There's nothing quite as poignant as sitting down to a meal of steaks or burgers and being able to chat about the animal you are eating as if he were an old friend. It was a common practice in my farming days. There were lots of cattle run through that place, but it was the ones that became pets that we kept for ourselves. Sometimes because the pets were the deformed ones that couldn't sell, and sometimes because you don't want to pass off a pet to a butcher that may not know how to end it swiftly and carefully.
It's an odd experience, I'll grant you, to watch an animal through its entire life-cycle and then gain sustenance from it.
For the sake of clarity and memory:
He was a special boy. Born with a strange birth defect that prevented him from straightening his front legs all the way, it was determined by the vet early on that he'd never be right but that he'd still be capable of living happily and quite comfortably. Through the course of all his checkups over the years, he developed quite an affinity for us humans. To the point where, when all the others were running away from us as we brought in fresh hay or new feed, he'd run up to us and want to be pet, or play games with us.
One of his favorites was pushing games. It was one of the few cow games he couldn't play with the others in the lots. They were simply too strong for him to compete with. And the way his knees were bent prevented him from getting full leverage. So, when given the chance, he'd present his forehead to humans as a flat, completely straight surface and he wouldn't budge until you squared a shoulder into it and pushed.
It was funny. Even broken as he was, he could have easily pushed us anywhere he wanted to. But he didn't. His lot in life had taught him how bad it was to be constantly beaten and picked on, so with us he was gentle. He'd snort and howl like a bull ready to kill, then gently nudge us forward slightly, then let us get the upper hand and push him back a few feet, then nudge us forward slightly, then let us push back. If we had the time, he'd do it for hours.
We never had that much time. But what time we had, we gladly gave him. It was loads of fun fooling around with him. Nothing made him happier than a human snorting and huffing at him like they were gonna charge him, then gently pushing their shoulder into his forehead and playing back-and-forth with him.
Another of his favorites was lifting. Need up into a feed bunk? No need to pull yourself up. Just lock your arms and he'd put his head under your hands and lift you up into it.
There was a certain gentleness and tenderness about him that not many of the feed steers had. He just had a charm about him, likely gained through a life of constant human interaction on a level even other tame cattle don't usually get.
The day he was finished was a tough one for us. You know through their entire lives what their purpose is. You know what fate awaits them. You try not to think about it until the day comes. But when it does, and it's one such as him, even the hardened old timers tear up a bit.
It ends swiftly when the hand that delivers the deatblow is the same hand that raised and cared for them. Find the mark, pull the trigger, and it's done. No time from that point to regret or to mourn. Chain them, lift them, drain them, and get them to the butcher's truck. Freshness counts.
As he's cut is when the tears come. They're few for the older generation, having done this so many times over the years it's just another in a long string of loss. A few more for us younger guys, still not completely hardened to the way things work. The folks who had little interaction with him know enough to leave us be in that time. To let us work it out with memories and fondnesses that only we will remember.
Then, each meal as it's partaken, another story of the joys he had in life. Of funny interactions you'd never suspect a mere cow to be capable of. Of fun games had with a friend who now provides his life so that you might sustain yours.
Never tell a farmer he doesn't care for his animals. Yes, there's a monetary value attached to them, but they are more than that. They're more than walking dollar signs. They're presence remains with you long after they're lives have ended. They go to serve a purpose, and all you, as a farmer, can do, is hope you provided them with as much comfort as you could while they're with you.
In Bent Knees's case, we had no reason to believe he was ever unhappy, despite his malady. He brought joy to everyone he knew in life, and a warm belly to those he met after. And a unique perspective on the process of being a food animal to a young guy who had to make his first kill.
I know it's totally beyond understanding for some. I've been called many names after telling stories such as this. You do what you do in life, and find ways to cope. But no one will ever be able to tell me I'm a hypocrite for eating meat. Not even the hunters of the world know it in quite the way I do.
In some ways, you really can't appreciate eating until you've known your food. It was an experience that changed my perspective on meat, made me appreciate it more, but still didn't prevent me from wanting to eat it.
RIP Bent Knees. And thanks for the meat.
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