Becoming a Compassionate Carnivore

An excerpt from The Compassionate Carnivore: Or, How to Keep Animals Happy, Save Old MacDonald's Farm, Reduce Your Hoofprint, and Still Eat Meat.

"Just as boats of various designs leave very different wakes in the water behind them, so too do various approaches to living send out different waves of reverberating influence on the world."
—Duane Elgin

Life as a carnivore used to be simple. Our choices were straightforward: Original Recipe or Extra Crispy? Pork Ribs or Beef Ribs? Chicken Pot pie or Turkey Pot Pie? Today, however, in the Brave New World of increased awareness of environmental impact, health concerns, and animal welfare, the choices are no longer just between specific dishes, but between different ways to raise, feed, and butcher the animals who become the meat in those dishes. The choices are so dizzying that, as Dr. Emilio Lazardo said in The Adventures of Buckaroo Bonzai, ‘It’s enough to make the ganglia twitch.’

At the grocery store, do I pay $.99 for the regular eggs, or $4.00 for the cage-free eggs? How can I eat out if I can’t find a restaurant that serves meat raised the way I want it raised? Do I spend time finding farmers who raise meat animals humanely, or do I close my eyes and buy the stuff at the store that’s been raised in a factory because I don’t have time to look for anything else? Should I buy grass-fed or grass-finished meat? Corn-fed? Pasture-raised or feedlot-raised? No antibiotics? No growth hormones? Do I buy organic meat shipped 1,000 miles, or non-organic meat shipped 60 miles? Should I buy meat from a small but conventional farm? Heck, should I even be eating meat at all?

Unfortunately, I don’t believe there are clear answers to any of these questions. For example, researchers have found that most of the food we eat has traveled at least 1,500 miles before it reaches our plate, and because that transportation consumes a great deal of fossil fuel and emits plenty of carbon dioxide, the conclusion is we should all eat locally. But an op-ed piece in the New York Times raised the opposite idea. New Zealand researchers now claim that the process of raising lamb on a clover-rich New Zealand pasture and shipping it 11,000 miles to Great Britain emits much less carbon dioxide than the process of raising a lamb on grain right in England.

I can feel my ganglia starting to twitch already. On my cynical days I wonder if there are any truths about becoming a more compassionate carnivore that I can trust.

On my less cynical days, I know there are. As I waded through what it means to be a carnivore today, I kept coming back to the one thing that I know to be true: the animals themselves matter. Treating animals with respect and consideration is an act that sends out ever-widening ripples into the world. To begin down this path, all we need to do is pull our heads up out of the sand.

Pulling My Head Out of the Sand

For me, it’s all about the animals because I am a farmer, and I raise animals for meat. I wasn’t raised on a farm, and had no dreams of farming, but in the mid 1990s, my partner Melissa confessed she’d always wanted to be a farmer and asked if I would help her start a farm.

What happened when I said ‘yes’ is a long story, but the short version is that today we run a small, sustainable farm and raise sheep. We have three guard llamas for protecting the flock, and sometimes have goats. We sell lamb, ducks, and chicken eggs. Melissa is in her element, repairing the tractor, fixing fences, and taking care of the animals. I tend to resist getting my hands dirty (an endearing phobia apparently began as a toddler when I refused to fingerpaint), but I provide valuable backup when the sheep get out (and chaos ensues), and I help with the farm’s management and planning. Over the last fifteen years, my perspective has shifted from city to rural, from consumer to producer, from livestock-ignorant to livestock-familiar. I am fiercely proud of the farm we’ve created, and how we raise our animals.

Until Melissa and I started our farm, I’d lived in the city, where I happily wore clean clothes, kept a tidy house, paid no attention to the changing seasons, and was content to completely ignore that my meat used to be an animal’s muscles. While ostriches don’t really stick their heads in the sand to hide (they stretch out flat against the ground), the whole-head-in-the-sand thing beautifully described my approach to eating meat. Meat came from styrofoam trays covered in cellophane, all traces of skin and blood and guts removed so I could easily forget the meat used to be an animal. I didn’t want to know that Bessie in the barn had become the burger on my bun.

