President and Co-Founder, Farm Sanctuary, USA

Published Date: 26th September 2017

Open Windows | In Conversation

President and Co-Founder, Farm Sanctuary, USA

September 26th, 2017

The dialogue around the choices we can make is constantly exposing us to newer perspectives, leading me to believe that the shift over the years—of making ethical decisions—stems from the philosophy of compassion and caring.

Placing a firm-gentle stamp of conscience on this movement of empathy is Gene Baur, the Co-Founder and President of Farm Sanctuary, USA. Mr. Baur, a vegan, is responsible for providing a burgeoning haven to animals while inspiring a new generation to refine our thinking, in the process, alter our palette to accommodate sustainability and sensitivity.

Can you tell me about Hilda the sheep and how you came to start the Farm Sanctuary?

Farm Sanctuary started in 1986 with the idea that we wanted to investigate and expose factory farming. We thought if people saw factory farming they wouldn’t want to support it. And it’s partially true, but it’s more complicated than that. People are also creatures of habit, so we also need to create systems for people to have alternatives and to start choosing plants instead of animals when it comes to what they eat. One of the fundamental things that we have done over the years is to demonstrate that farm animals are not that different from cats and dogs.

We started by rescuing animals, and Hilda, the sheep, was the first to be rescued. We took Hilda off a dead pile in a stockyard and brought her to the veterinarian thinking she would have to b euthanized. As the veterinarian started examining her, Hilda perked up and stood up. She lived with us for more than 10 years.

The story of Hilda, the sheep, is one of recovery, healing, and redemption. And it speaks more broadly to what human beings seek, which is to live well, be forgiven, and learn from the mistakes we have made to improve our lives and to live in a way that is meaningful. By rescuing animals and watching them heal, we heal.

At Farm Sanctuary animals are our friends and vegan is normal. Here people have the opportunity to pet sheep (who will paw when you stop) and look into the eyes of pigs, give them a belly rub and commune with them. These animals are not that different from us—they want to be loved like a human being. When we treat animals cruelly, with disregard and disrespect, it says a lot about us. At Farm Sanctuary, we want to change how our society views and treats farm animals. We must recognize that our humanity means treating others with kindness.

Farm Sanctuary is about inspiring and empowering people, and it provides a model for how we can live with other animals, and realize that interactions between humans and animals are mutually beneficial.

What made you select the Finger Lakes region to set up your first shelter?

For our first couple of years, Farm Sanctuary never owned anything—we operated from donated spaces—we started in a row house in Wilmington, Delaware, and then a farmer let us use his land in Pennsylvania.

When we felt we needed a bigger space, I started looking at real estate sections in farming newspapers and came across an inexpensive land for sale in the Finger Lakes region of New York. I also came across an advertisement for a 175-acre farm with a seven-bedroom house, barns, tractors, and equipment; they were asking for 110,000 dollars (US dollars). We offered 95 thousand dollars and got it for 100,000 thousand dollars. We did a walk for animals to raise 25 thousand dollars for a down payment, purchased the farm and then paid off the mortgage.

Also, Finger Lakes had a growing tourism business, which we thought would serve us well in attracting visitors to our sanctuary. There were some dairy farms that were going out of business, and we felt that if we could provide an example of something different, that would be good for the local economy. Now we have become one of the larger employers in that part of New York State.


How did you come to set up your subsequent shelters in California?

In the 90’s, one of our members was interested in setting up a sanctuary in California. She donated land to us in Orland, Northern California. And then an opportunity came up some years later—a sanctuary near Los Angeles was having difficulties, and the board of directors came to us and asked us if we could take it over. We always wanted to be in bigger urban areas, to reach larger audiences, So we went ahead with the shelter in Los Angeles.

We are now partnering with Jon and Tracey Stewart [Jon is an American television personality and his wife, Tracey, is an animal advocate] to open a similar sanctuary in New Jersey, not far from New York City.

How has Farm Sanctuary evolved over the years?

We started by conducting investigations of factory farms, rescuing animals, and telling their stories while modeling a mutually beneficial relationship with the farm animals. Now, we are seeking to reach people in larger markets like New York and LA, for example, to encourage people to make changes with their food choices. Most people are unwittingly supporting this brutal food industry through their food choices. We want to educate people and encourage them to realize the profound impact of their daily food choices.


Are there times when you are unable to board an abused animal?

