Whenever I have discussed my musings on meat-eating versus vegetarianism, my friend Sarah has recommended the book The Compassionate Carnivore by Catherine Friend. When I started craving meat in the fall, I decided to pick it up to aid in my diet decision.
Friend has experience as a shepherd on a small farm, but don’t be deceived. She’s no simple farmer. Her book is full of research translated into words the layman can understand. She chronicles her journey from a consumer, happy in ignorance, eating conventional, factory-raised meat that comes from styrofoam dishes at the grocery store to a shepherd who sits in her truck crying after she drops her sheep off at the slaughterhouse.
When I began reading the book, I thought I would surely never eat meat again. I realized that it really is as sad as I imagine to kill an animal for meat–even when it’s done humanely. I didn’t know what to make of Friend’s credibility when she admitted that she still does eat conventionally raised meat from time to time. However, those ideas were the least powerful that I took away from the book.
Toward the beginning of the book, Friend tells about the difficult, harrowing experience of moving hens from their pen into crates in which they’ll be transported to the slaughterhouse. I was irate that someone who claims to be working for animal rights would cause such stress to these innocent creatures. Later, she made the point that she cannot guarantee a pain-free life for any animal. I realized that neither can I.
Just as it is impossible to make everything in your own life ideal, it is impossible to make an animal’s life perfect when you are caring for it. My dogs don’t have a yard to run in, and Fitz is so naughty when he’s outside that he doesn’t get taken on walks very often. We leave our dogs at home during the work day. Sometimes Dexter stops at home midday to give them a potty break, but they’ve been left for up to eleven hours. We take them to the vet where they get shots. We clean their ears (a form of puppy torture), and we fail to clean their ears (which results in a bacterial infection, another form of puppy torture). We clip their toenails. We forbid them from eating onions and raisins that fall on the floor in the kitchen. They are not always happy. So can I really expect a farmer who tries his best to raise animals humanely to meet my impossible standard of perfection?
The answer, simply, is no. If I choose to purchase and eat meat from a farm where animals are treated with respect and where the farmer works hard and takes risks to protect the animal and the environment, I need to expect that the animal’s life will not have been perfect. However, I can still be thankful for how much better the animal’s life was than if it had been fed on a factory farm.
Another important point Friend makes is that if everyone who was concerned for the welfare of animals became a vegetarian, there would be no one to support the small, organic, humane farmers. Although the number of vegetarians in the past 30 years has skyrocketed, the amount of meat eaten in the U.S. has also risen. By stepping away from the humanely-raised meat discussion, vegetarians are not necessarily making as big an impact on the meat industry as we’d like to be. But, don’t despair. One statistic Friend shared really encouraged me. If about half the Des Moines Metro Area ate one meal a week with meat from small, sustainable farms, “that shift in revenue would pay the average annual income of 3,000 farm families.” (250) There’s not much standing between us and a profound change in the meat industry.
Although I’m not ready to abandon my vegetarian lifestyle in one fell swoop, right now, I am imagining a flexitarian future with a bit of meat thrown in here or there. Oddly enough, I haven’t actually craved meat in a long time. Maybe it’s the Tofurkey slices I’ve been eating on my sandwiches. I even tried a little bit of a dish that was about 1/3 meat this weekend and thought, “Wow, that’s a mouthful of meat. I wish it had more veggies.” In the next few weeks, I hope to read Eating Animals to get what I expect will be a very different viewpoint.