Curt Ellis is a filmmaker and four-wheel farmer based in Brooklyn, NY. He co-created the documentaries "King Corn" and "The Greening of Southie," and is a Food and Society Policy Fellow. He is the co-founder of Wicked Delicate.

Saying no thanks to meat that’s not humanely raised

My New Year’s resolution

January 5, 2009

Editor’s note: A version of this post has simultaneously been posted at Civil Eats.

We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals . . . They are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the earth.
— Henry Beston, The Outermost House, 1928

It can be easy to forget that food comes from somewhere. Those of us who eat animals tend to like it that way. For that reason, for most of my life, I’ve done my hunting in the deli case, training my shopping cart on plastic-wrapped livestock at rest in a Styrofoam pasture.

On a few occasions, though, I’ve seen my dinner alive before I’ve eaten it. On a road trip after college, my friend Ian and I snuck behind a poultry warehouse in Ohio, where culled chickens had been smashed against the pavement. We ate our egg sandwiches reluctantly. Another time, a confinement hog farmer in Indiana invited us in for pork chops, while our noses still burned from the stench of manure sloshing in the pit below the animals.

Home on the range.

I’ve had good experiences, too — fresh milk drawn under Amish lantern-light, grass-ranging lamb roasted whole at sheepdog trials, the deer we hunted one fall in Iowa. Even when I didn’t like what I saw, there was something cathartic about those moments when I knew what I was eating. Connecting the dots between muscle and meat made me feel, in a way I hadn’t before, honest.

So this spring, when a friend called with an offer to join in a buffalo slaughter, I accepted, and left the house early on an April Saturday to meet him. We drove through urban Portland and the suburbs, just to the edge of the countryside. On the hill ahead of us was a freshly hatched clutch of McMansions, but in the foreground there was pasture — and buffalo.

The animals, weighing more than a thousand pounds apiece, grazed placidly, majestically, almost prehistorically. Raised on good pasture, they spend their lives free from confinement, stress or pain, until — one at a time and in comfortable environs — they are harvested.

We clamored onto fence posts in time to see the rancher single out a mature animal and shoot. I felt the ache of witnessing death, then realized I wasn’t alone in my sadness. As the rancher knelt over the buffalo and hoisted it by chains with the bucket of a loader, the rest of the herd drew in close and lowered their heads. The loader lumbered across the field, and the herd lined up in a single-file procession to usher its dead to the pasture’s edge. The sight of animals mourning — in whatever way those silent creatures did — humbled me to my carnivorous core.

Bison in mourning.

So this year I’ve decided to make one resolution, and it’s one I intend to keep for life. Having seen animals like that buffalo live and die with dignity, and having seen and (as a consumer) supported the opposite, I will not eat confinement-raised meat again.

It’s a commitment that I expect will be easy to keep at home, as I already do as much shopping as I can at the farmers’ market. There, I get a handshake promise from the animal’s caretaker that the creature I’m eating touched grass, felt the sun, ate a diet free of hormones and additives, and was slaughtered with dignity.

Supermarket shopping is a little harder: chicken labeled “free range” may never have been outside, and beef termed “organic” may have been fed a diet heavy in corn it wasn’t meant to digest. Doing the detective work to find out where my meat, eggs, and milk are coming from will be a challenge, but a fun one. I’ve got a cell phone, and every carton in the store has a toll-free number, so I can ask what kind of farm my food is coming from.

Eating out promises to be harder, especially on the road. In college towns and fancy restaurants, food is given extra value when it can be traced to a family farm and advertised as such. But in most places, pork is pork, regardless of how the pig — an animal with clean habits and intelligence on par with a dog — lived and died.

I don’t want to be elitist, but I don’t think asking for fundamental respect for the animals I’m eating is pretentious — it seems merely humane. So if I’m in a restaurant that’s making an effort — advertising its natural meat and cage-free eggs, I’ll have some (and probably order seconds if they’re from an extra-good source). If the menu doesn’t advertise where the meat is coming from, I’ll ask. And if quality protein isn’t on offer, I’ll have the oatmeal, and leave a little business card behind:

Curt’s compassionate-carnivore card.

For good and bad, farmers, slaughterhouses, restaurants, and supermarkets make many of their decisions about animal livelihood based on what the market demands. If we, the consumer market, decide that 2009 is going to be another year of eating whatever’s cheap, abundant, and easy, the outlook for the animals caught in our industrial net is sad. There is another option, but we have to decide that compassionate and carnivorous can go together.

