The Compassionate Carnivore

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.


11 thoughts on “The Compassionate Carnivore

  1. So glad you read the book! It’s a fine line to walk and lately I’ve really failed at it. With moving and everything, I haven’t made the time to seek out local farmers. But I’ve put it on my to-do list for March. But it’s interesting that she really makes the point that the animals do die for us, but that if that’s the route we want, we need to ensure their live {and death} are as good as they can be. And for me how they live is a BIG deal. I want to know they loved their lives and were happy before they moved on.

  2. I agree with This Italian Family – I’m going to have to read this book. It sounds like it makes some good arguments for sustainable and humane eating, rather than choosing vegetarian or indiferent omnivore (ie, who cares where the meat comes from, just give me plenty of it).
    If you’re craving meat but don’t want to eat it, I’ve heard that Seitan has the same texture (or similar) to meat, and does a really good job of imitating. Also, if you freeze your tofu chunks before eating it, the texture changes entirely.

  3. Been reading in Leviticus about the different offerings involving meat. It has some interesting things to say. Where do I find meat raised and processed by farmers? I really like the idea of supporting farm families that raise and treat their animals ethically. BTW roast beef at Grandma’s on Sunday. I know it is your one weakness.

    • I’m guessing you and dad would be most interested in beef and chicken? Dexter and I buy from a place in Decorah, but the meat CSA package they sell includes pork chops, hot dogs, and bacon. I’ll do some research and let you know what I find out. Maybe this summer we could go to a farmer’s market together in Iowa City or Des Moines and see what’s there.

  4. It’s funny, I’m moving in the opposite direction across the spectrum. I’ve been dealing with denial towards animal rights issues and I saw the movie “Food Inc.” which really opened my eyes. I was moved by the animal rights stuff, but even more moved by the blatant disregard for human rights at these factory “farms”. They also interviewed a real farmer who takes his chickens from chick to slaughter personally. I’m not a vegetarian, but I’ll certainly only be eating meat that is very low on the cruelty scale from now on.

    There’s a buddhist parable about a sitar teacher telling his student “If you let the string slack it won’t play, but if you pull it too tightly you’ll break it altogether!” I think an ethical middle path between vegetarianism and blatant ignorant carnitarianism is the most practical, ethical choice.

    • If you’re looking for another resource, I highly recommend the audiobook The Way We Eat by Peter Singer and Jim Mason. It goes into a lot of detail, but when you decide you want to know, it helps to know a lot.

  5. Pingback: Eating Animals: A Review & A Quandary « Mrs. Dexter

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