Slaying the Sheep

I killed an animal today. I grabbed a sheep, held it to the ground, slit open its neck and watched it bleed to death. I helped skin it, gut it and chop it into pieces. Several hours later I ate it.

Yes – I have been a vegetarian for four years. I am still a vegetarian. But I’ve always said that I would consider relinquishing this stance if I had a much closer relationship to the animal I am about to eat – closer meaning I kill it myself. Mongolia felt like the perfect place to experiment with this – the Mongolian people essentially rely on their livestock for survival. In this climate, nothing grows but carrots and potatoes, the people must live on a hearty diet of meat and animal products like cheese and milk. I knew that killing the sheep here would mean that nothing would go to waste, that whatever my group didn’t eat, the family would consume. I also made sure the sheep that I killed would have been the next in line, not one selected for my own selfish experiment.

This thought stemmed from reading Omnivore’s Dilemma, as the author seeks to create one of his meals by hunting a wild pig. I decided that I’ve complicatedly killed many animals in my 25+ years of meat eating and have never done the actual killing besides a fish or two in the mountains. I think this is something all meat-eaters should consider – if not the act of killing, at least watching the killing and processing of an animal. We should all consider the complicate actions that we support every day through action or non-action.

Here’s how it went – after agreeing to buy a sheep from the family where I am staying for about $35, I spent an hour walking amongst the sheep, watching them graze and observing them closely. Did I sense any intelligence, a soul? P1010645Any human characteristic that could indicate a fear of death and an aversion to suffering? I wasn’t sure. I woke early, took a long hike up the sand dunes and thought about what I was going to to. By the time I walked back to the ger, the family had selected the sheep and had it tied to a pole. The rest of the herd was out in the pasture.

I told the family I was ready. A boy brought the sheep to me and handed me a knife. I was hoping to get a little more instruction, and when I asked I learned that I was supposed to cut the neck in just the right spot, about an inch deep. Easy enough, except I was handed a knife that could barely cut bread and left alone with the sheep. This is the embarrassing part. My first attempt I didn’t even break the skin. I think I’ve watched too many movies and thought an effortless stroke would quickly bring the sheep to a painless death. Wrong. I waited with the sheep I just attempted to kill for 15 minutes as the boy went to find a sharper knife. Despite just having a knife run along its throat in a clear effort to kill it, the sheep seemed calm, clueless as to the events unfolding around it.

A barely sharper knife arrived, the sheep was flipped on its back, and I held its head to the ground with one hand as I slit its neck with the other. Due to my lack of experience and dull knife, I need to cut about 4 times before I was completely through the major arteries in the neck. The sheep’s nerves were still in play and it was quite disturbing to watch the legs twitch as it bled to death. I was trying to be as aware as possible of what I was doing, the life I was taking. But I did sense myself wanting to back away from the sheep, to avoid the squirting blood and run away from the carcass. I stayed, getting more blood on myself during the cleaning process, realizing suddenly I was a 10 hour drive away from the nearest shower. Within 20 minutes, the sheep was skinned, gutted and chopped into manageable bits for cooking. Once the skin was off, it frankly resembled a large plucked chicken. Finally my work was done and the carcass was left with the family.

My driver took the initiative, preparing a truly traditional Mongolian barbeque, cooking the sheep on a bed of hot rocks. As 10 of us sat around in a circle, our driver brought a large bowl of cooked sheep and hot rocks. As a tradition, we juggled the greasy rocks in our fingers to clean our hands and for good luck. Then we dove into the bowl. I delicately ate a few pieces of meat, my first in four years, chewing delicately so I wouldn’t be sick later. An interesting thing was as you worked on your bone, you threw the remainder back into the communal bowl. Nothing goes to waste. The family would eventually ensure that every single gram of the lamb was eaten or used to feed the dogs.

We ate half of the sheep and threw the rest in the trunk of our jeep to eat the next evening. I plan to have one more meal from the sheep – and will post my thoughts as a vegetarian chomping on lamb chops. I’m also thinking a lot about the act of killing, what it meant to do it myself and the implications of this on a broader scale in our world. I’d like to hear some comments – who else has had a similar experience?

5 thoughts on “Slaying the Sheep

  1. Keith,
    I have not in fact had a similar experience. Yet reading about yours definitely had an effect on me. My sister has been vegan for 17 years and is very much into animal rights and protecting our environment. I live with her and am by default vegan, out of respect for her home and values. Living with her has had an impact on me. I have become much more aware of the amount of waste our world disposes of without a thought. I am aware of how much we have and take for granted. I commend you on your journey. I would love to do something similar and if life circumstances were different, I would. I look forward to hearing more about your experiences. All of the best to you and safe travels.


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  3. Pretty intense experience my friend. Thanks for sharing it with us. It would be great for consumers to understand the full costs of convenient, cleaned, fresh meat; though I’m not sure that’ll happen anytime soon. But by writing about the deeply spiritual yet traumatic experience, others will know just a little more about their food.

    I wonder how many people in today’s world would be able to again run a dull blade across the throat of an animal, after the first time they worked up the courage and attempted failed. Your commitment to this experience is obvious.

    Hope you’re doing well in the remote parts of our world!

  4. I have killed sheep when i was young and still find the memories disturbing & intense. I did not know that a vegan or vegetarian alternative existed at the time. But i knew it was some how wrong. The animal’s eyes rolled back as the knife cut it’s throat, the body heat releasing as I helped my father fist the skin from the flesh. I do not know know long you stayed in Mongolia, but i would have deprived myself of protein for the week and not participated knowing a vege meal would be waiting at the end. I have travelled the world and gone without before. I hope the sheep had a good life.

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