These are difficult situations to deal with for any sanctuary. Billions of animals are raised and slaughtered every year in the US. At Farm Sanctuary we currently care for about a thousand animals; other sanctuaries also care for a small number relative to the billions. Even if we could rescue a million a year, it would be a drop in the bucket. You just have to accept that you can’t save all the abused animals; you do your best and tell their stories as widely as you can. We have to figure out how to reach more people and inspire more people to eat plants instead of animals.

At the end of the day, animal abuse is a people problem.

Do you partner with other sanctuaries?

Definitely. We have a network of adopters—people who have adopted from us, including other sanctuaries. We partner with other advocacy organizations who have aligned interests, whether they are environmental groups, health groups, or animal groups. Animal cruelty is a big issue, and it’s going to require many parties to solve. We are interested in working with as many people as possible.


By naming the animals at the Farm Sanctuary you dignify their being. How do you pick their names?

Well, the first animal we rescued, Hilda, was named after our first intern volunteer, Hilda. The shelter staff is coming up with ways to name the rescued animals, like naming them after states, or naming them after someone, our supporters, volunteers, or celebrities. The cat we rescued a few years ago was named Albert after Albert Einstein.


Do rescued animals reproduce at the Farm Sanctuary?

No. There are too many animals that need homes so breeding and reproducing on the farm would take up limited space. We operate very much like a cat and dog shelter that is dealing with an overpopulation problem. So we do not allow animals to reproduce. And it is not that difficult because most of the males who come in have been castrated. In the case of the birds, we just wrap their eggs so they cannot incubate and hatch. There are times when animals come in pregnant, and we allow them to give birth and raise their young. But generally speaking, we don’t have that many young animals, unless they come in young.


Do you ever get attached to one animal more than the other?

That happens sometimes. I think when there are individuals who you have spent a lot of time with, often very sick animals, you tend to bond more closely with them.


How do you integrate animal rescue with education and advocacy?

When we started, we often rescued downed animals—animals too sick to walk. In addition to carrying for these animals, healing them and telling their stories, we were working on a legislative effort to outlaw the marketing of downed animals, who were being left for dead at stock yards or loaded on trucks and taken to slaughter. Telling their stories—juxtaposing compassion as a way to relate to animals with the violent reality—helped integrate why this policy had to be enacted.

By passing laws, we were able to limit some of the sufferings and engage people, getting them to think about these issues. Often time’s people get involved in campaigns to ban confining animals in small cages, and as part of that process, they learn more about the issues, becoming vegetarian or vegan.

At Farm Sanctuary, we rescue animals, educate people, and advocate for reforms whether they are legislative or market-based—largely to changing how people eat. And that’s an area where change is increasingly happening. So rescue, education, and advocacy go closely together, whereas, when you work on laws alone, you usually achieve minimal changes.


Why is that?

The political process is conservative and tends to maintain the status quo. And the industry is invested and entrenched in Washington, D.C, and state capitals.


What makes animal agriculture powerful?

Because people are buying their products, giving that industry money, and they, in turn, invest in Washington, D.C., or state capitals. So we have the best money Government can buy. As people buy more plant foods, that sector of the food industry will grow and become more impactful financially. Till such time animal agriculture will have a bigger influence in Washington.


Why are farm animals perceived to be devoid of feelings and emotions, which is in contradiction to how they experience emotions and develop bonds?

Farm animals like all animals have memories, develop relationships, and want to avoid pain and suffering. These animals want to enjoy and express themselves, which they are not allowed to do on factory farms. On few small farms, like Bob Comis’s farm [The farmer in Allison Argo’s documentary, The Last Pig], these animals can be themselves to some extent, until ultimately they are killed.

At Farm Sanctuary animals are allowed to be themselves and develop relationships with other animals and with people. Farm animals are not that different from our cats and dogs—they verbally communicate that they are hungry, and like our cats and dogs they are excited about eating. And similar to our cats and dogs, they like spending time with certain individuals they get to know.


This beautiful bond is evident when you see Susie Coston [National Shelter Director] interact with the animals.

At the Farm Sanctuary, the animals are part of our family. They are our friends, not our food. And it all boils down to the relationship—is it one of friendship or is it one of exploitation? And when you are in a positive relationship with another person or another animal, it is good for everybody involved. And that is what we seek to create at farm sanctuary—for the animals to be able to express themselves and for us to be able to express the best of ourselves.

