A Conversation with Gene Baur, author of Farm Sanctuary
As a teen, you characterized yourself as on a search for a way to integrate your life with your values. To what do you attribute your valuing of animals beyond what some may consider the norm? Were there moments when your ready recognition of animals as individuals waned or was challenged? What were the circumstances? If not, why do you believe you have maintained your valuing of animals so deeply?
I have always been very sensitive and pained to see others, including animals, suffer. But growing up, I didn’t think about the animals I was eating, until one day I came home and saw a dead chicken’s body, with wings and legs, laying on his or her back, cooked for dinner. I didn’t eat meat that night or for a while afterward.
Then, beginning in 1986, I began investigating hundreds of farms, stockyards, and slaughterhouses across the United States to document conditions. Since then, the reality of factory-farming abuse has been seared into my soul. Those painful images, and the wondrous transformations that occur when victims are rescued from that system, have informed and strengthened my deepest convictions. Spending time with farm animals has helped me understand and respect them as individuals.
In your story about Maya, you said very little was known about animal emotions in the 1980s. How has your understanding of animal emotions changed since then? What are some of the major insights in the field? Who are some of the major researchers of animal emotions?
I believe people who live with and pay attention to farm animals, including those of us at Farm Sanctuary, have long recognized these creatures’ sentience and emotions. But there has been little institutional attention paid to the topic. Most academic research has dealt with how to more profitably exploit pigs, chickens, cows, and other “food” animals, rather than on how to understand them as individuals. But that is changing. We’re coming to understand more about farm animals’ emotions and social relationships; their capacities for fear and joy, learning and communicating. Some leaders in the field of animal sentience include Jane Goodall, Marc Bekoff, and Jonathan Balcombe.
As you recount the development of corporate factory farming, you highlight some of the ways that individual farmers are forced to adopt “technological advancements” that challenge individual farmers’ own best interests. How do you and others fight the presumption that mechanization or technological innovation is an inevitable rite of passage for progress?
I think we need to carefully assess what is meant by progress. Too often, agribusiness measures progress in terms of shortsighted financial gains, commonly at the expense of broader concerns (animal welfare, environmental and economic sustainability, and human health). We need to look at the whole system, with all the related costs and benefits. I think innovation and change, which could include new technology, are natural and inevitable, and they can be positive as long as all the impacts are understood and accounted for. I believe innovation and creativity can help us produce healthy food in an efficient, ecologically sustainable, and compassionate way.
You wrote about the unsuccessful campaign to pass the Downed Animal Protection Act and suggest that the creation of Humane USA will help redress some of the challenges you and others encountered. Can you expound specifically on the lessons you learned from that campaign? How do you think Humane USA can remedy some of the problems the campaign encountered?
Humane USA is a political action committee that is involved in the election process. It plays an important role in supporting animal-friendly legislators and it makes accountable those who hinder the enactment of laws and policies to prevent cruelty. Lawmakers will now face consequences for their actions.
When you look at the success of passing 599f in California, the foie gras battles in California and Chicago and other cities, and Proposition 10 in Florida and Proposition 204 in Arizona, what convergence of factors made these successes possible? What challenges/barriers still exist in ensuring these and other legislative measures continue to be effective?
In all these cases, a clear abuse was identified and made known to a large number of citizens, a simple remedy was proposed, and mechanisms existed for legislation to move forward. In the case of 599f in California and the foie gras laws in California and Chicago, we had strong leadership who worked hard to advance their proposals through the legislative process. In Florida and Arizona, we were able to place issues on the ballot through citizens’ initiatives, and in each case, a solid majority voted to ban cruel farming practices.
We’ll continue working to advance similar measures in the future, and I believe we’ll continue to have success. Among the greatest challenges we face is the wealth and entrenched influence of factory farms who profit from current system, and unwitting consumer participation, apathy, and a tendency to go along with old habits without questioning the status quo.
When I was growing up veal was a dirty word even as we continued to eat lots of other meats. Do you foresee some meats more than others acquiring a tainted image similar to that of veal? Which ones and why? Do you believe it’s possible for the meat industry to rehabilitate the image of veal? Why or why not?
I think veal became a dirty word because people were made aware of how calves are treated to produce it. Other meats are the result of similar cruelties, and also deserve a tainted image. I believe most people would be appalled to learn how chickens, turkeys, pigs, dairy cows, and other animals are treated to produce meat, milk, and eggs. There will likely be efforts to market veal and other meats as “humane,” but these claims should be questioned. Do the words humane and slaughter fit together?
Based upon your experiences as a student at Cornell, you noted how other students became increasingly desensitized to the plight of animals and took on the values of agribusiness throughout their tenure. How would you rectify this situation if you could have a hand in crafting your own undergraduate or graduate education experience for students?
I think students should be exposed to different points of view, and encouraged to think about whether it’s appropriate to subject farm animals to certain conditions. Common assumptions, including the idea that animals are here for our purposes, or that it is healthy and appropriate to slaughter and eat them, should be discussed.
What are the emerging issues in animals’ rights in terms of food production for the next ten to twenty-five years? How are you and fellow advocates engaging young people, so they can continue to fight for animal rights in the coming years? What are the issues that seem most compelling for young people?
Increasingly, I think there will be fundamental questions raised about humans’ role on earth and if it’s appropriate to treat other animals the way we do, including whether we should exploit them for food. As part of Farm Sanctuary’s efforts, we are reaching out to students in schools through our humane education program. We also distribute literature, videos, and other educational materials and host various youth events at our farms. Young people seem to have a natural connection with animals and an inherent understanding of their sentience, qualities we hope to nurture and support and propagate.
What is your vision of the best food production practices in the United States? Can you identify foreign models from which we might take inspiration?
I envision a local, diversified, veganic farming system where food is produced by many gardeners and farmers in both urban and rural settings without using any animals or animal products. In cities, food would be grown in community gardens, as well as on rooftops and on windowsills in apartments. In suburban areas with more land, fruit trees and edible landscaping could supply fresh fruits and vegetables. And the rural countryside would be dotted with small farms producing food primarily for local populations.
Historically, people around the world have been closely connected with the land—growing food on community-based, diversified small farms. I’d like to see a return to that kind of farming system, along with techniques like canning and other methods, some traditional and some new and innovative, to add value and provide food beyond the growing season.
If you could encourage readers to take one specific action to aid in animal rights as it pertains to food or meat production, what would that action be? What do you believe would be the potential consequences of this act?
The single most important action each of us can take to aid animals and promote a healthy planet is to become vegan. By choosing not to use animal products (e.g., meat, dairy, eggs, wool, leather, etc.), we do not support and enable industries that exploit other animals. When citizens make conscientious choices and eschew animal products, businesses will make adjustments to meet consumer demand. A shift toward a plantbased food system would bring about vast, positive impacts. Animals wouldn’t be exploited, consumers’ health would improve, fewer resources (e.g., land, water, fossil fuels) would be expended, both urban and rural communities would be improved, and it would even help arrest global warming.