The Compassionate Carnivore by Catherine Friend (2008)

I can’t honestly say how many of Ms. Friend’s recommendations I will always follow, but here’s one I know I will: “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.”

She’s right, of course, for lots of good reasons. Set big goals and standards, and all too quickly you will conclude that it is just not possible, and go pig out at the nearest fast food joint. Or whatever your decadent equivalent is.

She summarizes four basic concepts in how to become a compassionate carnivore:

1. Pay attention. Be aware of the chain of commerce that brings meat to your table. Long before you start doing anything to change it, you need to understand the problem. Since I’ve been reading Temple Grandin, this part was pretty much already done in my case. For those who have not been following the developments in factory farming, there is a list of information sources at the end of the book.

2. Waste less meat. Ms. Friend provides some truly horrifying statistics on the amount of meat that is wasted in restaurants and elsewhere on the food service chain. There are some clearly practical things we can do here, such as not making more than we can eat unless we use them as leftovers. In a restaurant, ask to have the remains of that too large steak to be packaged so you can take it home. You don’t even need to pretend it’s for your dog.

3. Replace factory meat with meat from animals raised humanely. This is the hardest part for me, as I don’t easily shop anywhere but Schnuck’s. But you can bet I’m going to discuss the issue with the meat manager next time I go shopping. For those with a car, there are options. Again, getting on the Internet and locating sources nearby is one start. She provides a lot more ideas for those with a willingness to work at it, and/or lousy resources where they live.

4. Choose meatless meals over meat from animals raised in factories. Again, this could be a real problem for me, as I’m on a low-carbohydrate diet. But I can eat more fish, eggs and cheese at least some of the time.

The book is not just about advice on how to be a compassionate carnivore. It is much more about how Ms. Friend herself learned what she has about it. She and her partner Melissa bought a farm in Minnesota. When they went to the state fair and had a look at the “Miracle of Birth barn.” There she encountered a nursing sow who was kept in a cage so small she could scarcely move, and was basically just a milk bar for a litter of piglets. She couldn’t touch them or lick them, or apparently even see them. She just laid there and ate and the piglets nursed.

Little by little, Ms. Friend introduces us to the standard practices of factory farming. I promise you will be appalled. One important problem is the antibiotics and other drugs the animals are fed, which of course ends up in their milk and their muscle tissue.

Then there’s the matter of how the animals are slaughtered. Let’s just say the differences between the factory method and the small-farm method will impress you.

One important point stuck with me: when it comes to compassion, vegetarianism is not the answer. “Although [vegetarians] might work to help better animals’ lives through their words, those words won’t keep a sustainable farmer in business. Only dollars will. If you don’t buy from these farmers, they’ll go out of business, and you’ll have even fewer choices than you do now.” In other words, your consumption is your influence.

The entire book is very readable, with personal anecdotes, a real sense of humor, and a very human style. “I’ve grown accustomed to being different. . . . Then of course, there’s the whole gay thing. I’ve known I was gay since I was nineteen, so I’ve been different for a very long time. I’ve spent my life getting used to being different, then teaching people that although I may be different from then, I’m still a moral, ethical person who has similar wants and needs and fears and dreams.” She goes on to say, “I like who I am, and while there might be a few other Elvis-loving lesbian shepherds in the country, I’m guessing there aren’t many. I’m used to being different.”

The reason I gave this four stars instead of five is that if I gave it five, I’d feel obligated to live up to the standards presented. But then I’m reassured that the first person on whom I must practice compassion is myself. Let’s hope that’s a comfort and not an excuse.

I’d like to see everyone reading this book. Not everyone will change all that much about the way they consume meat, but I’m betting almost everyone will think about things they haven’t been thinking about much, possibly on purpose. “When it comes to my food, meat or otherwise, for most of my life I’ve been a baby bird, tossing my head back, opening wide, and letting corporate agriculture . . . feed me whatever they want. The baby bird doesn’t know what Papa Bird is jamming down its throat, and it doesn’t care. I just wants to be fed and will accept any level of processing for the convenience.”

Indeed. I’m determined not to be quite so much of a baby bird, and I owe that to Catherine Friend and my friend, Doreen Hulsey.

Statements in this review do not necessarily express the thoughts or opinions of the Ethical Society of St. Louis or its leadership.