Meet Gene Baur
The Man Who Helps Protect Farm Animals
By Shirley Craig
Farm Sanctuary was founded in 1986 by Gene Baur who led a small group of activists who were trying to combat the abuses of factory farming and encourage a new awareness and understanding about farm animals. Today, Farm Sanctuary is the nation’s largest and most effective farm animal rescue and protection organization. They advocate for new laws and policy, educate the public about factory farming, try to stop animal cruelty and promote compassionate living. All of this on behalf of the farm animals like cows, chickens, pigs, goats and sheep, etc. I had the privilege to talk to Gene and find out how Farm Sanctuary began and what he sees in the future for animal farming.
Tell me, how did you first come up with the idea to have a sanctuary for farm animals?
Well, Farm Sanctuary started in the mid-1980s. We started visiting farms and finding animals that were literally discarded. So we began rescuing them, and that’s how our whole sanctuary began. It was out of a need, and we just responded to different needs, including animals that needed help, and we now operate sanctuaries in New York and California and care for over 1,000 animals.
That’s amazing. How in the first place, in the ’80s, did you realize that there were these animals that were being discarded on farms? And why were they being discarded?
These animals were being discarded because they were no longer considered economically profitable. In some cases, the animals were very sick and it would cost more in veterinary care to take care of the animals than they were worth financially, so they were just discarded and, in some cases, thrown literally on piles of dead animals. We didn’t know what we were going to see when we started visiting these places. The idea was just to document and get an understanding of what was happening, and when we did that, we would find animals just left for dead. So we started rescuing them and caring for them. But the idea, to address the factory farming issue, was the culmination of lots of other activists’ work, working with environmental groups, working with consumer groups, working with human rights organizations, and then coming to recognize that animal agriculture is a major contributor to significant problems in not only in terms of animals, but in terms of our own health in the environment. It was an issue that was not receiving very much attention in the 1980s. So, Farm Sanctuary was founded in 1986 to take that on.
What were your influences growing up that shaped your consciousness to go down this humane path?
Well, I grew up in Hollywood, California, in the Hollywood Hills.
You’re kidding. Somehow I pictured you being raised on a farm.
No. I grew up right near Griffith Park in Los Angeles. So I would see wild animals running around, and I also saw human activities encroaching on the wildlife and causing harm. As houses got bigger, animals were being harmed. I remember a deer, for example, getting stuck in a neighbor’s fence, and the deer had to be killed … that was upsetting. I remember big trees being cut down so houses could be made larger, and that was very disturbing to me, so I wanted to do something about the problems that humans were causing to other animals and the planet. So I started volunteering at Children’s Hospital when I was in high school, and I started working with adolescents who were having difficulties. And I got involved with environmental groups and consumer organizations and places like Green Peace, and I learned about factory farming, and I just wanted to make a difference. I did not want to be a cog in a wheel of a system that was causing so much harm, and so Farm Sanctuary was founded to just start addressing what was happening to animals and animal agriculture. And it’s just grown and evolved, and I feel that we’re having a real impact now.
I really think you are. Did you start Farm Sanctuary alone, or was it with other people?
It was me and my ex-wife and a handful of volunteers who started doing this work. We’ve had an internship program from the beginning where people come and volunteer to help out with the work we were doing. Now we have a staff of about 100 people.
What is the difference between your vision for Farm Sanctuary then and what it is now?
The vision is the same, but the way that we go about seeking to accomplish it is evolving constantly. When we first started, we were very small. We didn’t have very much in terms of resources or facilities or property. So we operated out of donated space and for a while lived in a school bus on a tofu farm, for example. Now, Farm Sanctuary owns three farms, two in California, one in New York. We work on legislative efforts. We also are using social media and the Internet to reach more and more people than we’ve ever been able to reach before.
So with evolving technology, with evolving awareness about these issues, I think we have more opportunities to move the ball forward more rapidly. And what’s very positive, I think, right now is that there is widespread mainstream opposition to factory farming, and there’s lots of opportunities for businesses including food manufacturers to develop alternatives that are plant-based, and there’s companies now that have significant investments to develop alternatives to meat, alternatives to eggs, and it’s a very exciting time to be vegan.
What do you think is really being done to end inhumane conditions and increase animal welfare in corporate farming, since more and more family farms are dying out?
Well, the larger corporate farms recognize that animal welfare is a burgeoning issue and that they need to address it and that they ignore it at their own peril. So some of the biggest producers, including Smithfield, for example, have announced that they want to start phasing out some of the most intensive confinement systems. So breeding pigs, for example, that are now kept in these individual gestation crates. … the good news is that they recognize that this is a growing social issue and they need to change. The bad news is that the types of changes they’re likely to make will be very minimal and the animal’s welfare will improve, but only slightly. So that’s one side of it, and that’s positive movement–but it’s not the kind of movement I get terribly excited about just because the animals are still not treated very well, and we need to make much bigger changes.
The other thing that’s happening is you have a whole other kind of farming movement towards smaller farms, towards farmers markets, towards community-supported agriculture programs, community gardens. And a lot of times, these are young people that want to do something other than get a job and sit in a cubicle.
