Planted interviewed Farm Sanctuary's Gene Baur leading up to his appearance at the April 2015 VegFest, hosted by Veg Michigan in Novi.
Editor's Note: Founded in 1986, Farm Sanctuary is the nation’s largest farm animal rescue and protection organization, and cares for thousands of animals at its shelters in Watkins Glen, N.Y., and Orland and Los Angeles, Calif. Visit farmsanctuary.org.
You’ve been active in the animal protection movement for about 30 years. How has the movement changed, and what have you learned is the best way to influence people’s attitudes about eating animals?
The movement is growing and becoming more mainstream. Our messages are resonating with a broader audience than ever before, and we have a convergence of issues that are helping people think about their food and the fact that billions of animals suffer, and that we need to change. So, I think we’ve come an awful long way.
Personally, I’ve witnessed a maturing of the movement and an understanding of how to create change. Years ago, we felt if we could just explain the problems and give people information, they would understand and decide to make choices that are logical, rational and compassionate. But humans are emotional, and we have habits and attachments, and oftentimes, change takes time, so we need to speak to people where they are. Encouraging people to take small steps ultimately builds momentum to additional changes, and those changes can lead to profound transformation. Incremental shifts are, I think, the way sustainable change ultimately happens. We can’t just wave a wand and expose what’s wrong, and expect change to happen overnight. Also, working through institutional reforms, like the food industry and food system, to make plant-based food more widely available and convenient, is having a big impact.
So, our movement now recognizes we need to do more than just explain the problems; we need to explain the solutions, and make those solutions convenient, and also, feel good. We tend to do things because of the way it makes us feel, and to some extent, that has created a resistance to change because people don’t feel good about factory farming; they don’t want to think about it and just sort of ignore it. People need a positive way to go forward that they feel good about — eating good food, for example, or feeling healthier or knowing they’re not contributing to the suffering of animals or the destruction of the planet.
You seem like a born activist. Do you think people are born activists or can anyone become an activist?
I think anybody can become an activist. All of us are products of our upbringing, genetics and environment, and in some cases, some folks may be more sensitive or have a harder time ignoring certain things in the world.
As a kid, I remember feeling very bad about the harms humans were causing to nature and other animals. I grew up in the Hollywood Hills and remember seeing animals hit by cars, and that really bothered me; and I remember a deer getting stuck in a chain-link fence in a neighbor’s backyard, and that really bothered me; and I remember a beautiful old oak tree being cut down for a house to be made bigger. So I had sort of a visceral reaction to the harms people cause others, and part of that is empathy, just being able to look at someone else and feel the suffering they’re experiencing. If we are causing harm, then we have a responsibility to address it. I’ve always felt that way, and I think most people ultimately feel that way, too. I believe people are humane and would rather not support cruelty.
There are times, though, when we can sort of harden our hearts and do things that are not aligned with our values and interests. All of us are human beings, all of us have empathy, and all of us live on this planet. We grow up in a system, though, that sometimes discourages us from allowing our empathy to grow, and to define our lives and who we become.
What does vegan mean to you?
To me, it reflects our relationship with other animals, with other people, with the planet. The question is, is the relationship one of respect and mutual benefit, or is it one of exploitation?
When it comes to animals in the food industry, it’s all about exploitation. I would even argue that it’s bad for everybody. The animals are the more obvious victims, but the perpetrators of this violence also suffer because we eat food that makes us sick, and we lose part of our empathy and our humanity by mistreating other animals.
It is impossible for anybody to be perfect; even the most vegan vegan is not perfect. It is not an ingredient list. It is a process toward living in a way that is aligned with compassionate values. So, for me, being vegan is trying to be the best I can be. It is an aspiration.
You’ve described Farm Sanctuary as a place where vegan is normal. How does Farm Sanctuary work to promote this concept so mainstream society embraces it as well?
We present an example of what our relationships with other animals could look like. Farm animals are animals most people don’t think about, and literally kill and eat. At Farm Sanctuary, we treat them like our friends, like part of our family. We model a different kind of relationship, one based on companionship and friendship, not on commodification, callousness and killing.
We also rescue animals and tell their stories. We tell stories about how living animals are thrown on piles of dead animals or in trash cans and completely disregarded; how they’re put in cages and crates their whole lives where they can’t even turn around; and how they’re mutilated without any painkillers. In the factory farming industry, dairy cows’ tails are cut off, pigs’ tails are cut off and their ears are notched, and chickens are debeaked and have parts of their toes cut off, and it’s all done without painkillers. It’s completely disrespectful of the animals, and then, of course, they’re slaughtered for food to eat. Can you imagine working in a slaughterhouse for eight hours a day? It is a violent, bloody business, and it’s bad for people, too. So that is one way animals are treated, and we contrast that with how animals enjoy their lives at Farm Sanctuary, and show how it is good for animals and for people.
Farm Sanctuary is a transformational place because when animals come to Farm Sanctuary, they are no longer just an inanimate commodity; they are a living, feeling member of the community.
Farm Sanctuary has rescued thousands of animals. Please share a story about one of them.
The first animal we rescued was Hilda, who we found left on a pile of dead animals behind a stockyard in Pennsylvania. She was just thrown there because she couldn’t stand or walk, and she was left for dead. So we rescued her and brought her to a veterinarian thinking she’d have to be euthanized, but as he started examining her, she started perking up and then stood up. She ended up living with us for more than 10 years.
Her life and her story are examples of what is possible, and show that these are animals who have feelings, and deserve to be treated with respect and compassion. They’re not just commodities, and they’re certainly not garbage. I think most people would agree that animals should not be thrown away like trash. Hilda was our first rescue, and thousands of others have followed.