June 4, 2009

The Compassionate Carnivore by Catherine Friend

For a while now, I've felt like a hypocrite. I love meat. I mean, I really Love meat. But the inhumane living conditions, and even worse, the dying conditions that many animals raised for food experience on factory farms and in standard assembly-line meat processing plants disturbs me. It isn't the act of eating another creature that bothers me. I'm a human and, as such, I'm an omnivore, which means that my diet consists of both meat and veg in varying degrees depending on the budget, my iron levels and what I happen to feel like cooking.  What does bother me, however, is needless suffering. I don't think that the animals that will become the meat I eat should have to suffer for the privilege of feeding me. So I've been at a cross-roads for about a year, unwilling to completely give up the yumminess of meat, but increasingly unable to stomach the practices that put it on my plate.

Given this backpack full of guilt, empathy and hypocrisy, I didn't feel prepared to read Catherine Friend's book, The Compassionate Carnivore, when it came out a year ago. I made excuses like, "I'm not ready to think about this yet" and "I'll check it out soon...." Well, I finally did check it out and it was, in two words, freaking excellent. 

Friend is a life-long carnivore. She also raises sheep on a small farm in Minnesota with her partner. They sell their sheep for meat. They eat the sheep they raise, and they raise those sheep in such a manner that they have very good, safe, sheep-like lives, before they fulfill they're ultimate destinies as lamb chops and mutton. I say all this upfront, because it's important to understand that Friend's point of view is one that stems from respect - for the farmers, for the consumers and especially for the animals.

Friend is not about giving up meat. In fact, that's the opposite of helpful if one's concern is animal welfare. Rather, Friend would have meat-eaters continue to eat meat with one important change. Think about where your meat comes from and make a conscious choice about the kind of meat you buy - organic or local? Vegeatarian fed or grass fed, or grass finished for that matter? Slaughtered humanely (I know it sounds like an oxymoron, but it isn't) or herded into meat-packing plant's disassembly line? 

Once you've decide what kind of meat you want to eat, the next step, according to Friend, is to vote with your dollar. Support small farmers whose practices reflect whatever it is that you feel is important, whether its sustainability or humane treatment or just a little less corporate agra-business putting the squeeze on family farms. 

What really makes The Compassionate Carnivore work is a combination of two things. The first is Catherine Friend's humor, empathy and total lack of bull-shit. Not only has she been through the meat-eater / animal lover's conundrum that I outlined above, but she's still going through it, and rather than taking an all or nothing approach, she recommends baby-steps, as in her experience, you have to be patient with yourself if you want to make a lasting change.  The second thing is the abundance of resources she gives you to help you educate yourself and make whatever changes are right for you. This book never once hit a preachy note - a pleasant and important surprise considering how volatile the subject is.

All in all, I would recommend The Compassionate Carnivore to anyone - to those who eat meat with joyful abandon, as well as to those who have given it up because of fear of animal cruelty. What Catherine Friend outlines is a middle-road full of good humor and dual-perspectives. On the one hand, it's vital to have compassion for the environment and for the creatures who will one day become our food. On the other hand, it's vital to have compassion for yourself, which is something that I needed to hear.


Truth Seeker said...

You are clearly a compassionate, open-minded person. As such, it's important to get the full picture. I hope you will take a little time to explore this web site for an alternative view on this important topic:


Madeleine said...

While I thank you for the link, I must admit that I have been to that site before. It is obvious that those involved care about animals passionately and I very much respect that. However, in my personal experience, understanding and compassion on both sides of an issue are key. Human beings are not going to, as a species, stop eating meat, regardless of any proposed moral and environmental imperatives. Animals have always died to feed us, as animals have always died to feed each other. I'm sure no one would fault wolf for eating a fox, and while it is true that humans can survive without meat, we are omnivores and have evolved eating it.
I will happily adopt a more conscious and careful attitude towards what I consume and support others in doing the same. The change that comes of this may not be dramatic or immediate, but what works for some does not work for others. There is more than one valid road, more than one valid ideology to choose from. For my part, as long as a person is actively seeking a compassionate compromise between self and world, good work is being done.

Catherine said...


I've received many great reviews of my book, but my absolute favorite is your "freaking excellent."

And I love your reply to Truth Seeker. It's so important that people who eat meat not be silenced by those who believe their way is the only way. You communicated this beautifully, and compassionately, in your response. May the dialogue continue...

Madeleine said...


Oh wow, thank you so much for that. This is the first time that an author has responded to one of my reviews, and I'm really honored that it's you. Your book has been, and continues to be, a tremendous help to me. I'm especially grateful for the humor and compassion that comes through in your writing - those qualities made what could have been a very difficult subject accessible and un-threatening. Thank you for writing the book, and thank for your kind words.

As for the "freaking excellent," I'm glad you like that. I just call it like it see it :-)

mijnheer said...

Here's a review from a different perspective: