Killing What You Eat: The Dark Side of Compassionate Carnivorism

There’s a relatively new category of conscientious consumer on the rise known as the “compassionate carnivore.”  These are meat eaters who have chosen, with good reason, to remove themselves from the horrific practices of factory farming. In her thoughtful book, The Compassionate Carnivore, Catherine Friend puts it this way:

I believe it’s possible to show compassion for animals and still eat them. For me, this means paying attention. It means learning more about the animals I eat and taking some responsibility for their quality of life.

An urban chicken farm in Long Island City, New York.Photo: xmascarol

A significant number of meat consumers have taken this message seriously enough to become meat producers. Indeed, the urban homestead movement in particular has inspired untold numbers of urbanites to take compassion to the extreme and become part-time animal farmers themselves.

The rationale for this transition is multifaceted, and often quite convincing. “Those of us that raise our own animals,” one of my critics concisely points out, “are doing so because we don’t want to be part of the industrialized agricultural machine that routinely abuses animals for the sake of the almighty dollar.” An urban homesteader from Oakland went one further: “the level of appreciation for nature and life when you slaughter your own meat creates a kind of ethic that I think is what we need to save the world.”

Saving the world notwithstanding, the idea that decentralizing animal agriculture leads to greater animal welfare seems sensible enough. But does that mean serious animal suffering will be avoided? Hardly.  An animal can be raised with care, fed a healthy diet, lavished with human affection, and kept relatively safe from external threats. However, more often than not, that animal is still going to be slaughtered. Putting aside for now the ethical implications of killing a sentient being in order to eat well, I want to ask a more tangible question: will the animal be slaughtered with compassion?

Please note: the point here is not to embarrass or castigate urban homesteaders who have boldly sought to take control of their own meat supply. Although I personally find the prospect of raising and killing an animal with my own hands to be deeply saddening, I admire these farmers for being deliberate with their lives and bucking the industrial meat system. My point, instead, is to draw on the published blogs of these (mostly urban) pioneers to highlight the rarely publicized fact that when amateurs take charge of the slaughter, the consequences can be anything but compassionate. Nobody can accurately say how representative the following accounts are, but their popularity suggests that, at the least, they’re not exceptional.

Consider the handiwork of “Poor Girl Gourmet,” upon the slaughter of her first chicken:

We researched humane slaughter practices, including chicken hypnosis, however, the practice round of hypnosis failed miserably, and we came to believe that piercing the chicken’s brain would be the least traumatic for all involved. Not so. On that fateful day, JR [her husband] placed the chicken into the cone, where it promptly attempted to somersault its way out of The Guillotine, clawing furiously at the sloping plastic walls, pushing its head up as though it might get to see the sun again. JR took a pair of sharp scissors – this is a judgment call we lived to regret; despite having an ice pick given to us for this very purpose, we went with the alternative sharp scissor implement. As it turns out, the chicken brain is a very small target, and one that is easily missed. I went from enthusiastic documentary photographer to gagging wife in the span of approximately a half a second. With camera now useless, and my retching instinct fully intact, JR grabbed his sharpened hedge trimmers. Oh, if only they were truly sharp, those sharpened hedge trimmers. The trimmers did not succeed in lopping off the head of the poor, tortured chicken. Instead, they folded its neck over itself in a zig-zag crease, which did, at least, succeed in breaking its neck, and therefore killing it. 

Later in the post she recalled that the botched slaughter “was less horrible than what I could conjure up in my crazy little head.”

