Camp Challenge

Rev. Will Tuttle, Ph.D.

A seed experience from my childhood that still stands out vividly, and that I am grateful for having helped awaken my heart, is witnessing the killing of a cow on an idyllic Vermont dairy farm. I was eleven years old, and attending a summer camp in the Green Mountains called Camp Challenge. The philosophy and practice of the camp was to challenge boys in positive ways, and I have many memories of these challenges: difficult whitewater canoe expeditions, five-day forays in the steep mountains, living outdoors for weeks at a time and cooking all our meals on campfires, washing myself in the icy brook, and even doing a two-day solo in the wilderness equipped with only three matches, a knife, and a hook and fish line.

The camp was affiliated with an organic farm where we would sometimes work baling or weeding. At one point all of us boys went down there and were told to catch one of the hens that roamed freely. We were shown how to put her head between two nails in a board on the ground and hold her with one hand while we chopped off her head with a hatchet held in the other hand. I was glad I was one of the few who made a clean cut with the first blow and watched the headless chicken, like the other unfortunate creatures, run around the barnyard spouting blood till she expired. We all learned how to dip the corpses in scalding water, pluck and eviscerate them, and we all ate chicken for many days after. I was a bit uncomfortable with the whole thing, but I was a well-trained omnivore, and by age eleven, knew I had to be tough and that certain animals were put here for humans to eat. We had to eat them or we would be unhealthy.

A few weeks later, we were all brought down to the beautiful farm again. There were horses and cows and fields of beans and wheat, and we were brought to the barn where a cow was standing alone, in the middle of the wooden floor. She was one of the dairy cows and Tom, the owner-director of the camp and the farm, a handsome Dartmouth-educated outdoorsman we all admired enormously, informed us that she could not give enough milk, and we would therefore be using her for meat. He held a rifle in his hand and pointed to a precise spot on her head where the bullet would have to hit in order that she would fall. He asked if one of the older boys would like to try making the shot. One boy raised his hand, took the rifle, aimed, and fired a bullet into her head at point-blank range while we all stood and watched. The cow jolted, but continued standing. Tom gave the rifle to another of the older boys who wanted to try and he also fired a bullet into her head. Again, she jolted upon the impact and continued to stand there, blinking.

Then Tom took the rifle, aimed, and fired. I was astounded as the cow instantly crashed to the floor, feces and urine pouring from her rear near where I stood. Tom immediately grabbed a long knife, jumped astride her prostrate body, and with a great strong stroke, cut her head almost completely off. I was amazed at how far the blood shot out of her open neck, propelled by her still-beating heart, long red liquid arcs flying far through the air and splattering all around us as her body convulsed on the blood-soaked floor. We all watched silently as she finally stopped moving and bleeding, and many of us had to wipe our blood-spattered arms and legs. While I stood in shock and horror at what I had just witnessed, Tom wiped his brow and calmly explained that the meat would be no good if her heart did not pump the blood out of her flesh; it would be soggy and useless. We spent the next hour or so disemboweling her body, pulling out all the different organs, identifying them and holding them. I noticed how the pools of blood coagulated into large globs of red jelly on the wooden floor. Tom at one point called us over to show us a part of her anatomy he held in his hand. She apparently had something wrong with her ovaries and he was showing us the defect, telling us that was why she had to be killed. We all finally got the large edible parts into the back of a truck to be taken to a butcher; we would eat her flesh for the rest of the month. Some of the boys took souvenirs: teats, tail, eyes, brain.

The following summer I again attended Camp Challenge, and a week or two into the session Tom again told everyone to walk down to the farm. Again, there was a dairy cow singled out, standing in front of the barn on a gorgeous summer day with brilliant blue sky and soft clouds floating above us all. It would be her last day, and she looked very uncomfortable. Tom said he didn’t want to do it in the barn this year; we would bring her up to a flat grassy area a few hundred yards away. We put a rope around her neck and tried to pull her along with us as we walked up the little hill. She didn’t want to go, and resisted strongly. The harder we pulled, the more strongly she resisted. I was surprised at her strength. There were probably thirty or so kids pulling on that rope and we could hardly get her to move at all. Seeing we wouldn’t be successful that way, Tom got a heavy chain and tied it around her neck and attached it to the back of his four-wheel drive truck and we all rode in the back or walked along as the truck pulled her, still strongly resisting, up the hill. Then an incredible thing happened. We were getting close to the flat area and I watched as she resisted with all her strength but to no avail as the wheels of the truck steadily turned. Suddenly, though, the chain snapped, the truck lurched forward, and we in the truck all fell down! The cow stood there in the road, her head at an oblique angle, looking up at us. As I saw her standing there, mute, and yet expressing herself so profoundly, something deep inside me snapped like the chain had snapped. I wished we could just leave her alone and let her live. I don’t much remember what happened after that, except that we did somehow get her up to the flat spot and we did shoot her, bleed her, disembowel her, and send her to the butcher, and eat her during the following weeks. This time, though, I wasn’t shocked, because I’d seen it before. I had lost my feelings.

For ten years this seed lay inside me, smoldering. Then, when I met my first vegetarians and realized anyone could be healthy, and in fact much more healthy, without causing suffering and death to the dear animals of this beautiful earth, I gladly stopped eating them. This gladness grew and blossomed even more when I stopped eating dairy products, eggs, honey, or any product acquired by killing, stealing from, confining, or commodifying God’s creatures. As I have learned more about the vast ocean of brutality inflicted on animals for food, clothing, entertainment, and research, and seen how young children’s hearts are hardened by the images and rituals of violence that pervade our meat-based meals and media, I’ve come to feel increasingly responsible for protecting the animals who have no voice, and the children, whose natural feelings of empathy are oppressed. Seeing these connections has been an enormous blessing, and through my experiences at Camp Challenge, I feel an appreciation of the wisdom of Unity’s co-founder Charles Fillmore when he declared in 1920, “We need never look for universal peace in this world as long as men kill animals for food.”

Will Tuttle, Ph.D., composer, pianist, Zen priest, and author of The World Peace Diet, is cofounder of Karuna Music & Art and of the Prayer Circle for Animals and Circle of Compassion ministry.

Back to articles