But now I know. And as I’ve learned more about farming, and about eating meat, and about raising animals humanely, I’ve learned there is no right way to become a more compassionate carnivore. I love meat and am not going to give it up. There’ll be no 100-mile or 250-mile diet for this chick, although I commend those willing to take on the challenge. No feeding myself entirely from my garden, which I do not have and do not intend to plant because, truth be told, I’m not all that wild about vegetables, only eating them because my mother tells me I must. I don’t enjoy cooking. As comedian Carrie Snow said: “I prefer Hostess fruit pies to pop-up toaster tarts because they don’t require as much cooking.”

Because of my concern for the environment, the lives of animals, and my own health, I’ve spent the last ten years exploring how to make better choices in the meat I buy. Hopefully my experiences will help you bridge the yawning gap between the Ideal, and the Real, since our realistic choices may be very different from our philosophical choices. This book is not a declaration of war against farmers, since I am one. It’s not a plea for everyone to become a vegetarian, since I will never be one.

This will not be one of those cheerful self-help books that makes change sound so ridiculously easy—“Become a Compassionate Carnivore in Just Ten Days!”—that you feel like a total loser when you’re not able to pull it off. At the other extreme, it’s not intended to be one of those books about factory farming so depressing that you can’t get out of bed for a week. There’s only one rule you need to keep in mind as you approach the idea of becoming a more conscientious, compassionate carnivore, and here it is: The first being on whom you must practice compassion is yourself.

So what’s a compassionate carnivore to do when faced with new choices and conflicting information? We can learn more about our choices, then decide what’s important for us and our families. Scattered throughout the book are ideas for steps you can take, and when I’ve herded them all together at the end, you’ll have a good range of choices from which to select.

Here’s a heads up, though: Becoming a more compassionate carnivore requires change, and change requires time, the one thing most of us lack. How can we possibly change how we eat when we barely have enough time to eat?

Carl Honoré said this about today’s fast pace of life: “The more everyone else bangs on about how fast the world is, the more we assume that slowing down is impossible.” Yet by the end of his book, In Praise of Slowness, we learn that slowing down isn’t impossible: “The Slow philosophy delivers the things that really make us happy: good health, a thriving environment, strong communities and relationships, freedom from perpetual hurry.” I’m hoping that by the end of this book, you’ll want to slow down a bit. You’ll want to pay more attention to where your meat comes from and how it was raised.

Most of us have distanced ourselves from our meat, protecting ourselves from the truth that we are eating animals. Yet we don’t need to protect ourselves. Ignorance is not bliss. Being a carnivore who’s asleep at the wheel means someone else is driving. Being a carnivore who wakes up, looks around and engages means you’re in charge. Being in charge is good.

So in this book I’ll explore some of the basic issues—why it might be hard to change how we eat meat, and what it means to pay more attention to the animals we eat. Next will be a brief look at our current meat-eating habits, and whether that’s a good place in which to be.

There’s no avoiding a discussion of some of the nasty effects of factory farming, both on animals and the environment, and some of you will feel so guilty you’ll put the book down and be done with the whole thing. Enough with the guilt. I’ve struggled with it for years, and have finally accepted it’s a total waste of time. Instead of giving in to guilt, resolve to stay awake, and accept that you can do nothing about what’s happened up to this point. We start from here, from today.

I’ll discuss sustainable and organic alternatives to factory meat, and how what an animal is fed will affect meat taste and quality. I’ll cover what we all want to avoid, and that’s the transition from animal to meat. For a break, I’ll take you on a relaxing pasture walk, then we’ll get creative about finding sources for the kind of meat you want to buy.

