Life on a factory farm is well-nigh unbearable for the animals or birds, and it is often foul for the women and men who process the meat that results—especially in factories for chicken parts. But do not sentimentalize. Do not imagine barnyard life is a bowl of cherries. Here is the second paragraph of Boyhood by J.M. Coetzee, the South African novelist. He classifies the book as nonfiction.
At the bottom of the yard they put up a poultry-run and install three hens, which are supposed to lay eggs for them. But the hens do not flourish. Rainwater, unable to seep away in the clay, stands in pools in the yard. The poultry-run turns into an evil-smelling morass. The hens develop gross swellings on their legs, like elephant-skin. Sickly and cross, they cease to lay. His mother consults her sister in Stellenbosch, who says they will return to laying only after their horny shells under their tongues have been cut out. So one after another his mother takes the hens between her knees, presses on their jowls till they open their beaks, and with the point of a paring-knife picks at their tongues. The hens shriek and struggle, their eyes bulging. He shudders and turns away. He thinks of his mother slapping stewing-steak down on the kitchen counter and cutting it into cubes; he thinks of her bloody fingers.
It is not even a barnyard, just a yard at the back of the house in a drab housing estate in the Karoo, the parched uplands of Cape Province. Later the boy goes to a real farm owned by Coetzee relatives. It specializes in sheep, thanks to the high price of wool. The boy watches the weekly killing of a sheep for dinner, from the moment the workman picks out the one to die to the use of a “harmless-looking little pocket-knife” to extract “the great blue stomach full of grass, the intestines (from the bowel he squeezes out the last few droppings that the sheep did not have time to drop), the heart, the liver, the kidneys—all the things that a sheep has inside him and that he has inside him too.” He also watches the castration of the lambs.
The chickens were shrieks and blood, the result of indifferent cruelty for what is supposed to be a good end, namely eggs. But butchering the sheep for dinner is something else. Inside, the animal is just like me. Outside too, in the castration scene. When you’ve read a lot about animal rights this comes as refreshingly non-intellectual. No talk of the interests of the lambs being infringed, or the rights of the sheep being denied. Were it not for some tedious puns, one would say that these scenes are wrenching at a gut level; they stick in the craw and by-pass the intellect. It is the boy’s body, and his feelings of identity with other bodies, that are at work.
Animals were an aside in …