Gene Baur, President of Farm Sanctuary, visited the Globe and Mail editorial board Aug. 10. He co-founded this farm animal protection organization in 1986, and began by selling veggie hot-dogs at Grateful Dead concerts. The organization has two sanctuaries, in Watkins Glen, N.Y., and in Orland, CA.
Q: What does your organization do?
We started by visiting farms and stockyards and slaughterhouses. We would find living animals literally thrown in trashcans or on piles of dead animals. We started rescuing them and now we have two sanctuaries. We currently care for almost 1,000 animals: cows, pigs, chickens, turkeys, ducks and geese. These animals are our friends, not our food.
Q: What is your larger mission?
We work to challenge the factory farming system. We’ve worked on initiatives in Florida, Arizona and California to require that animals be given at least enough space to turn around and stretch their limbs. Most people assume and I think want to believe that farm animals are treated well. But in fact, they’re treated very badly and the laws have been very weak.
Farm animals are excluded from the federal Animal Welfare Act in the U.S. Farm animals are not protected under most state anti-cruelty laws in the U.S. Common farming practices are exempt in most states.
Q: How has public opinion evolving on this issue?
In the last 10 or so years, I think there has been a burgeoning awareness about the inhumane treatment of animals on factory farms. And at the same time, there’s a growing awareness about the benefits of eating whole plant foods instead of eating processed foods and eating animal foods in the quantities we do in North America. We have obesity, heart disease, cancer are huge problems. Many celebrities are vegans, including Bill Clinton who is eating primarily plant foods; Mike Tyson, the championship boxer; Biz Stone, the co-founder of Twitter; Brian Greene, the string theorist. Lots of individuals are starting to make choices that are more aligned with their values.
Q: What about you?
I’ve been a vegan since 1985. This year is Farm Sanctuary’s 25th anniversary so I drove across the country in an old Volkswagen van. And all across the country we saw vegan food. In Omaha, Nebraska, in Erie, Pennsylvania, in Chicago, in Tulsa, Oklahoma. But one of my favourite stops was the old Lancaster Stockyards, which used to be the largest stockyard east of Chicago. That’s where we rescued Hilda, a sheep left on the dead pile, and brought her to the sanctuary back in 1986. Today, the stockyard is gone and next door to it is the Stockyard Inn. And so we had a vegan event and it was sold out. And the owner of the restaurant said he had learned a lot through this experience and that this is the future. And he’s going to now have a vegan item on his menu going forward.
Q: Is public support growing?
A: Gandhi said the goal is to bring people to their senses, not their knees. I think most people are humane and want to be humane and want to see themselves as humane. But when they’re acting in a way that is pretty hard to say is humane, one of the responses is to then denigrate the victim of the abuse. ‘Well they don’t deserve any better, they don’t know any better,’ and that kind of closes down our empathy, which is something you can’t really put a dollar figure on but I think it’s significant. Most people want to live on a planet that’s not polluted; where we have fresh water and resources that are used for everybody’s benefit, instead of resources that are squandered and polluted like they are in the factory farming industry. So if people start shifting towards making food choices that are more aligned with their own values and interests, we’re going to see a massive change.
Q: What about people who don’t want to become a vegan but support the cause. Is there kind of a middle road?
When it comes to the question of eating animals or not eating animals, we recognize that people have to make their own choices. But we will always encourage people to consider eating plants instead of animals. But if people are going to eat animals, it’s better to move away from the industrial production techniques to the more local, community based farming system. And the strong part of community-based agriculture where people get to know where their food comes from and there’s more of a connection to the land and to the people who are producing the food.