The Compassionate Carnivore

The Compassionate Carnivore: Or, How to Keep Animals Happy, Save Old MacDonald’s Farm, Reduce Your Hoofprint, and Still Eat Meat
by Catherine Friend
Da Capo Press, 2008, 291 pages

I read this book over the holidays and it’s been sitting on my desk waiting for a review ever since. It’s not that I didn’t want to talk about it or discuss it, but rather that the message seems somewhat mixed and I haven’t been sure how to approach it.

Maybe I’m too much of a “seeing the world in black and white” kind of gal, because while I know that there are plenty of farmers out there who treat their animals well, who advocate for better lives and more humane slaughter methods for livestock, there’s still a part of me that can’t help thinking, “Yanno, if you really loved animals, you just wouldn’t kill them for food at all.”

This is even more difficult to parse when Compassionate Carnivore author Catherine Friend admits that she’s addicted to ready-meals and county fair pork on a stick. Yes, she and her partner raise sheep in an ethical and humane way, keeping to organic and sustainable principles as much as possible, but her own eating habits are less than stellar and certainly don’t put her in a position to preach to anyone else.

Therefore, I tried to concentrate on reading the book as an account of life on a farm, similar in context to the book Sylvia’s Farm or the blog Farmgirl Fare. And from that point of view, The Compassionate Carnivore scores well with plenty of stories of how Friend and her partner deal with all the issues of sheep-rearing from birth to slaughter.

Ultimately though, the book is political in nature and Friend uses various chapters to discuss the benefits (and definitions) of grass-raised meat, free-range chicken versus factory chicken, and even how animals that are stressed during slaughter can produce poor quality meat. For anyone already interested in these topics, the discussion probably won’t offer any new insights, although it is interesting to read a first-hand account of the issues facing farmers (eg. when to use antibiotics), and how they deal with them while keeping to their ethics.

Friend gets stuck in a few catch-phrases throughout, with a regular reference to the “bowling alone” theory which is based on the collapse and revival of community. She also points out in a few spots that her partner Melissa is the one primarily responsible for the care and management of the animals, yet the author regularly refers to herself as “a farmer”. I’m splitting hairs here, but it came up enough times to become a stylistic annoyance.

Although the overall tone is slightly preachy,  this just might be the book to buy for a meat-loving friend who could use a push to search out sustainable meat or a farmer to buy from directly. Those already interested in where their food comes from will probably be familiar with most of what Friend talks about (and will probably already either have cut down their meat consumption, be vegetarian, or will have started to source local, ethically-raised meat directly from small-scale farmers), but the Compassionate Carnivore is written in a “we’re just regular folks” style that will appeal to people who normally get their hackles up when anyone suggests they eat less (or different, or more expensive) meat. While I personally find Friend’s admission about the quantity of factory-farmed meat she used to eat (even as a farmer) to be shocking, it might work in her favour in terms of showing her readers that they too can wean themselves off such horrible food.

The Compassionate Carnivore is an interesting read that shows farming in a realistic light and also encourages carnivores not to give up their beloved meat, but to make a change for the better in terms of animal welfare, the environment and their own health.