My reasons for tanning animal hides have evolved along with my skill level and preferences for method. Along with my personal feelings about raising animals for slaughter.
Until a couple years ago I was a small farmer – a shepherdess. I kept a mixed flock of sheep on my property that I’d collected from here and there. A couple representatives of heritage breeds, some commercial stock, hair sheep, Finnsheep, a few Polypay. I sold lambs at auction, on the hoof off my farm, and as whole meat animals that I hauled to the butcher for customers. And of course, I ate lamb. Well, mutton really – I prefer it. So with all that it made sense to tan sheepskins.
Way back in 2010, when I was a girl of 22 and ready to fight for whatever I wanted, I tanned my first skin. It was a raccoon fur; we were live-trapping them because they raided our feed shed and our chicken coop. So the first time we had one dead, I clumsily cut off the skin, missing the legs and not even attempting the face, poured salt on it, and wondered what’s next.
I had no idea what I was doing with that raccoon beyond a few pages I’d read in Foxfire. But I had this feeling, an urge to do something with it – it seemed like such a waste not to. Because it had been a live animal and then it was dead. And I didn’t want it thrown away like trash, because living things aren’t trash. Not even when they’re dead. Not to me.
And that’s kinda the thing. The why. Because otherwise it’s a waste. That’s the why from the beginning.
The why from my time as a shepherdess is a little different. Part of the why was because it’s a waste to throw away a sheepskin. Another part was money. Tanned sheepskins are valuable, and I wanted to make more money. I also wanted to keep some of my sheep with me even though they were dead (later it occurred to me – ya know – I could have just not butchered them).
One time we hit a deer – a spring fawn in the early winter – and I insisted we go back and pick it up. I butchered it and tanned the hide. We ate well. I still have that deer skin. It’s on my bed as I write this, keep my feet warm as I lay here writing and nursing my baby. So the why that time was because it would have been a waste not to, but also because guilt.
And the why of it now is also complicated. I don’t keep sheep anymore. I tan sheep hides from the butcher & deer hides from hunting that nobody else wants. That’s what I like most about them – no one wants them but me.
I don’t have any lofty ideas about “honoring the animal” by tanning its skin. I think if we’re in the business of honoring animals we’d probably stop killing them in their prime. But that’s such a complicated topic – for one thing, “honoring” animals can’t be more important than feeding people.
I also don’t think I owe it to these animals to tan their hides because of the “sacrifice” they made to feed us. I’ve slaughtered more than a couple animals by my own hand, and none of them volunteered to be a “sacrifice”. I promise, they’d all choose life if given a choice. This is part of why I’m not a shepherdess or a livestock farmer anymore. Not now, not yet. But I digress…
So the why of tanning skins isn’t to honor the animals. And it’s not because I think they’d want it somehow. But it is partly because I used to keep sheep. I lived with and cared for sheep for years.
I know sheep. I’ve known a lot of sheep. I know what they’re like, how they act. Essentially, who they are.
So. When I tan a sheepskin from the butcher, even though I never met that particular sheep, I still know that sheep. I feel connected even though it’s dead. The sheep is dead, it’s been turned into food, and no one wanted its skin – but me. And I like that.
When I tan a sheepskin I think about the sheep. When I have tanned sheepskins in my home I think about the sheep some more. Isn’t that something people want: to be thought of after they’re dead? I don’t think sheep want this, because they can’t think that abstractly. But if they could I think they would.
I tan other animal skins, too, but none I know so well as the sheep. I do think about the deer and the raccoon. It’s just not the same.
I tan animal skins because they were alive once and now they’re not. Because it’s a waste not to. Because I enjoy it – the alchemy, the work, the struggle, the beauty. Because I’m good at it and I believe in using our skills. Because my Scandinavian and Irish ancestors did it and it makes me feel connected to them. Because it’s a task that quiets my mind and calms my existential anxiety. Because it’s physical and I enjoy using my body to accomplish things.
Because no one else cared about the animal enough to do it. No one but me.