Q&A with animal rights activist and author Gene Baur

by Zach Cherian | 2/16/17 12:00am


Gene Baur is an activist and best-selling author who co-founded the farm animal protection organization Farm Sanctuary. Time Magazine has called him the “conscience of the food movement” and he is one of Oprah Winfrey’s SuperSoul 100 dream team of “100 awakened leaders who are using their voices and talent to elevate humanity.” Tonight at 7 p.m., he will be speaking with students and community members in Achtmeyer Hall about his work in sustainability during a “Sustainable Dinner with Gene Baur.”

What is Farm Sanctuary and its mission?

GB: Farm Sanctuary works to prevent cruelty to farm animals, changing how society views and treats farm animals. We also promote compassionate living, which oftentimes focuses on food choices. Most of us grow up with certain habits, and one of those is eating animals and animal products, and we don’t really think very much about it. We encourage people just to recognize the impact of their food choices, on themselves, on the earth and on animals, and ultimately to make mindful choices that are more aligned with compassionate values and with sustainable living.

Are you promoting a change in the system and in people’s diets or a general awareness?

GB: Both. We work to raise awareness and to encourage people to make mindful consumer choices, and we work on legislative and other policy matters to push things toward a plant-based food system. It’s very difficult to create change using legislation. Legislatively, things have been very influenced by agribusiness in Washington, D.C. and in state capitols. So our ability to make change there is less, I think, at this time than in the marketplace, where each citizen has the opportunity to vote with their dollars. Whereas in state capitols and Washington, the influence that farms have had is immense, and so being able to create meaningful reform legislatively is limited at this time. We do both, but the marketplace is where most of the change is going to happen, and as the dollars start flowing away from the meat industry, the dairy industry and the egg industry and into plant-based businesses, I think the power dynamic in state capitols and in Washington will start shifting as well, and then we’ll be able to see some significant legislative reforms.

How does Farm Sanctuary’s creation of physical sanctuaries work?

GB: We have sanctuaries in New York and California, and we’re going to be opening another sanctuary in New Jersey with Jon and Tracey Stewart.

What does running those look like?

GB: Our sanctuaries are sanctuaries for rescued animals. They started back in the 1980s as a result of our investigative work — we would go into farms, storehouses and slaughterhouses to document, and we would literally find living animals thrown in trash cans, on piles of dead animals. The sanctuaries are a lot like farms — we have pastures and barns. The animals, however, are not there to be exploited like they are on most farms. They are our friends, not our food. They get to live out their lives, get the best care possible, so if they get sick, we have the veterinarian take care of them. They are treated very much like people treat their cats and dogs, as part of the family. It’s a farm where you have fences to maintain, barns to maintain. We sometimes grow out our hay or buy hay to feed them. We use straw as bedding, compost piles for their manure. It’s a working farm in some ways, but the spirit that runs it is vegan, as opposed to farms where the animals are exploited.

What are the key events of Farm Sanctuary’s history?

GB: Acquiring our permanent sanctuaries have been impactful over the years. We got the one in Watkins Glen, New York in 1989, so that was quite a while ago, but that was significant and foundational. We were also involved in some of our country’s first laws to protect farm animals from cruelty, starting with an initiative in Florida that was voted on in 2002. Voters in Florida voted to ban gestation crates. After that, we did another one in Arizona to deal with veal crates as well as gestation crates, and then we did one in California to deal with veal crates, gestation crates and battery crates. That passed in 2008. Those were significant events that we were involved in. We also, as part of our visitor program in Watkins Glen, New York, have reached out to restaurants in that town and encouraged them to serve vegan food, because our visitors wanted to eat the food, and we were able to convince the local Burger King franchise owner to offer a veggie burger ­— and this is back in the 1990s — and that veggie burger ended up going nationwide. That was a pretty impactful thing we were involved with. More recently, we have been doing a lot just to raise awareness, and we’ve had some reasonable media hits. I was on “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” for example. That was significant. That was just a couple of years ago. We have celebrities that are involved with our work, and they’ve been able to enhance the profile of these issues. The last two years we’ve been doing a lot just to raise awareness and just get them thinking about the fact that farm animals suffer terribly on factory farms, and that each of us can make choices every day about the way we eat that can make a difference.

Have you noticed any evolution of the organization over time?

GB: It started back in 1986 as a very small, all-volunteer organization doing undercover investigation, rescuing animals. It grew and evolved and started working more on policy issues. It played a role in passing some of our nation’s laws to protect farm animals, and we’ve been an awareness-raising organization all along, but now given challenges passing laws over the years, just seeing how entrenched agribusiness is, we’re feeling more and more that we need to address cultural issues and raise awareness about the benefits of plant-based eating and modeling compassionate relationships with animals.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.