In Bob’s [Comis] situation, he was conflicted. In one sense, he was caring for animals and positively interacting with them, though ultimately he killed them. At the beginning of the film [The Last Pig], Bob says: “This communion is a lie.” So it was a communion, and it was a lie. I think that ultimately came to be too much for him.

On the other hand, at Farm Sanctuary the communion is continuous—we do not kill the animals and interacting with farm animals is mutually beneficial when it is done positively; this is fundamental to the message of Farm Sanctuary.

When you interact with animals—with cows kicking up their heels running in the pastures and turkeys following you around like puppy dogs—it is evident these animals want to interact with us in a positive way. And the good news is that it is good for both of us. Studies have shown that when we positively interact with animals, it lowers our blood pressure, it improves our lives, and it improves the lives of the animals; it is a win-win.

Till a few years back, I wasn’t aware of the scale of cruelty in the livestock industry—endless cycles of pregnancy, udder flaming, killing male calves, etc. What is the reality behind the cute cows on dairy packaging?

Animals that are exploited for food are not treated like living feeling animals—they are treated like commodities. Increasingly, animals are put in in small cages and packed so tightly they can barely move. Crowded in the thousands in these massive warehouses, these animals live in areas that are full of toxic fumes from their faeces.

On learning about this cruelty, many people decide not to eat animals, as they don’t want to contribute to their suffering. But they still drink cows milk. People assume dairy cows don’t have to be killed because they are producing milk and their lives are not that bad.

The fact is the dairy industry is one of the most abusive industries. For a cow to produce milk, she has to have a calf every year. The calf is taken away immediately at birth. If the calf is female, she is raised to become a milking cow. And if a calf is a male, he is useless to the dairy farm; the veal industry was actually created to use all these unwanted male calves born on dairy farms. Now, with the increasing concern over veal calves, dairy calves are raised as beef cattle. And ultimately, when dairy cows are no longer profitable on a dairy farm, they are slaughtered and used for beef.

And before cows are slaughtered they give birth several times, their calf is taken away from them (and they suffer the stress from that) and are physically pushed beyond their biological limits.


How are they pushed?

Cows are hooked up to milk machines two or three times a day, to produce 10 times more milk than they would produce in nature. As their bodies are under intense stress, they cannot eat enough to keep their weight on, so they lose weight during their lactation cycle, and that problem is exacerbated through most of their lactation period. By then cows are also pregnant with their next calf. They have a nine-month gestation period, so they are in what is called a state of negative energy balance—cows cannot eat enough to keep their weight on their body because cows are giving so much milk while they are pregnant. Two months before giving birth cows are dried off—they stop milking them so they can be reconditioned; during this period cows can eat more to gain weight back on their bodies so that when cows give birth, they will be able to endure another milk production cycle.

In nature, a cow can live 20 years or longer, but on modern dairy farms, they are sent to slaughter just three years after milk production because their bodies are pushed so hard. Dairy cows have it amongst the worst of all farm animals.


How does the growth of the dairy and livestock industries affect the environment? And how much water do they consume?

To raise animals for food, we are squandering increasingly scarce resources like water and fossil fuels, and on the other hand, we are polluting the land and water.

If we want to feed people most efficiently, we must grow plants and eat them directly. But instead we are growing plants with chemical fertilizers, with enormous amounts of water, then harvesting those plants using a lot of fossil fuels and then feeding them to farm animals. We could feed 10 times more people with the same amount of resources or fewer resources if we eat plants instead of animals. This practice is a habit, and we have come to accept it as normal, but the harms of this industry are vast.

The United Nations put out a report called “Livestock Long Shadow” where they talk about animal agriculture as one of the top contributors to the most significant environmental problem our planet faces.

Animal agriculture squanders water. About half of the water in the US is used to raise animals for food that goes into irrigating crops, feeding and watering animals, and processing animals at slaughterhouses (which uses enormous amounts of water). And the way they can get away with squandering resources is that water, fossil fuels, and other resources are made available to this industry at below market value. And as a result, they are using these resources without paying what they should be paying. And that brings up this whole concept of externalities associated with animal agriculture, external costs, including healthcare costs in the US. It has been estimated that we can save 70 percent on healthcare expenses in the US by shifting to eat a whole food plant-based diet. That is a huge cost in terms of dollars, but also in terms of human suffering along with animal suffering and environmental harming.

The environment is being destroyed by animal agriculture, and they are not paying for their actions. We have pollution, climate change, and polluted water and air, and the industry is leaving this mess for us as a broader society to deal with, to clean up.