Responding to a post seeking advice about backyard duck slaughtering on the blog High Desert Chronicles (“sometimes you need to look back to move forwards”), “Heather” forthrightly recounts the difficulties of self-slaughtering quail:

And I won’t lie, it wasn’t easy. I was shaking so badly on the first one I was afraid I’d cut myself with the knife I was using to skin them. It’s a little gruesome if you think too hard about it–there are details I wasn’t emotionally prepared for, which I’m about to talk about so if you’re reading this comment and feeling squeamish you may want to skip to the next one…Some of the difficult details: the way it moves around after the head is gone, and the times when the head doesn’t come off cleanly, and the time when I picked one up to skin it and it started jumping around again after I stuck the knife in it (it was headless). And, when you’re first getting started, the fact that you are likely to make mistakes and one or two may not go as smoothly as you would like, and there may be suffering involved. It’s easy to feel really awful and guilty about it too, because you know if you had only been more skillful or quicker or stronger that the death would have been quick and painless…

On the website, “Cathy” left another sad account of botched butchery:

I processed my very first cockerel, the other day, and even though I had spent quite a bit of time studying the jugular method (all of the videos make it looks so simple) it wasn’t so simple finding that vein after all . I cut under the earlobe but now I think that I was supposed to be under the jaw, close to the earlobe. Anyway, I’m still feeling depressed about how I botched the job when all I wanted was to make it as quick and painless as possible for the poor guy.I was also wondering if I was cutting on the wrong side of the head. Does it make a difference? I know there are veins on either side but not sure if they are the same and if one will bleed them out faster than the other. I still have over 20 more cockerels to process this coming week and I’m having bad dreams about it.

Whereas Heather’s and Cathy’s accounts are clearly emotionally-laden recollections intended to help others avoid similar mistakes, others are disturbingly cold in tone. Take this account of killing ducks in the backyard:

Here’s how we did it: Each duck was placed upside down in a cone, held securely by quiet helpers and humanely slaughtered with a sharp razor blade to the artery and vein in the neck. Two passed quickly, two held out for almost 10 minutes with some thrashing and splattering of duck blood.

Her reaction to the two ducks who were not “humanely” slaughtered: “Good thing I wore old pants and sneakers.”


Which brings me to my final point. Botched slaughters might very well be relatively rare. Who knows? But, for the sake of argument, let’s imagine that compassionate carnivores eventually, after a lot of trial and error, do in fact become universally competent, or “humane,” slaughterers. Even if this happens, I would contend, the emotional distance required to consistently kill animals—often one that you’ve raised–would eventually mitigate the compassion that so many carnivores claim to seek in the first place. Again, to the blogs:

Writing in “Hunt. Gather. Love.,” the blogger Melissa describes the experience of slaughtering her first chicken. The bird she killed was a common industrial breed raised on a small farm.  Admitting that there was no science to back up her claim, Melissa explained: “I think there is something wrong with eating food from an animal that is so far away from actually being an animal. As my chicken struggled weakly to escape, I thought about how it never ever would survive in the wild. It was more machine than animal.”

She then took solace in one of the more bizarre rationalizations of unneccessary death I’ve ever heard. For “animals that lived with dignity . . . death is only one day.” I’m not sure how to characterize such a remark, but compassion doesn’t really jump to mind.

A vet in Florida named Patty recounted having to kill her Rooster, named Elvio, because of “his four AM vocal expressions.” She recalled how “he would sit next to you in the evenings and have his waddle stroked.” The author noted that she’d become an experienced chicken killer in vet school. And then she turned her attention to Elvio the Rooster. Here’s how the lights went out for Elvio:

I made it fast, surprising myself with a long repressed chicken-killing efficiency. From a quiet, roosting bird to a dead bird in under three seconds. Some flapping. Then nothing. And that’s when the dirty work really began. But, by then, it wasn’t Elvio anymore. It was just another chicken headed to the pot.

As one reader reacted: “Dead is dead.”

What strikes me most about Melissa and Patty’s respective accounts is how easily the slaughter is rationalized. Melissa reduces her bird to a machine-like creature. Patty effectively erases all memory of her pseudo-pet rooster in three seconds (“it wasn’t Elvio anymore”). Is this the kind of compassion concerned carnivores are seeking?