Related article: Death on the range; article: The compassionate carnivore

There are 11 comments on this item
Add a comment
1. by Kimberly on Jan 7, 2009 at 1:10 PM PST

Great article. I totally agree with you; I will be upping my efforts to avoid confinement-raised meats. Thank you for writing about this!

2. by anonymous on Jan 7, 2009 at 11:11 PM PST

Thanks for this, it’s something I’ve been battling also, but half-heartedly. Maybe now is the time.

3. by Compassion in World Farming on Jan 29, 2009 at 2:00 AM PST

That’s a great new years’ resolution. Are you still sticking to it? Have you had any response to your compassionate-carnivore (omnivore) card? For anyone in the UK who wants to take similar steps to eating meat compassionately, you might want to check out Compassion in World Farming's Compassionate Shopping Guide

4. by Natalie on Nov 19, 2009 at 12:43 PM PST

And the fact that the bison are intelligent enough to mourn for their dead doesn’t bother you? Why not just skip the murder entirely and go vegetarian? It’s better for the environment and your health and no animals have to get killed at all.

5. by Yamato Jenkins on Nov 20, 2009 at 7:11 AM PST

Sorry, humane slaughter is an oxymoron. We don’t need animals to sustain us.

6. by daniel from Austin Texas on Nov 22, 2009 at 3:23 PM PST

You write: “if quality protein isn’t on offer, I’ll have the oatmeal.”
Just so you will know, there are is whole, wide, wonderful world of yummy vegetarian dishes. You don’t have to settle for oatmeal. IMHO, eating free range is better than eating factory farmed animals, but eating fewer or no animals is even better.

7. by Nancy Norton on Jan 6, 2010 at 12:35 PM PST

I have been doing this ‘hard-core’ for a little over a year. It has been difficult at times, but it feels important for many reasons. I think the animal’s contribution to the health of the farm is important, those farmers who are practicing human livestock care deserve support, I like the local focus and reduction of petroleum use when I eat from a farm I know, and I am just unwilling to contribute to animal suffering which results from concentrated feed operations. I like your card, perhaps it would save my husband some embarrassment when I ask the waiter about the sourcing of the food served (and then tell them why I care about it).

8. by Marisa on Mar 4, 2010 at 1:05 PM PST

I thorougly commend your efforts and am in complete agreement. My only problem is with your statement regarding your enjoyment of “fresh milk drawn under ‘Amish’ lantern light.” You may not be aware of the fact that The Amish are one of the leading owner/operators of puppy mills in this country. I’m sure that with your progressive views on the treatment of farm animals that you would agree that the conditions dogs are forced to live in at these places are horrific. People need to be aware of this.

9. by Debbie Burlingame on Jun 30, 2010 at 9:33 AM PDT

Eloquent article. Thanks for writing it. I too, made the same committment at the first of the year, and with one exception (a delicious gyro-I had no willpower to resist) I have stuck to it. I always ask about meat/poultry selections on menus and seek out restaurants that serve humanely raised meat when we travel. I am unaware of a good source for these restaurants. Does anyone have a suggestion? Is there a main site where they can be found for every state?

10. by Marthanne Theel on Aug 7, 2010 at 11:05 AM PDT

To Debbie Burlingame

I might be wrong, but I think I read that lamb is always raised organically (I don’t think they thrive on anything else). So you don’t have to feel badly about eating gyros.

11. by John Rogers on Dec 30, 2011 at 10:25 AM PST

‎"Humanely” raise an animal so you can kill and eat it? Makes no sense. I think the animals would prefer to be humanely raised AND allowed to live a full and natural life.

Add a comment

Think before you type

Culinate welcomes comments that are on-topic, clean, and courteous. For the benefit of the community we reserve the right to delete comments that contain advertising, personal attacks, profanity, or which are thinly disguised attempts to promote another website.

Please enter your comment

Format: Bare URLs are automatically linked; use this style: [ "place text to be linked here"] for prettier links. You may specify *bold* or _italic_ text. No HTML please.

Please identify yourself

Not a member? Sign up!

Please prove that you’re not a computer

Our Table

Joy of Cooking app

A new tool for the kitchen

The latest in our collection of cooking apps.

Graze: Bites from the Site
First Person

The secret sharer

A father’s legacy

The Culinate Interview

Mollie Katzen

The vegetarian-cooking pioneer


Down South

Barbecue, tamales, cocktails, and more

Local Flavors

A winter romesco sauce

Good on everything

Editor’s Choice