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food / travel

Meet The Former Vegetarian Who Slaughters Cows Humanely

This bio-friendly cattle rancher doesn't win many friends among either vegetarians or traditional ranchers. But those who eat his 'no-stress' beef can taste the difference.

Nils Muller
Nils Muller
Celine Zund

ZURICH — They are small but stocky oxen, hornless with red or black coats and a friendly air. This Scottish cattle breed is known as Aberdeen Angus. Once a month, at dawn, Nils Müller arrives with his 22-caliber rifle. He lets these beautiful creatures into a pen measuring 10 square meters, from the field where they usually graze. He climbs upon a wooden cabin, above the flock, takes aim and fires a single shot.

"I do not choose which of them I will kill, I leave it to chance," he explains. It's the first one who faces him for an extended period of time. The animal collapses, having been struck right between the eyes.

By his side, the herd hardly shifts, as if nothing had happened. The scene, which can be seen in a video on the farmer's website, only lasts a few minutes. But it took Müller several years to make such a scenario possible. The Zurich area farmer became the first in Switzerland permitted to practice animal slaughter in the field. "I see my animals born and grow," he says. "I want to take the responsibility of killing them."

When he initially claimed the right to kill his oxen on his property, veterinary authorities had first refused, on the grounds that the law did not allow it. A legal battle ensued that culminated in 2014 when he received authorization to slaughter his first ten animals. In June, his right to slaughter was renewed until 2018.

Hours before our visit, Müller had shot his 12th oxen. In the farmyard, a large boiling pot contains the stomach of the dead animal from the same morning. The farmer raises the cover, letting out a powerful pungent aroma. In a small room, not far from there, there is a marble table from which the other parts of the animal will be cut off. "We use the whole animal. If this was not the case, we would lose our dignity," Müller says. With his partner, Claudia, they sell their meat in their grocery store on Fridays and Saturdays, and they serve it to their guests at large feasts given once a month in their restaurant. The beasts are born, grow, die and are eaten on the farm. From the field to the plate, "the loop is closed," the farmer likes to say.

A tall and slender 39-year-old, with black hair and gray eyes, Müller outlines his belief in quality and conscious consumption, condemning the mass slaughter of animals, which "de-animalizes' them. "My beef is 20 to 30% more expensive," he says. "It is not a daily product. But man does not need to eat meat every day. We are not cats, we are vegetarian-inclined omnivores."

For twenty years, Nils Müller had been vegetarian, like his father. As a child, he lived among animals that he learned to love, well aware of the way they were killed. There was a slaughterhouse beside the house where he grew up and used to study the killing methods. It helped build, little by little, his conviction that the standard methods are brutal, and didn't allow him to eat meat.

Death is part of nature. If you don't understand this, you haven't understood life.

He doesn't feel like he's been changing sides, but he's rather taking things one step further. "Banning meat is pure boycott, a way to oppose industrial slaughter. It is not the bottom line. When cultivating vegetables or soybeans, we use pesticides, we cut down forests, we also kill animals. Death is a part of nature. If you do not understand this, you haven't understood life. But we need production that respects the environment."

He does not share the vision of the world that rejects the domination of man over animals. Müller is convinced of the superiority of the human being within the animal world. He quotes Plato and Heidegger, and the need to move from theory to action. "The human being is endowed with morals. It is for that reason that we should not behave as a predator, but use our ethical sense in our relationship to nature," he says. "We know that animals are sensitive to pain. It is our duty to protect them."

One of the central objectives of animal slaughter in the field is avoiding stress on the animal before its death. Everything must be conducted according to a ritual that leaves nothing to chance. Each time, the cantonal veterinary official is present, as well as the village butcher, who became Müller's partner. The bullet used must be large enough to penetrate the skull and cause dizziness and brain death, but not too much, in order not to come out again and risk collateral damage. As soon as the animal collapses, the farmer has 90 seconds to lift his body and suspend it, before it starts to bleed. The cut must be done with two different knives: the first to slice off the skin by the neck, the second to cut the largest artery.

Once opened, the animal no longer touches the ground, it is loaded on a pick-up truck dedicated to the transport of the carcass, headed straight toward a refrigerated room. Officials from Fibl, The Research Institute of Organic Agriculture, have followed the process for several months, studying the behavior of the animals and their blood parameters. The results will be published soon. One of the institute's officials, Eric Meili, sees the benefits already: "There is no stress to the animal."

Still, Müller has received death threats from animal rights activists, but also the financial support from the Swiss organization of defense of animals Quatre Pattes. He has also sparked the fury of the lobby of meat producers, which fear the costs of his methods. Animal slaughter in the field, however, is for the moment at least still a well-monitored niche practice.

The Zurich native lives on the Goldküste, in Forch. His father worked in finance, and he too could have been a banker or trader, with a villa and Lamborghini in the garage. Instead, he decided to become a farmer, and drives a 4x4, wears overalls and boots. Because his parents wanted him to grow up in the countryside, he spent his childhood in Grisons. By the age of 16, he decided to work and started learning about the agriculture business.

But before taking over the family farm, he traveled widely: to Normandy, Australia, South America, to observe agricultural practices around the world. In California, he visited a giant farm of 100,000 oxen, fed with transgenic soybean and hormones: a thousand animals slaughtered each day, non-stop. "These animals grow like balloons and are killed after four months," he recalled.

Müller returned to Switzerland with the conviction that he must do exactly the opposite. "We are tiny, it is impossible for us to compete with foreign meat. We know how to make quality. We cannot think like a simple businessman. We must be strategic." His livestock includes 45 animals, including 15 mothers and 15 calves, and he does not wish to increase in number.

I allowed him to keep his dignity.

"Seven years ago, I would never have been able to imagine killing," he says. "The greatest obstacle is emotional. It is tragic because I took care of this animal for two years. But beautiful, too, because I allowed him to keep his dignity until the last moment."

Müller eventually returned to eating meat through gastronomy, his second passion. After training in the prestigious Hotel School of Grisons, he did an internship in the kitchen of top chef André Jaeger. Little by little, he began to taste meat and developed his palate. From a longtime vegetarian, he became a lover of meat.

Thus his quest for the right method to kill an animal is also about wanting to make the best steak possible. In the field, among the flock, the animal is surprised by death. In contrast to those led to the slaughterhouse, it does not have the time to be afraid and to generate the stress hormones that alter the taste of the flesh.

His banquets attract a chic clientele. "I am told that I make meat for the rich. It is only a half-truth. If the millionaires are not aware of the respect for animals, they won't spend a penny for my products." Some of his customers are on small budgets, but they are ready to deprive themselves of ground beef from the supermarket to be able to offer themselves a good piece. While others, "thirty to forty", ensures Nils Müller, were vegetarians. "They are the ones who most make me happy."

Nils Müller's beef is served in a restaurant, the Maison Manesse à Zurich, which has made local supply, organic and ethics central to its marketing. The server explains to new clients, with his most beautiful French accent that the animal has been killed among its flock, without stress. He does not go into too much detail. Some clients do not want to know how the steak arrives on their plate. This particular Wednesday evening, the chef is serving a beef-shoulder roast, cooked for 72 hours, and then grilled and served with a whiskey sauce. The taste is powerful, intense. The meat is tender, with just the right amount of fat to lift out the flavor. The farmer does not lie.

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