I doubt it. These examples thus suggest a possible paradox at the core of compassionate carnivorism. On the one hand, it makes perfect sense to think that compassion would be maximized when the consumer turns his own animal into his own meat. On paper, this sounds great. But the logistics and quiet psychological impact of this process—factors that the examples in this post point to– are such that genuine compassion is (perhaps necessarily) going to be compromised.

Of the scores of urban homesteading blogs that I’ve been reading, only one cuts to the core of this concern. It comes from Original Country Girl, who writes:

The best advice is to always maintain a distance between you, and those intended for your dinner plate. This makes the butchering much easier if the animal is nothing more than “the black chicken” or “the grey and white goose.” You can care for your critters in a humane and respectful way without allowing attachments to form. Rule number one is to never give it a name. Some people can get by with ironic names like the afore-mentioned ”Christmas dinner” moniker, but for others even this can cause trouble later on. If you know you’re soft-hearted don’t do it. Clean the pen, feed good feed, and tend any wounds but don’t get too close. No names, no handfed treats, and no special treatment for any one individual animal.

Perhaps the only true compassion a carnivore can experience, in the end, is compassion at a distance. And what sort of compassion is that?


You could also just by-pass compassion and see feed animals for what they are: food.

Us too, are food, for the organisms that clean up after we kick the bucket.

The world is built upon this cycle of life and death. I hate to make generalizations, but most (ouch!) organisms on our planet operate in this fashion, big fish eats the little fish, etc.

When it comes to the topic of home-grown food, my only concern is that it's of a better quality than that available from huge operations. I'm really just not concerned with how "humane" death can be made. Death is death, doesn't matter if your cow was the happiest cow ever to graze on grass (as it should) it's going to die and it's not going to enjoy the experience one single bit. There's very little to be done about this. No organism wants to die, but only some among them are able to express this discomfort, or try to fight against it.

I'm not loving the bias of this article. Plants feel pain too, and they don't want to die for your dietary needs either, but as animals, humans have specific dietary needs, thankfully, the world is designed accordingly by making plant and animal life fully edible.



You could just bypass the eating of animals and see them for what they are: sentient beings

Us too, are sentient beings.

I agree that we can eat animals, and that there have certainly been good reasons to do it. But we don't have to, and it seems like these "urban homesteaders" are missing out on that key option. If we want to be compassionate to animals, the best option is probably not to raise and eat them. If tasty meat is more important to us then the animal's lives, then we have other options. One of which is raising and killing them ourselves, but it's not clear that this trade off is worth it.

I know it's certainly not for me, if my choice was between eating animals I'd raised and killed myself, or not eating meat at all, I'd stick to veggies.


If you remove our emotions and feelings, you're left with what we are: an animal. Humans (as animals, not "sentient beings") have to eat x,y and z from a nutritional stand-point.

Surely it is possible to live without animals, just like I'm sure a lion would make it a few weeks/months on a no-protein diet for whatever reason, but that's not an indication that we should, it is only further proof that life clings to life, and that most organisms on earth are first and foremost concerned with survival and we'll squeeze out as much of it as we can.

We will not agree on this, but if you take some time to study not just our evolution, but our genetics, you should see that we require animal consumption to have full genetic expression and good health.

In all honesty, I wish we didn't have this requirement, because I am an animal lover (being a meat eater shouldn't negate this) but I'm not willing to put my health in jeopardy - or live an "okay" life when I could be living a good one - by foregoing all animal products all together.



The whole movement seems a bit silly to me. Yes, I agree that there is need to avoid needless cruelty. But a do-it-yourself approach is far from the best option in this case. Regulate the industry, pay a little more in the store for "humane" meat, those I can see. But setting loose a bunch of amateurs? Seems likely to result in more suffering, not less.


You argue that there is some humanity lost (in the Melissa and Patty examples) after having to kill these creatures, but the humanity focus certainly should not be the people in these instances but the animals. Even in the first botched kills (which hopefully are rare), the animal suffers for 10 minutes. You can find videos of factory farm animals in Iowa that suffer their whole lives at the hands of rednecks that get pissed at them for being hurt and uncomfortable. The true humanity is minimizing the suffering of the animals.


