Four Gustavus School students run larger chucks of meat through the grinder to make moose burger. Photo by Sean Neilson/seanneilson.com
In most schools they confiscate knives from students; at ours, we pass them out—even to the kindergartners. That’s because they will need them for the next three hours as they butcher a moose.
In our small town of Gustavus, Alaska, USA (population approximately 550), “moose butchering day” has become a valuable annual school tradition.
Moose hunting season in our community opens in mid-September. In order to maintain a healthy moose population that allows for a sustainable harvest, the state of Alaska has special requirements for hunters based on antler size. Unfortunately, every year, at least one (often more than one) moose is shot that falls outside of the required size range and is deemed “illegal.” Animals taken unlawfully become the property of the state and are donated to charitable organizations that have applied for and obtained a permit. Our K-12 public school applies for such a permit each fall. If an illegal moose is donated to the school, a flurry of activity follows to process the meat and distribute it to needy community members.
First, a handful of community volunteers gathers to quarter the animal into manageable sections and deliver it to the school where it hangs in a cool shed. Moose are massive animals, and this alone is a big job. Then, the following day, classes for the 70 students at our rural school are canceled for several hours, so the kids can jump in and participate. This is hands-on learning at its best.
The high schoolers begin by carrying the heavier quarters into the school and placing them on one of several tables across a large, open room in the center of the school. Then the knives come out. In one corner sits a table with a dedicated knife sharpener where students can take their knives to get a fresh edge. This job usually falls to a town elder who learned such arts during a time when knives were not disposable, but regularly sharpened for a lifetime of use.
Most of the older kids get busy boning out large chunks of meat and cutting off the fat and connective tissue. Fourth and fifth graders get to help an adult use a reciprocating saw to cut through the larger bones, which are used to make a delicious soup stock. The younger kids take these chunks and off-cuts and cut them into steaks or stew meat. Kindergartners as young as five years old wield sharp knives under the supervision of adults, thrilled to be part of the process. The remaining odds and ends get put through the grinder to become burger.
A young Gustavus School student prepares boned-out meat to go into the grinder to make moose burger. Photo by Sean Neilson/seanneilson.com
The last step involves wrapping the various products in white butcher paper, labeling them, and finally squeezing about 500 pounds of fresh meat into the freezer.
This is all so much more than a simple exercise in getting some steak—there are numerous valuable educational lessons being taught by school staff and community volunteers throughout the process. For a few students whose parents hunt, butchering a moose is a familiar task, but for most students, this is their first experience learning firsthand where meat comes from. I think of my wife, who grew up outside of Boston in a non-hunting family and was nearly through high school before she realized that meat was actually muscle. Students in our school cannot make it through first grade without knowing the fundamentals of where meat comes from. Not only that, they get intimate hands-on lessons in how ligaments work, how muscles connect to bones, and how the texture of bone marrow can demonstrate the health of an animal. Students are shown the various linkages between the moose’s joints and the analogues in their own bodies. Some years, students are able to dissect organs like the heart, liver, brains, and eyeballs. Other years, students have spent time on art projects such as sketching antlers, fur, and hooves. This type of teaching is especially valuable to students who learn best by doing, rather than by listening.
Next year the plan is to add a lesson on knife sharpening, how to write a photo essay, and how to cook a tenderloin.
The Gustavus School might not be big enough to have a drama club, a football team, or a guidance counselor, but it does have something special and unique: moose butchering day. That day transforms an unfortunate hunting outcome into a range of positive and invaluable life and natural history lessons, combined with a spirit of community service, all wrapped up in butcher paper.