Gene Baur got his start in animal advocacy more than three decades ago, selling vegan hotdogs in the parking lot of Grateful Dead concerts to raise money for animal rescue operations. In 1986, he made things official when he founded Farm Sanctuary, an organization that rescues farm animals and promotes a plant-based diet. As part of his work, Baur — who describes himself as both an animal rights and animal welfare advocate — has set up sanctuaries for former farm animals in both New York and California.
Gene Baur’s work extends beyond rescuing cows, pigs, sheep, and other domesticated animals. He has visited hundreds of farms and slaughterhouses to document conditions there, including the small cages and close quarters that barely give animals space to move. He has led legislative efforts, including a Florida campaign in the early 2000s that resulted in the passage of the first law in the United States to ban gestation crates and to make it mandatory for farm owners to provide their animals enough space to be able to move around.
Farm Sanctuary has also gone to court to fight for animals. In 2001, the group sued the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) over a law that allowed industries to slaughter downed cows — cows that are either extremely ill or too injured to walk — for meat. In 2003, Sanctuary Farm won the lawsuit. The practice is now illegal.
By rescuing farm animals, educating people about them, and advocating for the animals’ rights, Baur hopes to end farm animal cruelty and encourage people to adopt vegan lifestyles. Earth Island Journal spoke with him about his long career, how he copes when he comes face-to-face with animal abuse, and whether he thinks we’ll ever live in a post-meat-eating world.
Was there a specific moment that shaped your view of animals as sentient beings with undeniable rights?
I first had a connection with animals when I was perhaps nine or ten years old and had a very close emotional bond with a cat named Tiger. And so at that time I knew that animals were individuals, with personalities and likes and dislikes. I felt that since I was very young, but I also grew up eating meat without thinking very much about it.
And then in high school and college I began questioning the idea of eating farm animals, and I went vegan in 1985. It was a process for me. I had a connection with Tiger when I was very young, but I was not consistent in my behavior until going vegan in 1985 when I was 23 years old.
Can you briefly describe your ideology about animals’ welfare and animal rights?
Well, when people ask me if I'm an animal rights person or an animal welfare person, I say I'm both. I think that it's important to work on incremental reforms to prevent suffering while we continue working towards the broader goal of animal liberation. Also, when animals are rescued and live at sanctuaries, it could be said that they have “rights,” but they also need to have their welfare taken care of. Sometimes people get in the business of rescuing animals and they're not very good at providing them with good welfare, which we take very seriously at Farm Sanctuary.
Animal rights and welfare I think are both important. I also think that in some cases there's been an unnecessary divisiveness around labeling whether a person is an animal rights person or an animal welfare person. I think these approaches exist on a continuum, and any step towards preventing suffering and raising awareness and moving us towards a vegan world is a step I support.
How are animals cared for at the Farm Sanctuary sanctuaries, and how do conditions at these sanctuaries differ from those on traditional farms?
At Farm Sanctuary the animals are our friends, not our food, and we look after them like many people take care of their cats or dogs or dependent family members. At Farm Sanctuary we provide them with what they need to thrive, which includes spacious pastures and clean barns. If they're injured or sick, they get the best veterinary care possible. They're treated like individuals, and they are also free to express themselves as social animals and to develop relationships with other animals, including people. At farm sanctuary, the animals are allowed to live long, happy lives.
In contrast, on production farms, animals are seen primarily as commodities, and they're commonly denied necessary veterinary attention. They're confined in cages and crates so tightly that in some cases they can't even turn around or move. They're crowded in warehouses by the thousands, and then they're killed at very young ages. Chickens, for example, are usually killed at around six weeks old. So, basically, they live short, miserable lives on factory farms that treat them like inanimate production units. They're denied basic humane consideration, and even though farm owners don’t intend for those animals to live long lives, the conditions are so harsh that hundreds of millions die every year before even reaching the slaughterhouse.
You’ve been involved in undercover investigations to reveal the terrible conditions animals are subjected to in farms, stockyards, and slaughterhouses. What was it like to participate in those investigations?