This is an exciting time to be both a carnivore and a farmer, and I’m optimistic we’re approaching a tipping point when it comes to buying meat from animals raised humanely. Of course, I might just be the optimist Gretel Erhlich once described, the guy who fell off a ten story building, and as he passed each floor, said, “Well, I’m all right so far.”

Let’s hope not.

Farmers and consumers have finally found each other. Thanks to farmer’s markets, the internet, and other methods, you and I can connect more easily than ever before. We can support each other by totally bypassing today’s food distribution system, and in doing so, I’m positive we can create better lives for meat animals, farmers, and consumers alike.

The Compassionate Carnivore by Catherine Friend

From the book The Compassionate Carnivore by Catherine Friend. Reprinted by arrangement with Da Capo Lifelong (, a member of the Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2008.

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CityRose's picture
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Thank you for such a thought-provoking article. However, I find it unfortunate that not only is your mind closed to the idea of becoming vegetarian, but that you also cloak the motivation to become vegetarian in such negative terms ("feeling guilt"--almost as if caving in to a weakness) rather than positive ones ("becoming conscious"--opening your heart and mind). If you cannot imagine becoming a full vegetarian, how about taking a baby step--go meatless one day a week and do it over the course of not a few weeks but years. That way, you will save some small fraction of animals who won't have to give up their lives to feed you.

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I thank you for this article and the book. I have tried several times to be a vegetarian, and each time I find myself listless. I asked my yoga teacher about it the last time I tried it and felt exhausted all the time, and he said he's never met a healthy vegetarian, and one of the most spiritually beautiful people he's ever met, a lama, eats at McDonalds sometimes. I am sorry, but we evolved eating meat. After thousands and thousands of years of eating it, I think for some people it's really a necessary part of the diet. I don't think we should eat much, and when we do it should be carefully chosen. Thank you for bringing mindfulness to this topic - I think we can eat meat, be thankful for all forms of life that give us life, and be respectful of everyone's dietary decisions.

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I think boycotting the products of factory farms, reducing one's consumption of animal products, going veggie on certain days of the week, etc. are admirable -- as long as it's understood that veganism is the goal.

Karen Davis of United Poultry Concerns was once asked if there is a humane way to kill chickens. With tears in her eyes, she asked: "Is there a humane way to kill children?"

In his 1975 book, Animal Liberation, Australian philosopher Peter Singer writes:

"Killing an animal is in itself a troubling act. It has been said that if we had to kill our own meat we would all be vegetarians. There may be exceptions to that general rule, but it is true that most people prefer not to inquire into the killing of the animals they eat.

"Very few people ever visit a slaughterhouse; and films of slaughterhouse operations are rarely shown on television...Yet those who, by their purchases, require animals to be killed have no right to be shielded from this or any other aspect of the production of the meat they buy.

"If it is distasteful for humans to think about, what can it be like for the animals to experience it?"

Peter Singer concludes in Animal Liberation that "by ceasing to rear and kill animals for food, we can make extra food available for humans that, properly distributed, it would eliminate starvation and malnutrition from this planet. Animal Liberation is Human Liberation, too."

The number of animals killed for food in the United States is 70 times larger than the number of animals killed in laboratories, 30 times larger than the number of animals killed by hunters and trappers, and 500 times larger than the number of animals killed in animal pounds.

"If anyone wants to save the planet," says Paul McCartney in a PETA interview, "all they have to do is just stop eating meat. That's the single most important thing you could do. It's staggering when you think about it. Vegetarianism takes care of so many things in one shot: ecology, famine, cruelty. Let's do it! Linda was right. Going veggie is the single best idea for the new century."

The animal rights movement should be supported by all caring Americans.

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The frugivores (gorillas, chimpanzees and other primates) have intestinal tracts twelve times the length of the body, clawless hands and alkaline urine and saliva. Their diet is mostly vegetarian, occasionally supplemented with carrion, insects, etc.