I bypass factory farmed meat product simply because they taste terrible.

Dan Santo

The economic aspect of this is pretty sketchy. I can see areas where economic aspects could come in, but this article is pretty much completely devoid of anything relating to economics.

The closest that I can come to an "economic" aspect is that economics is much better than most disciplines in looking at the large picture - the unintended consequences - than most areas of study. This article looks at the unintended moral effects of humane slaughtering.

But, that is the closest I can come to some sort of economics, or even Freakonomics, tie-in for this article. Junk this sort of article.

If someone on the Freakonomics team wants to allow friends and colleagues to post whatever sort of drivel they want, how about setting up a separate blog just for them. The barrier costs are minimal, and the benefit to we readers who don't want to have random-topic posts tossed at us when we read Freakonomics will be much happier. Not only that, but those people who read this blog and do like that sort of stuff can go subscribe to that other blog and enjoy themselves over there.



Well it takes guts to do what they do, anyway.

Moving away a little from this subject, I've lived most of my life surrounded by beef farms. I was walking around one day recently and seeing the usual view around here - a herd of cows accompanied by their calves, lounging about in a field, enjoying the sunlight - and it occurred to me that I never see these images from animal rights campaigners.

True, I don't know much about the conditions cows experience when they are stabled in winter, or when in transit. But their summer lives seem pretty amazing. Lie about in grass. Eat grass. Never risk starvation, or predation. If they get sick the farmer brings a vet. Herd animals in the wild don't have this kind of life! They get lions and disease and famine. So perhaps conventional farming isn't necessarily cruel if it gives animals a life safer than the one they'd endure in the wild. (Up to the point of slaughter of course.)



This guy totally missed the mark. The compassion isn't about coddling critters and cooing at them, and then somehow reconciling that with killing them. It's about not having these animals exposed to the disgusting meat industry we have in this country. I'm yet to take it up, but I hope to some day.
I think that learning what it is to kill what you eat is important. I don't think that makes me less human, but more. Is it really better that we should all eat what the industry supplies, and never understand where that chicken breast or drumstick came from? That we see meat as something wrapped in plastic that comes from coolers in the supermarket?


Wow, this was a wonderful example of stupid people doing stupid stuff. I worked on a small chicken farm as a kid. You grab them up, one person holds the feet and head while the other person chops off the head with a sharp machete. Length of time for the death to happen - a hundredth of a second. The pain didn't even have time to register in the brain before the head was separated completely.

The chickens were "happy" I guess, since they had an open field to use during the day along with safety and food at night. We killed them with a tiny fraction of the stress and pain of the idiots in these stories.

What's so hard about that? Instead aparently there is tons of people making up stories about humanely killing them by slicing just the jugular veins or whatever. Idiots.


I think this is a truly remarkable movement-- i might be practicing it, if i weren't living on a futon in a small apartment. It seems to contain elements of Abrahamic (Halal and Kosher) traditions and 19th century Romanticism. These people value the experience of tending to these animals. That they experience some cognitive dissonance between what they conceive to be compassion and the intractable gruesomeness of death is not surprising, nor is it self-defeating of the movement. As you mentioned, sensibilities evolve in the face of having to actually take the life of an animal. Nevertheless, this is an important experience. Death is gruesome; it is violent, painful, and haunting. Appreciating this for what it is is essential to exploring conscientious carnivorism. The negative externality of consuming meat (the suffering of animals) is harshly internalized with this method.


This whole article seems kind of goofy to me. The plants you eat are covered in pesticides that kill uncountably many bugs, and deer that try to eat your plants in the fields where they grow are culled by farmers. You just can't eat anything without killing or potentially killing something living. I have great respect of these folks and their attempts to shape their diet to their, personal, moral sentiments. That, in fact, seems much more honorable than going vegan and then berating people who don't, while closing your eyes and ears to the harm your own lifestyle creates.