It was very difficult to visit farms, stockyards, and slaughterhouses and to see animals treated so badly, but I felt it was important to go in and document what was happening, so that we could share that information and educate consumers about how bad conditions are. It’s painful and traumatizing to witness such horrible abuse day after day without being able to do anything about it, so being able to rescue animals on occasion was a way to heal myself as well as to help individual animals. I usually had to document surreptitiously when the farm workers were not there, because they did not want us there. It was a struggle to get access to those places.
Farm Sanctuary worked to get laws passed to protect farm animals in Florida, Arizona, and California. Can you explain what protections these laws provide?
Yes, those are state laws that were passed through the initiative process, which involves citizens gathering enough signatures to qualify a measure for the statewide ballot, and then a popular vote. In each of those instances we enacted laws to prohibit the inhumane confinement of animals and require that they have more space. These laws are not perfect, but they are important steps in the direction of giving animals more freedom and more consideration legally. The Florida Initiative, which passed in 2002, banned gestation crates that are too narrow for the pigs even to turnaround and it requires that the animals have at least have space to turn around. It's a modest law, but it was the first such law in the United States and set the stage for further legislation.
In 2006 we worked on a similar effort in Arizona, and in addition to protecting pigs and outlawing gestation crates, we included calves who are exploited for veal and required that they also be given at least have enough space to turn around. That law was approved by voters in 2006.
Then in 2008 we went to California and added chickens who are confined in battery cages for egg production, along with pigs in gestation crates and calves in veal crates, and asserted that they need at least enough space to turn around and stretch their wings. California voters voted to outlaw veal crates, gestation crates, and battery cages in 2008; at that time it was the strongest such law in the US. California recently strengthened that law with a vote on Proposition 12 in 2018.
Do you believe there will come a time when people stop eating meat completely? If so, do you have any thoughts on when that might be?
I hope so, but I don't know the answer. I think a growing number of people are already starting to eat less meat and also going vegan. However, one problem is that meat is typically associated with power, and unfortunately, humans have exhibited an unhealthy tendency and desire to exert power over others, so we would need to evolve and be able to forgo that desire. So it's a big question, and I would love to see us get to that point. I think it is possible, but I also think our species has a lot of work to do to get there.
Do you think that humans are capable of coexisting with other species of animals without disturbing or exploiting them?
Yes, I believe that is possible, and it’s mutually beneficial. However, right now we have factory farming and agricultural systems and structures in place that enable the vast exploitation of animals along with the destruction of the earth and ecosystems. We need to learn how to avoid the mistakes we're making. I believe that just living on the planet we cause some unintentional harm, but I think that we can adjust our behavior and lessen the harm that we cause to other species.
Mass producing and confining domesticated farm animals for consumption, as well as destroying rainforests and other ecosystems to grow feed for farm animals, are wanton and intentional acts of violence. Shifting to plant based agriculture would go a long way to lessen the unnecessary harm we are causing to both domesticated and wild animals. There may still be times when we unintentionally harm others, but that's very different, I think, from intentionally harming other animals.
Some people may have compassion for animals, but have a hard time taking action when they hear about animal suffering. What message do you have for people who may have an interest in this issue, but haven’t taken the next step towards getting involved?
Well, I think it's important for people just to start somewhere. Even taking a small step, like not eating certain animal products, begins a process, and incremental steps towards consuming fewer animal products can ultimately lead to vegan lifestyles. There are many things in this world that are outside of our control, but what we decide to eat is something that we can have a lot of control over, and we can be empowered by making food choices that are aligned with our values and interests.
We should pay attention to the impacts of what we're eating and then start making more compassionate, mindful choices. If everybody did that, we would see a revolution in our food system because the only reason that factory farming and animal slaughter exist is because consumers are purchasing their products. So I think it’s wise for people to focus first on their own actions and then to educate others, which includes helping people learn how to make vegan food. Besides explaining why it makes sense to eat plants instead of animals, I also think it’s important to provide support and show people how.
What’s next for you? Do you have any new projects planned to promote animal welfare?
I will continue doing what I've been doing, which is to speak out on behalf of farm animals and to encourage people to make compassionate vegan choices. I would also like to work on systemic reforms and policies that currently enable and incentivize factory farming and reshape these to promote a sustainable, plant-based agriculture. There are vast government networks and infrastructures in place, and although these have underpinned our violent food system, they can be redirected. I think that’s the next horizon is for me.