Flesh-eating animals lap water with their tongue, whereas vegetarian animals imbibe liquids by a suction process. Humans are classified as primates and are thus frugivores possessing a set of completely herbivorous teeth. Proponents of the theory that humans should be classified as omnivores note that human beings do, in fact, possess a modified form of canine teeth. However, these so-called "canine teeth" are much more prominent in animals that traditionally never eat flesh, such as apes, camels, and the male musk deer.

It must also be noted that the shape, length and hardness of these so-called "canine teeth" can hardly be compared to those of true carnivorous animals. A principle factor in determining the hardness of teeth is the phosphate of magnesia content. Human teeth usually contain 1.5 percent phosphate of magnesia, whereas the teeth of carnivores are composed of nearly 5 percent phosphate of magnesia. It is for this reason they are able to break through the bones of their prey, and reach the nutritious marrow.

Zoologist Desmond Morris makes a case for vegetarianism in his 1967 book, The Naked Ape: "It could be argued that, since our primate ancestors had to make do without a major meat component in their diets we should be able to do the same. We were driven to become flesh eaters only by environmental circumstances, and now that we have the environment under control, with elaborately cultivated crops at our disposal, we might be expected to return to our ancient feeding patterns."

In The Human Story, edited by Marie-Louise Makris (1985), we read: "...recent studies of their teeth reveal that the Australopithecines did not eat meat as a regular part of their diet, and were mainly peaceful vegetarians, rather like chimps or gorillas. The popular image of the murderous ape is now as extinct as the Australopithecines themselves."

Dr. Gordon Latto notes that carnivorous and omnivorous animals can only move their jaws up and down, and that omnivores "have a blunt tooth, a sharp tooth, a blunt tooth, a sharp tooth--showing that they were destined to deal both with flesh foods from the animal kingdom and foods from the vegetable kingdom...

"Carnivorous mammals and omnivorous mammals cannot perspire except at the extremity of the limbs and the tip of the nose; man perspires all over the body. Finally, our instincts; the carnivorous mammal (which first of all has claws and canine teeth) is capable of tearing flesh asunder, whereas man only partakes of flesh foods after they have been camouflaged by cooking and by condiments.

"Man instinctively is not carnivorous," explains Dr. Latto. "...he takes the flesh food after somebody else has killed it, and after it has been cooked and camouflaged with certain condiments. Whereas to pick an apple off a tree or eat some grain or a carrot is a natural thing to do; people enjoy doing it; they don't feel disturbed by it. But to see these animals being slaughtered does affect people; it offends them. Even the toughest of people are affected by the sights in the slaughterhouse.

"I remember taking some medical students into a slaughterhouse. They were about as hardened people as you could meet. After seeing the animals slaughtered that day in the slaughterhouse, not one of them could eat the meat that evening."

Author R.H. Weldon writes in No Animal Food:

"The gorge of a cat, for instance, wil rise at the smell of a mouse or a piece of raw flesh, but not at the aroma of fruit. If a man can take delight in pouncing upon a bird, tear its still livng body apart with his teeth, sucking the warm blood, one might infer that Nature had provided him with a carnivorous instinct, but the very thought of doing such a thing makes him shudder. On the other hand, a bunch of luscious grapes makes his mouth water, and even in the absence of hunger, he will eat fruit to gratify taste."

As far back as 1961, the Journal of the American Medical Association reported that: "A vegetarian diet can prevent 97% of our coronary occlusions." More recently, Wiiliam S. Collens and Gerald B. Dobkens concluded: "Examination of the dental structure of modern man reveals that he possesses all the features of a strictly herbivorous animal. While designed to subsist on vegetarian foods, he has perverted his dietary habits to accept food of the carnivore. It is postulated that man cannot handle carnivorous foods like the carnivore. Herein may lie the bais for the high incidence of arteriosclerotic disease."

