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Mary Lake slaughters and shears sheep for a living. They're 'everything' to her

Woman in a trucker hat hoisting a dead sheep up into the air from a tractor, sheep in field in the background
Erica Heilman
Vermont Public
Mary Lake says it's important to move fast during the slaughtering process, out of respect for the animal.

Editor's note: This piece contains some difficult and graphic scenes that may not be for everyone.

Mary Lake’s business is Can-Do Shearing in Tunbridge, Vermont. She travels to over 300 farms each year to work with small-scale farmers as a shearer, shepherd and butcherer. Her work can at times be intimate and emotional.

Vermont Public's Erica Heilman recently tagged along as Lake slaughtered sheep on a farm.

Woman in trucker hat pulling hide from a sheep carcass hanging from a tractor
Erica Heilman
Vermont Public
Mary pulls the hide from the sheep carcass.

Mary Lake is a tall muscular woman in bib overalls and a baseball hat and dangly earrings she carved out of a ram's horn. She wears a chain around her waist with a scabbard full of knives. Mary is definitely someone you'd want on your lifeboat, not just because she's strong — which she is — but she's the kind of person who would make fair and smart decisions about your fate. And even though this was one of the more visceral recordings I've ever made, by which I mean, there was a lot of viscera.

I was thoroughly impressed by Mary's gentleness and her certainty of purpose. Here's Mary Lake.

Mary: "OK, so I'm using the tractor tire and my body to make like a squeeze chute. Because we're just out in the field. We don't have the animal in a squeeze box like you do at a slaughterhouse. So I have my knees at the shoulder and the hip of the lamb. And I'm pressing towards the tractor tire. The sheep's in between me and the tractor tire. And I can grab my captive bolt gun. And I'm going to place it right on top of the head. So the bolt goes through the brain cavity, through the brain to the brainstem, and then the bolt retracts back into the gun. And the lamb will fall. And then I'll slit the throat, and it will sound like a faucet, all the blood coming out will sound like a faucet. That's a really good sound. And then the lamb will kick a little bit. And that's all normal. OK.

"I slit the throat right under the jawbone. And the other signs I can tell that he can't feel anything, are his eyes are like doll’s eyes. You can touch them; they're not blinking. And his jaw's all relaxed, his tongue hangs out. Those are signs that he can't feel anything. I mean, it's gross. But for me, I'm very happy. Makes me very satisfied that I'm doing it right. If I didn't know how to look for all these things, and didn't know for sure that they were not feeling anything, I couldn't do it.

"Turn it over and cut ...

"Well, when I started working with sheep, I learned really fast that there was a need for shearers and butchers. I just instantly loved sheep farmers and sheep farming. So I was like, ‘OK, I'm gonna help them out and try to learn these things and see if I can do them.'"
Mary Lake, Can-Do Shearing

Erica: "I'm not gonna lie. This is not easy for me."

Mary: "To watch it?"

Erica: "No. I mean, I feel that I'm in very good hands…"

Mary: "Does it feel a little too fast?"

Erica: "No. In fact — the fastness is the great part, because it feels incredibly competent."

Mary: "I think it is very important for me to go fast. Just out of respect for that animal. Like as soon as I shoot them, now we got a product and we gotta honor this guy by getting it done quick, clean, and not waste anything."

A photo of a woman in a trucker hat, seen smiling between the splayed legs of a dead sheep hanging upside down from a tractor.
Erica Heilman
Vermont Public
Mary prepares to separate the hide from the sheep carcass. She went to college for journalism but says that career didn't last long, because she loves farming.

Erica: "Why do you do this?"

Mary: "Well, when I started working with sheep, I learned really fast that there was a need for shearers and butchers. I just instantly loved sheep farmers and sheep farming. So I was like, ‘OK, I'm gonna help them out and try to learn these things and see if I can do 'em.’

"So I went to St. Mike's for journalism. After graduation, I was working at the Burlington Free Press. I lasted there for just a little while, 'cause at the same time, I was working at a vegetable farm, and pretty quickly realized that my heart and soul and body loved farming, 'cause I loved working really hard, and loved producing food for people.

"This sheep is a little bit older. So I'm gonna pop this joint, I'll be a little bit louder."

Erica: "We're standing in the middle of a field overlooking Lake Champlain. What are the benefits of doing it this way?"

Mary: "Well, I think the value of doing this is that the farmer and the consumer — potentially, if they're here — they see the whole process and they see the inside of their animals, which I think is really important for becoming a better shepherd and, just being a better animal caretaker and farmer. And there's this big sense of pride. Like you heard the farmer just now say, you know, ‘How do they look?’ and I said, ‘They look really good.’ She beamed from ear to ear, because, like, she did right by the sheep. Even though we're killing the sheep. It means the ones that she's keeping as breeders are also as healthy as the ones that we're harvesting. It's like, you take care of them. You love them all year round. And you love your market lambs too. It's just, you can't keep all of them.

More from Vermont Public: As Vermont invests in slaughterhouse capacity, much more is needed to meet demand

"And I'm going to gently tug…

"Shearing day and slaughter day is kind of like this precious day where you get to just like, talk shop with somebody. And I love hearing about the flock, what the plans are, what the goals were, you know, maybe set some new goals. I love that kind of stuff... I'm ready to put this one up!

A photo of a lot of gray innards, which look like squiggly lines, balloons and other shapes, laying on grass.
Erica Heilman
Vermont Public
The sheep digestive system.

"I had this story about how I did a really good job of telling my kids about how we honor the animals in death by butchering them and skinning them and keeping the hides and the skulls and the meat. And I kind of forgot to translate it to humans. So when my dad died, my son was 4. And he was sad that his grandfather died, and really concerned for me, like making sure that I was OK. And then he said, ‘Well, are we gonna butcher Poppy?’ And I was like, ‘Oh, no! I failed!’ But I took a deep breath, I was like, ‘No, we're not gonna butcher Poppy, because we don't eat humans. Like, we're gonna honor a human life in a different way. We honor human lives in different ways.’ You know, he kind of smiled and nodded. Like, ‘That feels good. That sounds right.’ And I was like, 'Good talk!'"

Erica: "OK, so we've moved on to step two…"

Mary: "Yeah, now I'm taking out the digestive system. So I start at the butthole, and I just cut it out and loosen it and let it drop into the carcass."

Erica: :"Oh my god."

Mary: "So we're gonna just take out the digestive system. So all of the stomach is out in my lap right now. And what's left, what my left hand is holding the esophagus."

Erica: "It's a very large confluence of…items…"

Mary: "But it's all totally contained. Nothing's leaking. It's nice and clean. There's no poop. No, no bile."

Erica: "Do you um, this is a — I mean, do you love sheep?"

Mary: "Yeah. Like a dumb person I love sheep. Like, so dumb. They've taught me so much. They've taught me about wild animals, about soil. They taught me about my body. The inside of a sheep is very much like the inside of us. They're like everything to me."

Have questions, comments or tips?Send us a message.

Erica Heilman produces a podcast called Rumble Strip. Her shows have aired on NPR’s Day to Day, Hearing Voices, SOUNDPRINT, KCRW’s UnFictional, BBC Podcast Radio Hour, CBC Podcast Playlist and on public radio affiliates across the country. Rumble Strip airs monthly on Vermont Public. She lives in East Calais, Vermont.
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