deis said when asked what it's like to see animals killed by his students on a regular basis. Politically, sustainability is without a doubt justification enough for Deis when it comes to this kind of thing—he not only eats slaughtered, succulent lambs, but regularly consumes roadkill in an effort to avoid "contributing to a wasteful society."
"If killing this sheep is too traumatic for you and you decide not to write the piece," Deis added, "then that's okay. I just hope you learn something."
SHEEP HAVE TWO STOMACHS? WEIRD...
All that remains after killing a sheep is a four-hour hanging, drawing, and quartering process, which involves gutting the animal to remove its two stomachs (good for making soccer balls or haggis, depending on your sporting prowess and/or, nationality) and intestines (great, once the poop is removed, for sausage skins—the French call them "andouillettes") before saving its heart, lungs, kidneys, and liver, then chopping up the legs, back, and chops for sharing among the group.
Almost everything is saved—especially the lamb's fat, which is ideal for frying, and of course, its woolen coat, for tanning later. The process may sound gruesome, but apart from the energetic enthusiasm of one of the high school students—he couldn't wait to nibble Sammy's raw, still-warm heart, fresh from the carcass—the whole affair took on a disconcerting banality rather quickly. While we're left with some disturbing photographs and some graphic memories, once Sammy was gone, he turned into meat fairly quickly.
Yu was kind enough to fry up Sammy's liver with some garlic and soy sauce in the Tryon kitchen—and later, invited the group around to his house for some very fresh, and delicious, lamb curry. He even offered up one of the legs.
MURDER A SHEEP... GO TO JAIL?
Two weeks before killing Sammy, Matt stood talking on the threshold of the controversial Schumacher Fur shop downtown with Matt Rossell from In Defense of Animals—when Rossell asked in earshot of a hundred animal rights protesters, "You're the one who's into foie gras, right?"
Right: The Mercury ran Matt's article extolling the virtues of force-fed goose liver last September. Yet few fight over their culinary beliefs in Portland—they "seek to educate" each other—and far from igniting a fracas, Rossell's question was asked with a knowing sense of irony, and a desire, if anything, to lighten the mood. When Rossell heard on the phone we were writing something about killing a sheep, he was hardly alarmed about it. In fact, he never returned our voicemail—until a few days prior to Mercury press time. Then he was alarmed.
"It alarms me this is happening," Rossell said. "I realize you walked into the situation not knowing you may be in violation of federal law, and what you did may be inhumane. But if you went out and did it again, that would be a little different."
Wait... a violation? Of federal law?! It turns out the 1958 Federal Humane Slaughter Act stipulates animals need to be stunned with a bolt gun first, before they're killed—although there are exceptions for religious and spiritual practices. Rossell was correct; this was news to Matt, who immediately called Deis to ask if he was aware of this law. In response, Deis considers their actions exempt because Sammy was killed "in accordance with land-based spiritual practices."
"I'm not sure anybody's so-called spirituality trumps the animal's right to be killed humanely," responds Rossell, who is also concerned that slaughtering a sheep in front of high school students might "promote animal abuse."
Deis responds, "It's important for high school students to take responsibility for their own meat"—a fantastic quote if there has ever been one. In all seriousness, however, the two are now having a conversation about how to proceed with future slaughters. In December 2004, Rossell got the board of Clackamas High School to stop cutting sheep throats as part of a class for senior students on raising animals.
SO SERIOUSLY, WHY WOULD ANYBODY DO THIS?
Legalities aside, why kill a sheep, and why write about it? All Matt can tell you is since doing it, he's been much more aware of how fragile his own life is—having eaten a still-warm lamb's liver, he still imagines how his own liver might taste... and has been drinking less, accordingly.
"In some ways, if someone is willing to kill the animal they eat, it tells people about their character," concedes Rossell, who has worked undercover in a slaughterhouse as part of his activism. He hopes this piece stirs a debate, adding: "If slaughterhouses had glass walls, we would all be vegetarians."
There's also a general concern around the office that maybe, killing a lamb makes you some kind of psycho. Can it really be so easy to kill a 140-pound animal, and in that case, what's to stop someone from taking an axe to Nicole Richie (who weighs a little over half as much)? Well, as Deis pointed out, psychos don't worry about being psychos—they just get on with it, and Matt's had sleepless nights, allegedly. Since he likes the taste of meat, he's willing to face facts when he eats it, and for this new awareness, he's grateful to Sammy.
So rest in peace, our dearly departed, furry mate, and seriously, sorry we killed you. Now—does anyone have a good recipe for roasting a leg of lamb? Sammy is crowding out the freezer.
Tony Deis, "Adventurer" at TrackersNW, runs classes for high school students and anyone else interested in "Killing and Preparing the Whole Animal" at: firstname.lastname@example.org.