Keith Akers in A Vegetarian Sourcebook (1983), responds to the argument that killing animals for food is natural:

"The main problem with this argument is that it does not justify the practice of meat-eating or animal husbandry as we know it today; it justifies hunting. The distinction between hunting and animal husbandry probably seems rather fine to the man in the street, or even to your typical rule-utilitarian moral philosopher. The distinction, however, is obvious to an ecologist. If one defends killing on the grounds that it occurs in nature, then one is defending the practice as it occurs in nature.

"When one species of animal preys on another in nature, it only preys on a very small proportion of the total species population. Obviously, the predator species relies on its prey for its continued survival. Therefore, to wipe the prey species out through overhunting would be fatal. In practice, members of such predator species rely on such strategies as territoriality to restrict overhunting and to insure the continued existence of its food supply.

"Moreover, only the weakest members of the prey species are the predator's victims: the feeble, the sick, the lame, or the young accidentally separated from the fold. The life of the typical zebra is usually placid, even in lion country; this kind of violence is the exception in nature, not the rule.

"As it exists in the wild, hunting is the preying upon isolated members of an animal herd. Animal husbandry is the nearly complete annihilation of an animal herd. In nature, this kind of slaughter does not exist. The philosopher is free to argue that there is no moral difference between hunting and slaughter, but he cannot invoke nature as a defense of this idea.

"Why are hunters, not butchers, most frequently taken to task by the larger community for their killing of animals? Hunters usually react to such criticism by replying that if hunting is wrong, then meat-hunting must be wrong as well. The hunter is certainly right on one point--the larger community is hypocritical to object to hunting when it consumes the flesh of domesticated animals. If any form of meat-eating is justified, it would be meat from a hunted animal."

Finally, even if humans really are omnivores as some claim (and this claim is subject to dispute: I would refer these people to Dr. Milton Mills and to the website of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, , which advocates a vegan diet, an end to vivisection, etc., for the latest on whether humans are frugivorous or omnivorous), my friend Mareechi Duvvuuri (another Hindu-American!) who once studied sports medicine, pointed out that the diet of natural omnivores is mostly (85 percent) plant food.

