With the holidays approaching, some are preparing to don aprons while others are preparing themselves to take the life of the animal that will grace their table.

Small, local farmers are increasingly giving customers the opportunity to not only choose their own heritage breed bird, but to learn to kill and dress it as well.

As I learn more about our food systems, I continue to take steps towards eating more ethically.  It’s an evolution—changing all of your eating patterns at once, realistically, is difficult and overwhelming.  One of these steps has been to only eat meat raised by farmers whose practices are known to me.  When I go out to eat, I am mostly a vegetarian, and at home I’ve greatly reduced my meat consumption, since humanely raised pastured meats is costly.

This year was the first time I heard of farmers that offer courses on slaughtering your own Thanksgiving turkey.  Despite my own ambivalence towards the act of slitting a turkey’s throat and bleeding it out, I still feel compelled to carry it out because, like most people who take the course, I feel that it is my responsibility to face the reality of what being an omnivore entails.

Indeed, a good portion of American food culture contrives to disguise the true form of the animal being eaten.  We don’t eat cow or pig—we eat beef and pork.  You won’t often see pigs’ heads or chickens with their feet still attached at the butcher counter; rarely are we served fish whole, eyeballs looking back at you.  I feel that after taking the course, I’ll either come out a vegetarian or it will strengthen my commitment tenfold to only sourcing my meat from sustainable, humane farmers whose practices I’ve personally verified.

It is time to face the music, and being a writer, I wanted to do a little research on the slaughtering process beforehand as well as look into former participants’ reactions to the blood, guts and gore.

Humane isn’t always easy

Slaughtering an animal in a way that causes the least suffering isn’t always the easiest for the novice to carry out.  I’ve found that typically there are two ways in which farmers teach people to kill their own turkey, both of which involve slitting its jugular veins.  One way is to hang the turkey upside down, which pacifies the bird and makes it easier to drain its blood; the other method is to straddle the bird, slit its throat (sometimes clean off), and then hold it down as it flaps around.  This sounds more like a prelude to Halloween than Thanksgiving or Christmas.

Despite the gore, one of the most prevalent reactions from people who have written about the process is that although it is the most humane way to kill a bird, it is not the fastest method.  Even after the bird loses consciousness, the body still spasms and gargles in its last attempts to cling to life.   As one woman noted, it would be far less traumatic on the human if they could just chop the bird’s head off and walk away.  This manner of slaughter is also used on chickens, however, the visual is not as alarming since chickens are much smaller and bleed out considerably quicker.

For both consumer and farmer this process can be emotionally draining.  However, one of the things that surprised me was that people often take these courses with their families, including their children.  This exposure to the natural processes of life, death and the dinner plate counters a culture of distancing ourselves from death and killing, as well as the source of our food

Some people weep after killing their bird or even witnessing the act.  Others have discovered that they were surprisingly accepting of the bird’s death and found that they were in awe of the beautiful creature and all of the work it takes to get the turkey from the farm to the table.  One farmer mentioned that if everyone had to slaughter and eviscerate their meat, many people would turn to vegetarianism, not just because of the emotional impact of taking a creature’s life but also the sheer work involved to do so.

Getting to know the practice and the farmer

Farmers who offer courses on turkey slaughtering, or any other kind of animal slaughter, often practice the most humane methods of raising their animals.   This is, after all, the most transparency any farmer can offer their customers—to not only give a tour of their farm and explain their methods or raising their animals, but to also let them witness and partake in the animal’s inevitable end.  Farms are where animals are born and live, but that is only part of the story.  Farms also represent the end of animals, as they fulfill the purpose for which they were raised.

Sourcing our food locally supports the local economy and farmers who raise their animals responsibly and ethically.  It also reduces the environmental impact of shipping our food hundreds, or even thousands of miles, as often happens in the US.  Going on farm tours  is important when it comes to verifying farmers’ practices, since there is considerable variation in how farmers carry out humane, organic, and other certified methods.  It has been revealed countless times that a number of farmers stretch labeling requirements to cover a wide range of practices that you may not find acceptable—such as eggs labeled Humane that come from birds raised in cages.

Some farmers have viewed these courses as an opportunity to support the locavore movement by accepting services, like helping out on the farm, or handcrafted goods, such as a years’ supply of beer, jam, organic vegetables grown in your garden, etc. in lieu of cash for the course.

Why take the course

Apart from the growing importance of knowing where our meat comes from—and in the view of some, your obligation as a omnivore to at least once experience the final act of the animal you are going to eat—many decide to take the course or buy a dressed turkey to support a local farmer and to receive a product that simply tastes better.

Most farmers who offer such courses raise heritage breed animals, which are known for their exquisite flavor.  Industrial agriculture has bred animals to live in confinement, endure hormones and antibiotics, and to grow at an unnatural rate.  Indeed, factory farmed poultry grow their breast meat, for which there is greater demand, so fast that they are crippled by the weight and develop sores on their breasts from rubbing against their cages, as well as a number of other health problems.

Buying heritage breeds also supports genetic diversity.  Factory farming employs an alarmingly low number of breeds, making our meat industry susceptible to extinction if a new illness were to come about or rapid climate change.  With genetic diversity comes resilience and adaptation.  If an illness were to affect turkeys, certainly one breed amongst the multitude would develop immunity, ensuring that our whole supply of turkey meat didn’t disappear in one fell swoop.  If more people demand heritage breeds, the industry would respond by supplying more.

Above all, I believe that taking a course on animal slaughter at least once in your life is an important way of learning to appreciating the animals we eat.  Once you’ve put the hard work in, both emotional and physical, you are not likely to forget it, which can make a longer lasting impact on the choices you make when it comes to food than, say, reading this article.   And what better time to be thankful of the animals we eat and the farmers who eschew factory farming than Thanksgiving?

More from the archives

How to buy poultry

How to choose the best eggs

Small local farmer raises humane quail eggs

Why choose heritage breed turkey?

Heritage breed turkey recipe

Editor’s picks

Butchering Poultry, Rabbit, Lamb, Goat, and Pork: The Comprehensive Photographic Guide to Humane Slaughtering and Butchering

The Butcher’s Guide to Well-Raised Meat: How to Buy, Cut, and Cook Great Beef, Lamb, Pork, Poultry, and More

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