There comes a time in every homesteader’s journey when they think “I’d like to raise my own meat here at home, so I know what is going in to it.” Usually this means you go out and get yourself some type of fowl or even cattle or goats. Then something sneaky happens…As you go about your business each day feeding your animals and waiting for them to reach the appropriate size for butchering, you “get to know them.” Before you know it, the goose you used to refer to as “Christmas dinner” is now “Charlie” and you now know that Charlie likes to be scratched under his wings and really likes red grapes as a treat. Uh oh, now what? Many a homesteader has found themselves in this predicament. Charlie is now the appropriate size to butcher in anticipation of the Christmas dinner that is fast approaching, and you find yourself holding the hatchet and feeling like a complete arse as Charlie runs up to you, honking happily and looking for a scratch or a treat. Or worse yet, your kids are in tears begging you not to kill their “pet” goose. This is a very unenviable situation, my friends. But, I’ve been there.
Perhaps you are reading this right now and laughing at me saying “You big dummy, you never make “food” into a pet!” I would agree with you. The best advice is to always maintain a distance between you, and those intended for your dinner plate. This makes the butchering much easier if the animal is nothing more than “the black chicken” or “the grey and white goose.” You can care for your critters in a humane and respectful way without allowing attachments to form. Rule number one is to never give it a name. Some people can get by with ironic names like the afore-mentioned “Christmas dinner” moniker, but for others even this can cause trouble later on. If you know you’re soft-hearted don’t do it. Clean the pen, feed good feed, and tend any wounds but don’t get too close. No names, no handfed treats, and no special treatment for any one individual animal.
If you have kids, make sure you explain right from the start that animals are food. Explain it however suits your family best, whether that means telling the kids about how God created animals to feed man, or that even those packages of meat from the store were furry/feathery critters at one time but now they are dinner. Just make sure that you teach the kids the “Circle of life” and that they are clear that the critters in your barn are destined for the plate. Chores are good for kids, so by all means involve them in the care of your animals, but watch carefully for attachments forming. If the kid gets a special “pet” in the bunch you’ll be faced with the big decision…Break the kid’s heart by butchering an animal they’re attached to, or keeping and feeding an animal that will serve no purpose on your homestead other than as a pet. Neither situation is a good one, and if kids learn that they can earn a reprieve for a critter they like by crying to you about it, they will keep doing it. Pretty soon you’ll find yourself up to your ears in critters that are nothing more than eating/pooping machines sucking up precious homesteading funds. If you have tons of space and tons of money maybe this isn’t an issue for you, but for the average homesteader eeking it out on a minimal paycheck and working hard on 5 acres, this is a disaster waiting to happen. The best advice I can give you on this is to explain to the kids the animal’s purpose (again and again if need be) and if you feel they can handle it, involve them in every step of the process from picking the animals out, to caring for them, to butchering and cooking it for your table. Kids tend to really understand and appreciate things when they are made an active part of the project. Frankly, these days so few kids understand where “food” comes from, and that is not a good thing. Teach your kids while they are young to understand and appreciate the process of growing and supplying their family with food. It’s a valuable thing. When my Papaw was growing up there were 12 kids in the family. From the time they were 3 they helped in the barn, even on butchering day.
If you don’t have kids, but you’ve gotten yourself into this quandary of “knowing” the food, you have a couple of options. Number one, suck it up and do the deed anyway, and consider it a lesson learned for next time. Number one is not the option for everyone though, and believe me, I understand. Option number two, call a friend or family member who isn’t attached to “Charlie” and ask them to do it for you. This is probably the most sensible option, and can relieve you of having to be the one to end Charlie’s stint on your farm without ending up with a permanent pet goose. One plucked goose looks pretty much like another, and you can just tell yourself its any old goose when it’s time to cook it. If this option still doesn’t work for you, you can try option number three, sell Charlie to someone else who wants a pet goose, or even someone else who wants to eat him, so long as you don’t have to know about it. I confess to having used option number three on more than one occasion.
No matter what you do, there are times when an animal becomes a “pet” accidentally and there isn’t much you can do about it. Lastly, option number four, congratulate yourself on picking out a terrific pet goose and start adding the photos of Charlie to the family albums. Option number four isn’t the best option perhaps, but occasionally it’s just the way it has to be. I myself had a pet chicken named Rhoda who lived out her days (9 years worth) on my farm. That darn chicken started following me everywhere I went, peeping and staring up at me hopefully each time I walked outside. I ignored her, shooed her, and even would dash at her waving my arms and shouting, but to no avail. She just liked me no matter what I did. Eventually my none too sturdy defenses fell, and “red chicken” became Rhoda and she started getting special treats of bread or mealworms, and scratches, and soon photos of Rhoda showed up in the family albums. Yep, pet chicken she became. When you think about it, she must have been awfully smart. I can see it now, her little chicken mind working out the details…”Befriend the human! Make cute little peeping noises and stare up at her with your head cocked at an inquiring angle! She’ll fall for it eventually!” And I did…