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Here is some material on the subject, from the Hindu and Buddhist scriptures: “You must not use your God-given body for killing God’s creatures, whether they are human, animal or whatever.” ---Yajur Veda 12.32 “One should be considered dear, even by the animal kingdom.” ---Atharva Veda 17.1.4 “Those noble souls who practice meditation and other yogic ways, who are ever careful about all beings, who protect all animals, are the ones who are actually serious about spiritual practices.” ---Atharva Veda 19.48.5 “By not killing any living being, one becomes eligible for salvation.” ---Manusmriti 6.60 “The purchaser of flesh performs himsa (violence) by his wealth; he who eats flesh does so by enjoying its taste; the killer does himsa by actually tying and killing the animal. Thus, there are three forms of killing. He who brings flesh or sends for it, he who cuts off the limbs of an animal, and he who purchases, sells, or cooks flesh and eats it—all of these are considered meat-eaters.” ---Mahabharata, Anu. 115.40 “He who desires to augment his own flesh by eating the flesh of other creatures lives in misery in whatever species he may take his birth.” ---Mahabharata, Anu. 115.47 “Ahimsa (nonviolence) is the highest duty.” ---Padma Purana 1.31.27 According to contemporary Hindu scholar Satyaraja dasa (Steven Rosen): “Ahimsa loosely translates as ‘nonviolence.’ In the Vedic tradition, however, the word possesses a much broader meaning: ‘Having no ill feeling for any living being, in all manners possible and for all times is called ahimsa, and it should be the desired goal of all seekers.’ (Patanjali Yoga Sutras, 2.30) “The Manusmriti, one of India’s earliest sacred texts, says: ‘Without the killing of living beings, meat cannot be made available, and since killing is contrary to the principles of ahimsa, one must give up eating meat.’ “The Vedas condemn more, however, than just those who eat meat. Equally guilty, they say, is anyone assisting in animal slaughter, sanctioning it, anyone who cuts the flesh, buys, sells, or even serves it. Only those who have not participated in any of these activities can be considered true practitioners of ahimsa. “Sikhism, founded by Guru Nanak (1469-1538), is an interesting blend of Hindu and Islamic beliefs. Because of the Moslem influence, most branches of the Sikh religion are not strictly vegetarian. Still, according to Sikh scholar Swaran Singh Sanehi of the Academy of Namdhari culture: ‘Sikh scriptures support vegetarianism fully. Sikhs from the period of Guru Nanak had adopted the Hindu tradition and way of living in many ways. Their disliking for flesh-foods was also a part of the same tradition and way of living. Guru Nanak considered meat-eating improper—particularly for those who are trying to meditate.’ Of the ten million Sikhs, the Namdhari sect and Yogi Bhajan’s 3HO Golden temple Movement are strictly vegetarian.” Satyaraja dasa states further that Mahayana Buddhism, perhaps the most important and widely practiced form of Buddhism today, has many scriptures advocating vegetarianism. Some of the Mahayana sutras are said to contain direct quotes from the Buddha himself. In the Lankavatara, we read: “For the sake of love of purity, the bodhisattva (enlightened soul) should refrain from eating flesh, which is born from semen, blood, etc. For fear of causing terror to living beings let the bodhisattva, who is disciplining himself to attain compassion, refrain from eating flesh…It is not true that meat is proper food and permissible when the animal was not killed by himself, when he did not order others to kill it, when it was not specifically meant for him…Again, there may be some people in the future who…being under the influence of the taste for meat will string together in various ways many sophisticated arguments to defend meat-eating…But…meat-eating in any form, in any manner, and in any place is unconditionally and once and for all prohibited…Meat-eating, I have not permitted to anyone, I do not permit, I will not permit…” The Surangama Sutra says: “The reason for practicing dhyana (meditation) and seeking to attain samadhi (mystic perfection) is to escape from the suffering of life. But in seeking to escape from suffering ourselves, why should we inflict it upon others? Unless you can so control your minds that even the thought of brutal unkindness and killing is abhorrent, you will never be able to escape from the bondage of the world’s life…After my parinirvana (supreme enlightenment) in the final kalpa (era) different kinds of ghosts will be encountered everywhere deceiving people and teaching them that they can eat meat and still attain enlightenment…How can a bhikshu (seeker), who hopes to become a deliverer of others, himself be living on the flesh of other sentient beings?” There are other principles involved in spiritual life besides nonviolence, such as prayer or meditation, sexual restraint, and abstinence from all mind-altering substances. But it is the height of hypocrisy to claim to be spiritual while harming or killing animals. "Honourable men may honourably disagree about some details of human treatment of the non-human," wrote Stephen Clark in his 1977 book, The Moral Status of Animals, "but vegetarianism is now as necessary a pledge of moral devotion as was the refusal of emperor-worship in the early church." According to Clark, eating animal flesh is "gluttony," and "Those who still eat flesh when they could do otherwise have no claim to be serious moralists."

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A few thoughts on the posts:

Dawndoll, the listlessness you experienced may have been from the effects of detoxing from the harmful substances (hormones, etc.) in meat. I hope you will try again. I do understand it is hard to give up the foods we love. I've been vegetarian for 30 years or so and am now trying to eat vegan a few days a week. So, I do understand: change is hard! Also, while I respect Gaiam for giving us a forum where we can peaceably air our opinions, I must draw the line at being asked to be "respectful" of each others' eating choices. To ask me to respect meat eating is like asking me to be "respectful" of slave owning, the Nazi concentration camps, and the horrific violence and suppression of women practiced in some cultures. I'm sorry, I can't do it. Also, I think that while your yoga teacher may do well at teaching yoga, he or she isn't serving you well when it comes to the most common, undisputed medical knowledge. I hope life will send you some new good teachers.

Vasumurti, thank you.

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