The Life and Death of a Pig
Doug Havel slaughtered his first pig when he was 22. It was his father’s pet pig. Its name was Fred.
“After we shot it,” Havel says in the dry humor his job demands, “it was Dead Fred.”
Three decades later, he’s still slaughtering animals in a shop he bought from his father. His shop is different from most of the 3,000 or so slaughterhouses in the United States. Most are disassembly lines: operations that have broken butchery into a series of simple tasks that low-wage laborers continuously repeat. The largest mechanized slaughterhouses can process some 20,000 animals every day.
By contrast Havel’s ten-employee slaughterhouse is one of a decreasing number where a single butcher turns living tissue into meat. He personally butchers animals every weekday and has for more than two decades.
He is a butcher, not a meat cutter, a distinction meat workers make between those who actually kill and those who only work with the meat. Havel was someone who could show me how to kill a pig myself.
Havel’s experience, most in this shop, built by his father in 1984, allows him to make butchering look easy. Then I watched him slaughter eight pigs that day. He had started slaughtering at six that morning.
Killing Fred didn’t bother Havel then as killing animals doesn’t bother him now. Except, just a little, the lambs. Alone in the slaughtering room, they bleat.
“It’s like they’re crying.”
Despite Havel’s admission, he showed no sign of weakness or hesitation in the slaughter room. He turned animals into meat the way I might turn flour into bread. And I felt the need to adopt a certain machismo while I was near this man. (At another small abattoir, the butcher offered me a freshly steamed brat to eat while I watched him carve up four pigs. Even though I wasn’t hungry, I ate the grey, intestine-wrapped meat.)
From his two years as a utility man on a kill line of a now-closed Rath Packing plant, from his father, and from his own trial and error, Havel learned to slaughter. Now he slaughters 25 hogs and 15 cattle — he always calls them beef to distinguish them from dairy cows — every week.
Havel supplies meat to the area’s natural-foods grocers, many restaurants and the new Riverside Casino and Golf Resort a mile down the road. His modest success forces Havel to buy and process boxed and shrink-wrapped meat from the major processors. His customers want chops from the pig’s back, not cuts of the shoulders or legs. Havel can’t keep killing pigs just for pork chops.
The messy part of Havel’s work takes place in a 15-foot-square room that smells of barnyard-animal excrement inside a white cinder-block building in Riverside, Iowa, a town of less than 1,000 best known as the future birthplace of Star Trek’s Capt. James T. Kirk.
A sign, “Try our famous beef jerky,” covers the building’s east side and is large enough to be read from the highway that passes nearby (he sells about 700 pounds of beef jerky every week in addition to sticks of dried elk meat). Across the street from Bud’s Custom Meats, named for his father, is, in an ironic twist, a cow pasture and St. Francis’ Veterinary Clinic.
Havel is a lean-muscled man with short hair and round, gold-rimmed glasses on his slender, pointed nose. He wears a white, short-sleeved button-down shirt, with his name embroidered on the right breast, tucked into white pants.
When he slaughters, Havel adds a faded-blue rubber apron that covers him from chest to ankle, and tucks his pants into knee-high, olive-green, rubber boots. Even though he uses equipment that’s sole purpose is to rip through flesh and bone, this is the extent of his protective gear; unlike laborers in large processing plants, where speed often trumps precision, he wears no chainmail gloves or torso armor.
The 45-year-old Havel doesn’t enjoy this part of his job; it’s physically exhausting and dirty. “An apron,” he says, “only covers so much.”
And while Havel enjoys breaking down carcasses and selling meat to the customers that come to his store, he would like to stop slaughtering at his shop altogether.
Part of the problem is that he has a hard time finding someone else to do this dirty work.
These small slaughterhouses are often family operations, invariably sold from father to son. When Havel retires in two decades, his shop, like so many others, will probably close. His 20-year-old daughter, a student at Coe College 50 miles from the slaughterhouse, has no taste for the family trade.
And with the number of grocery stores that work even with primal cuts decreasing, he knows that the pool of potential employees and buyers is small. Only two of his current employees, one 28 years old and the other 73, have extensive meat experience; both came to the shop after the small plant they worked at ten miles away closed. Neither has an interest in slaughtering and Havel scoffs at the idea that just anyone could pick up the trade.
“It will take six months before they’re a butcher,” he said. “It'll take them three months just to learn how to sharpen a knife.”
I didn’t wipe off the pig’s blood that sprayed onto my gray sneakers or the single spot on my right forearm. As I drove home, I felt like animal shit and barnyard grime coated my body and adhered to my nose hairs. No matter how many times or how hard I scrubbed, I sensed the scent of the slaughter surrounding me the rest of that day.
I began to have second thoughts about killing my own pig. I’m neither a shooter nor killer. My only experience firing a gun was target practice with a bold-action .22-caliber rifle at summer camp as a 12-year-old. My only experience killing was shooting a sparrow with my younger brother’s BB gun while the bird sat in a poplar tree in my parent’s backyard. I was relieved when the family cat pounced on the flailing feathers.
We’ve distanced ourselves from the slaughter for good reason. Yuri, the six-foot-two, wide-shouldered Russian wearing a white apron covered with maroon dried blood, was so disturbed by the witness of his first slaughter that he couldn’t understand why anyone would do it voluntarily.
“The first time I saw it, I couldn’t sleep. I saw blood in my dreams,” said the 28-year-old who wouldn’t give his last name because he was afraid future employers wouldn’t hire him if they knew how he’d paid his way through college. “And I didn’t kill it. I just saw it.”