You have to push pretty hard to puncture animal skin. The goat was dead, but its lungs still had breath. I thought I might hurt something. I snapped out of my emotions by cussing at myself; I told myself that the animal was already fuckin’ dead, I just had to cut its blood vessels to let the blood out so that all its organs would stop. Get on with it already. I knew the science, but it took me a few seconds to steady my heart. When I finally inserted the knife a couple of inches below the jawbone and sliced through the layers of hair, dermis, and fat and opened the first vein, blood ran down to the rocks and dead leaves and soil. Steam rose from the blood. Then I flipped the goat’s head, heavy with death, and cut the other side.
I eat meat, but I had never killed an animal to eat its meat. I had always relied on other people, strangers, to kill and process and package my meat for me. Until I killed that little goat in November with a few of my girlfriends. We left Tulsa at night and drove the winding roads into the prairie forest of Lake Tenkiller near Tahlequah, to camp and take classes on outdoor living. The classes were offered by an organization called Women in the Outdoors, which is a part of the National Wild Turkey Federation. Their goal is to teach outdoor skills to women, and their mission is to conserve the wild turkey and to preserve hunting heritage. The target demographic is the Sarah Palin type.
LISTEN: Three friends confront their meat-eating ways. They recount the day they gutted, skinned, and ate the first animal they had ever helped kill.
The night before the killings, we had set up our tents in the face of a freeze warning. It’s cold near the lake in the middle of November. Black night with stars clear and perfectly spaced, like tiny white polka-dots on black velvet. We built a fire, sat in folding chairs, and talked. About jobs, about personal philosophy, about food, about eating meat, about parenting, about boys, about girls. We drank Coronas and ate sunflower seeds.
We were there because we had signed up for classes like Primitive Cooking, Blacksmithing, and Pine Needle Basket Weaving. We wanted to know how to make utensils and containers that weren’t shoddily mass-produced. We wanted to be ladies in possession of practical knowledge and survival skills, with iron sporks doubling as weapons, just in case the need for such an item should arise.
We had also signed up for a class called Field Dressing, where we would learn how to cut meat from animals without puncturing intestines, to learn how to cut off hides for clothes and shelter in the most efficient way. This is where we would confront our complicit role in the slaughtering of cute animals. If we couldn’t deal with the meat from its source, we were thoughtless carnivores. We wanted to be thoughtful carnivores.
Not one of us slept an entire hour, mostly because we were so, so cold. I tried curling up in a fetal ball to conserve heat. I wished I had fur. I wrapped things around my head and ducked into my sleeping bag. Then my toes got cold, so I covered them with my quilt and a small pile of clothes I couldn’t identify in the dark. Then my butt got cold, so I wrapped a scarf around my hips like a bandage. Dozed off. Then wild dogs started barking.
In the morning, I drank shitty coffee and ate a bite of a store-bought muffin and went to the Field Dressing workshop. When I signed up for this class two months prior, I imagined that there would be a dead but fairly clean deer hung up in a warehouse, and the instructor would have a knife that s/he would pass around and give each of us a turn cutting something.
But when our group arrived at the designated meeting spot, there was a trailer full of 10 live, cute goats. Their owner, a 40-year-old rancher who had descended from generations of Oklahoma ranchers, used them to graze her pasture as living lawnmowers. Goats are prized because they eat a quarter of their weight in weeds and brush—vegetation that cows snub—daily. She appreciated the goats for their low maintenance, easy demeanor, and appetite. She explained how to kill, skin, and butcher them. She explained the technique humanely, assuring us the goats wouldn’t suffer.
Her firm hand steadied the gun between and slightly above the goat’s eyes, and she shot the first one through its head at a slight yet precise angle so the bullet would sever the spinal column. The goat immediately crumpled. She asked for volunteers to wield the knife, to cut open the jugular vein then the carotid artery to allow the blood to escape the goat’s body. I waited.
One portly 60-something lady turned her head away from the killing scene and toward me and commented that she “didn’t realize how much this would affect her.” I tried to look strong, but I couldn’t help but hug her. I tried to distract her with awkward interview questions. She told me she had been a school teacher but was now retired. She wore a fanny pack and a fluorescent baseball cap, and she appreciated the small talk.
Meanwhile, more shots. Their owner shot them one by one. After each shot, a thud, then a student took the knife. When it was my turn, I grabbed the knife from my friend’s blood-caked hand. The knife was bloody, warm, and sticky; clumps of fur stuck to the blade.
We cut 10 jugular veins and 10 carotid arteries. Then we carried the goats by their feet, one lady on the front legs and one lady on the back legs, to a pile of wood so their bodies could finish bleeding out, a process that took about an hour.
We then loaded the carcasses in the truck and rode with them to the place where we would field dress and butcher them. Once they were all unloaded, we scattered out on the lawn, each of us students paired with a goat. I cut my goat open delicately, as instructed, so as not to puncture his stomach or intestines or bladder because I wouldn’t want to taint the meat. Then I lifted out his hot, heavy bowels. I set the heart and liver aside. The portly lady called them the “best parts.” I began to cut the hide away from the muscle. I spread the goat body until it resembled a snow angel, and then quartered it. Leg meat, neck and shoulders, back, then ribs. This meat went directly to the kitchen. I sawed off the feet and head. These parts went to farm dogs. Done.
That day, my friends and I didn’t become super human. But we felt like better humans. It felt better knowing how much energy goes into bringing one pound of meat to a kitchen, and providing that fuel with my own hands and heart. It felt good to have my friends helping me cut away connective tissue and saw through bone. It felt good to be able to take over the butchering for my breastfeeding friend when she needed a break to go pump milk for her baby back home with the father in midtown Tulsa. It felt good to see all types of women: one who had to use a fake name because she was in a domestic violence protection program, a mother convinced to come live in the outdoors for a few days by her gutsy 11-year-old daughter, retired women, city women, straight women and lesbians, religious women and non-religious, conservatives, liberals, and near anarchists.
Our meat—my meat—would be the main course at a final group dinner of roughly one hundred hungry ladies, including instructors and other students. A handful of cooks cubed and fried the goat meat and prepared a buffet of side dishes: cornbread, pinto beans, cheesy macaroni, salad, mashed potatoes. I looked forward to enjoying this meal; I couldn’t help but feel like a pioneering husband, proud of his kill and swollen with his family’s dependence upon him for survival. I filled my plate and took a seat near the portly lady and my friends. I went straight for the goat meat, pushed a pile of it onto my fork with my knife. As I chewed, my nose instinctually wrinkled and my eyes partially squinted, and a small chunk of guilt settled into my stomach.