When I was in high school and college I worked at a sports bar. Every night I was given a shfit meal and, without question, I always ordered a hamburger with cheddar cheese and avocado. These were huge hamburgers—half a pound and medium-rare so that they were perfectly juicy, with the bun slightly soggy and moist. I truly looked forward to this burger every day (in retrospect I’m surprised I didn’t have clogged arteries by the time I was 19). So, it doesn’t need to be said that being a vegetarian wasn’t really in the cards for me. I dabbled with being a vegan when I lived in Austin—mostly because I was surviving on around 200 dollars a month and could only afford rice and beans and being a vegan made cheap eating sound sexy and purposeful—good for the earth as opposed to just plain ole’ broke.
The only time in my life I have seriously considered being a vegetarian out of animal ethics, not for environmental or heath reasons, was during The Harvest. I don’t think Andrew the vet, or Mark would appreciate my less-than-affectionate term for the AI procedure but it’s the only appropriate phrase. It conveys the true feeling of the event—something slightly sci-fi with an undercurrent of malice—of things unseen.
Poronui has twelve special hinds. They’re master breeders. The stags they produce have elegant antlers with a high SCI count (how they rate antlers, by length and size of the tines—how you determine the value of a head). A lot of true Kiwi hunters despise the type of trophy hunting that is done at Poronui and I must admit, I do too. We breed our prize animals. The Red Stags spend four years being shuffled around the paddocks, impregnating hinds and eating grass. Each year their antlers are sawed off and their progress monitored. Then, when they’re older and past their breeding prime—they’re released into the game estate, where a hunter, generally an American, will stalk it, shoot it, ship it to Texas and hang it up on his wall. These animals are familiar with humans—they’ve been in Marks trailer—they’ve had shots when they were fawns and been herded by dogs. They’re not truly wild. But a hunter can be sure when he goes to the game estate that there will not only be a stag—but where to find it and that it will have many guaranteed SCI points.
While a true Kiwi hunter has to go out into the bush in search of the delicate signs of a wild creature: hoof prints—bare bits of trees where they’ve rubbed velvet off their antlers---while a true hunter always heads downwind, is always silent, always curious and honed to the minutiae of a Beech forest—a hunter at Poronui (in the game estate at least) has only to rely on Mark to find their stag. Instead of hiking for days in the bush, they hardly have to hike a hill, a feat some of them can barely manage. Mark not only knows where the stags generally like to spend time but has also, secretly, named a lot of them.
But this whole procedure is incredibly good for business—a prize stag can range from 12,000 to 40,000 USD. What the fuck. I have seen people come in and shoot an animal that costs more than I’ve ever made in a year.
In order to produce prime stags, or even good meat—Mark needs to harvest the eggs of the twelve special hinds and then use them to artificially impregnate recipient hinds that will bear the fawns.
The day of the donor surgery dawned sodden and grey. I volunteered to help with the process but the prospect of spending the entire day in the deer shed under the torrential downpour being flayed by the frigid, valley winds, was less than appealing.
Inside the shed, water sprayed through the gaps in the roof and the floor was thick with mud—mud that was a mixture of urine and feces. Everywhere you could smell that intense musky scent of the red deer—now so familiar to me. Part of the deer shed was portioned off with these bright, surgical lights—like the kind you would find in a dentist office, the ones that blind you while you stare up into the masked face of a man with sharp tools. Below the lights were stretchers—very large stretchers with a hind laying at an angle with their heads near the ground, their legs strapped up and their uterus right in the middle. Andrew wore those jumpsuits mechanics wear—with a surgical gown over it—no mask but a cap covered his hair.
My job was to wash and shave the bellies of the deer and then spray them down with a sanitizer before they were rolled into “surgery”. Then, I helped roll the huge creatures out to the end of the deer shed where they slowly rose, drugged and foggy, running lopsided back into the paddock.
The sight of the deer lying, belly up and exposed on the stretchers was incredibly unnerving. Not only because they’re not docile creatures—they’re massive and don’t have the domesticated, droll look of cows—but because, while I was assured they were properly drugged and couldn’t feel a thing, their eyes were open and rolled around in their sockets and their tongues fell from their mouths.
While I washed the deer, Malcolm, the vet assistant, shoved a tube down their throats so that they had oxygen during the surgery. Quite often they resisted the tube being forced down and squirmed and attempted to kick while I had the razor poised over their bellies slicing off the thick hair. I was terrified to hurt them or even nick their flesh accidentally so at first I didn’t get close enough and Andrew had to tell me to do more. I was nervous and cold, covered in shitty mud and the only woman surrounded by men who a) were a lot stronger than me and b) definitely knew what they were doing. These were not city girls who are farm girl wannabes.
Only after I saw the surgery did I realize how incredibly stupid it was for me to not want to hurt the creatures with the razor. I watched as, literally minutes later, the hinds had the flesh above their uterus sliced open, the organ pulled out with giant tweezers—bloody and pink like a tube or a worm brought into the open--a needle inserted depositing the fertilized egg, and then they were sewed together again. The whole time the deer’s eyes remained open, their tongues dragged on the floor and occasionally they twitched. Sometimes they kicked and Malcolm had to administer more anesthesia? (Whatever it is that makes them sleep).
Once I looked up from the assembly line process, not even conscious of how many deer I’d worked on, and actually saw the shed. The bright, flickering lights in the otherwise wet, gloomy darkness, all of us covered in mud and shit up to our elbows: Jason, the gruff farmer in charge of the cows, Darrin, who helps build fences around Poronui, Malcolm, the vet apprentice, and Chris, the groundsman at Poronui. Then, in the distance, Andrew and John, standing over huge animals, literally tugging the innards of a deer out into the world, impregnating them, and then sewing their flesh back.
I felt like I’d entered a low-budget 80’s horror film. Animals half-waking, half-sleeping—men performing what-was-not-but-appeared-to-be a botched surgery—all with the single goal of creating “better” animals for eating, shooting and hanging up dead in your dens.
While I was fascinated, curious and excited to be apart of something different—something so physical that we all were legitimately exhausted at the end of the day, it made me feel sick. I thought—these creatures didn’t ask for this, these deer have no say, no choice. It made me rethink farming all together. These weren't cruel farmers--they're not heartless or uncaring, in fact, Mark truly cares about his animals. This wasn't a scene that PEETA would put in their highlight reel. I’m not even going to say I don’t want to eat meat any more. But I am honestly going to say that I really struggled with making sense of that day and I struggle with it still.
Our lifestyles are a series of events and moments that we use to cultivate a mythos from which we want to build our particular culture and life. Without a doubt, The Harvest, changed me—regardless of way the experience chooses to manifest.