Is there a correlation between violence against animals and violence against humans?

Cruelty toward animals is a bigger condition of human numbness of conscience. And I think it applies not only to other animals but also to human animals.

When humans treat other animals with cruelty, it tends to dehumanize us, and we start rationalizing violence. And once we start down the path of justifying unnecessary harm, it often leads us to rationalize it the same way in which we treat other human beings. It dampens our empathy, dampens our compassion, and dampens our interest in our ability to look at others and to understand how our actions may be causing them harm and suffering.

Slaughtering animals must affect the psychological well-being of an individual. What makes them take up those kinds of jobs?

When people kill other animals, or when people dismiss the feelings and interests of other animals, they lose part of their humanity. And there is this tendency to shut down and close your eyes to the reality of another creature’s life.

People who work in slaughterhouses or factory farms are often disempowered and don’t know what other options may be available to them. And they become immersed in this world of exploitation, and as part of it are also exploited.

When we accept bad things as normal, we begin to justify and validate them through our rationalizations. People who work in slaughterhouses or factory farms or people who own these places, rationalize these businesses, defend, validate, and legitimize them without looking at the harm they cause. And I think individuals who work there as well as those who are profiting from it have that tendency to create these rationalizations and belief systems to enable that system to continue.


Why do we rationalize and normalize the torture of animals in the name of tradition and culture? And why do we continue to test—pharmaceutics and cosmetics—on animals?  

Often times we do things we have grown up doing. We are told that it is a cultural practice; it is part of who we are as a people. But just because we have done something for a long time doesn’t mean we should continue doing it. Bull fighting, for example, is a brutal custom, and it is something that should be challenged.

Testing cosmetics on animals is also something that has been normalized. A big industry has developed around cosmetics; they have animal breeding facilities and they get government funding. So you have this infrastructure in place where tax money is used to subsidize cruelty and violence, and it doesn’t have to be that way. This is where bad becomes normal, and those that are profiting from it tend to want to maintain and rationalize it, to sell the idea to a larger audience. But it is starting to get harder. When people see images of animals in laboratories or when they see pictures of animals on factory farms and slaughterhouses, it is an affront to our humanity. And as a result, I think change is imminent.

Culture and an identity around culture can be strong, and they take time to change. But every culture is complex; there is not just one thing a culture does. For example, bull fighting is a culture, but other things happen in Spain. In the US, we have cowboys, but other things happen. So because there is one aspect of this culture it does not mean it is something we need to hold onto.

Change is constant. In the horse-and-buggy era, we did not have cars. So now we no longer have buggy whip manufacturers like we used to. As times change, our businesses change, our economy changes, our culture changes. And just because we have done something a long time, doesn’t mean we should continue doing it. In fact, I think it’s important to step back and assess our actions and to ask ourselves whether or not they make sense. And if they don’t make sense we need to be open to change. And the only constant is change.

So culture changes too, and it evolves. In America, slavery was an institution, and it’s been around for thousands of years. It’s now universally condemned, but it’s still practiced. So although there is this evolving awareness around the wrongness of slavery, there are still those who profit from it and who maintain the institution in different ways. When you have injustice, you need to look at it and see it for what it is, call it out, and change it however we can. The good news about food is that all of us eat and we can make mindful choices that have a profound impact, just by voting dollars. Same thing when it comes to cosmetics—instead of buying products tested on animals, we can buy products that are not tested on animals.


Change takes effort and time.

Absolutely. It takes effort and time to put the infrastructure in place that supports the status quo, which is violent and makes cruelty convenient. And there is growing momentum for alternatives for these products that have come from animal harm, whether food or cosmetics.


Finally, what are the core values of Farm Sanctuary and what can one expect to take away after a visit to one of your animal shelters?

One of the biggest impacts of Farm Sanctuary is to normalize the idea that farm animals are friends, not food. We have the physical places, but we also have the example of living well, eating plants, instead of animals.

Ours is a community that is welcoming. The events at the farm, whether they are vegan or not, are welcome and accept people for who they are and encouraged to take positive steps towards living more compassionately and mindfully, and in a way that causes less harm to the planet and less harm to themselves—physically, emotionally, and spiritually.

Farm Sanctuary is a place of healing. It’s a place of transformation; it is a place of redemption. And these are core human narratives over the course of our history and farm sanctuary ties into that core and encourages people to take steps in that direction.



To learn more about Gene Baur please visit his website.