For "compassionate carnivores" it is really important to "know where their food comes from." But what is the excuse, after taking the time to educate ones self, for continuing to kill animals? Anyone seriously researching food systems realizes that eating a diet that is free of meat, dairy and eggs is perfectly achievable with small changes to the food system. Much smaller than the ones needed to have a proliferation of backyard animal farms.

Ian M

This post applies to economics about as much as it does to vector calculus.

A restaurant could let customers kill their chickens or fish. I'm sure it has been considered if not tried

Bob Rhubart

If I had to kill critters in order to put meat on my plate I'd never eat meat again. And I'm certainly offended by what I have seen of the treatment of animals at factory farms. But the bottom line is that carnivores, including humans, eat meat. There is also no denying that in the natural world non-human carnivores don't give a moment's thought to the fear or suffering their prey animals endure in the process of being chased down and eaten. There is no shortage of video evidence that wild carnivores are absolutely oblivious to the idea that dinner hasn't stopped moving. Nature is cruel in that regard. While that doesn't excuse human cruelty in the treatment of food animals, perhaps it is unrealistic to think that any amount of kindness or care can turn the slaughtering process into something other than what it is. And the animals involved are unlikely to quietly accept their fate. If we want meat, we must accept the reality of the slaughter.


Joshua Northey

Why don't we figure out a way to not destroy the planet with nuclear war and to to get a handle on human-centric ethical and environmental lapses before we try to go out and make the world better for chickens?

The world is a pretty crummy place for a lot of people and we are not really good at making the hard decisions that could solve that problem. What makes one think there is going to be any appetite for making the world a better place for animals except in niche very bourgeois circles?


My family raised chickens for ~5 years while I was growing up. They were mostly layers, but we raised meat birds once as well. I also kept backyard chickens (primarily for eggs, although a few were slaughtered) for 18 months while living in an apartment in a small city during 2009-2010. Our chickens were treated well. They lived lives as full and meaningful as the average chicken can aspire to. Google defines compassion as " Sympathetic pity and concern for the sufferings or misfortunes of others." By that definition, our chickens received compassion. Yes, they were killed at the end, but as humanely and painlessly as a chicken can aspire to.

Anyone approaching "Compassionate Carnivorism", or whatever trendy label you'd want to pin on the practice, that expects their livestock to receive treatment comparable to pets, or more ridiculously, that they will not die, will be disappointed. I believe that raising your own livestock is a perfectly sensible thing to do, and that it can be done with compassion. Since this is an economics blog, I'll admit that yes, you could choose to pay someone to raise and slaughter animals in a manner you support. You could also choose to do it yourself, ensuring that you have even more control over the fate of your fare. It does come with increased responsibility, and I don't think it's something to be taken too lightly. If you take it as a given that SOME chicken is going to end up on your plate, and you are concerned with the treatment that that cnicken received while it was alive, then homegrown birds are one of the best options.

I guess I don't see a paradox between the concern that your animal is treated well and the lack of emotional attachment. Perhaps we simply need to replace the catchy "Compassionate Carnivorism" label and replace it with something more akin to... Responsibility?



I think if more people grew up hunting and fishing they'd have a better appreciation for what it actually takes to kill an animal.

Until you're there whacking the fish with the club and it just won't die, or you've shot the deer in the head 3 times and it's still twitching, or the chicken just keeps trying to escape, you don't really know how hard it is to kill something.

In the end, the only humane way to kill something is fast. Some people may disagree with how Big Meat raises their animals, but their killing methods are certainly efficient. It's not in their interest to have an angry cow or flopping chicken making the other animals nervous and making a bigger mess.

These first time slaughters recounted above, the farmers will either figure out how to slaughter correctly, get out of farming or end up having a bunch of pets.