So you have this whole other movement towards small farms, and many of them grow primarily produce. Some of them raise animals, and that’s unfortunate. I wish they didn’t, but a lot of them grow produce that is raised organically, and it’s very positive. So there’s this food movement going on now that I hope continues to gain steam and builds momentum and ultimately, when consumers choose to go to farmer’s markets and participate in community-supported agriculture programs and support these alternatives–these plant-based alternatives–I think the markets could do some very positive things when consumers start making those types of choices.
Do you also grow produce yourself on your farms, or are they just for the animals' welfare?
No, on our farms, we basically take care of animals. These are animal sanctuaries. So we have some pastureland where we graze the animals. We will sometimes cut hay. From time to time, we’ve had a small garden on the farms, but that’s not primarily what we do. These are primarily animal sanctuaries, but I would love to see us growing produce at some point. But we just haven’t gotten there yet.
It must be very expensive to take care of all these animals. How much does it cost to take care of one cow properly at your sanctuary?
It really varies because in some cases, the animals come in very sick, and the veterinary bills can be quite significant. It can run into the thousands. So it really varies from individual to individual. It varies from species to species. So cows are much bigger than chickens, and they eat a lot more. And pigs also are bigger than chickens. So the larger animals cost more in terms of feed, but some of the smaller guys, if they get very sick–again–the vet bills can go into the thousands very quickly.
Do you get a lot of support from veterinarians? Is it hard to find vets that can take care of these kinds of animals?
A lot of times veterinarians who are familiar with farm animals are involved with animal agriculture. So there’s a real education process to encouraging them to see these animals a little differently. We work with veterinarians at Cornell University, for example, which is not far from our farm in Watkins Glen, New York. And we do pay them, but I think they see it as an opportunity to learn and to actually practice medicine, because usually veterinarians that work on farm animals do not treat individual animals. They see them as a commodity, basically, and they’re not likely to spend a lot of time on individual animals. So we have had some real positive experiences with veterinarians who want to practice their skills and learn by treating our animals.
The new Mayor of New York has announced he is is going to try to get rid of the horse-drawn carriages in the city, and there are still many fairs and farmers markets that have pony rides. Do you see any good news on this front to stop these kinds of animal abuses?
I think there is a generally increasing awareness about the cognitive abilities and the emotional lives and feelings of other animals. I think there’s a growing recognition that we need to treat these animals better. I don’t know of specific campaigns in California dealing with pony rides, but I do believe that that is something that could be on the horizon and, as you mentioned, Bill de Blasio, the new mayor of New York City, just stated that he wants to get rid of the horse-drawn carriages in Manhattan, which is pretty significant. So I think there’s a lot of things happening. I think that there’s more and more awareness now than ever before about the fact that other animals deserve to be treated with respect and with kindness, and that how we treat other animals says a lot about us. So I’m optimistic about changes that can happen, but I do share your dislike of the fact that they now have these pony rides at the farmer’s markets and hopefully people will say something about it and if enough people do that, they will reconsider.
I hope so. Are there particular programs you offer at the Farm Sanctuary that inform the public on how to be a humane farm animal owner?
We do, we do. We encourage people to come visit the farm and get to know the animals, and that is a large part of what we do … connect people to cows and pigs and chickens and turkeys, and create a different kind of relationship where the animals are our friends, not our food. So that is one of the things we do. We also have an Farm Animal Adoption Network where people who are interested and have the proper facilities can adopt animals from us and just let those animals live out their lives. We’re very careful, as you can imagine, when we place animals. We want to make sure they’re in a good home.
Wow, that must be quite something adopting a farm animal. Are you talking about the smaller animals, like chickens and turkeys?
No, but obviously a person who is going to adopt a cow or pig needs more space than one who is going to adopt a chicken or turkey, but we adopt them all out. They all need to live good lives. And they’ll either do that at Farm Sanctuary, or if we can find a good home, we’ll place them in a good home.
I wanted to ask you about the popularized cage-free chickens notion that we see advertise on egg cartons in the supermarket. Obviously, it’s good that the animals aren’t in cages, but is it more humane?
It’s not humane, no. I would say that cage-free is less bad than battery cages, but it’s still a long way from humane. What’s happened is there’s more and more opposition to factory farming now, and so you have animal farmers who are now treating the animals a little bit less badly, like in a cage-free operation or other egg operations or other meat-type of operations, but the animals are still not treated very well, but they’re marketing them as humane and making it sound like the animals are treated a lot better than they are. A lot of times those labels sound better than they are, and it’s important just to be mindful of that.
Right, that’s what I thought. I have this vision of hundreds of chickens all crammed together. They may not be in cages, but they’re still not living in humane conditions.
That’s right. And it’s not hundreds; it’s thousands that would be bunched together.
Chickens raised on a factory farm
How horrible is that. Do you think that there is an awareness growing about eating veal too?
Yes, oh absolutely. Veal consumption has dropped significantly across the U.S. over the last couple decades because people do not like the idea of young calves being taken away from their mothers and being chained by the neck in small wooden crates their whole lives. So veal consumption has dropped. In fact, the American Veal Association has said that they need to phase out and get rid of the crates, so that’s positive news, but the crates will be replaced with another system that’s not very humane still. So it’s less bad, but it’s still not very good.
Do you think we’ll ever see a world where predominantly more people are eating plant-based food, soy or wheat derivatives or other proteins instead of the meat?
I think we need to change. I don’t think that the planet can support this type of dietary habit for many, many years. So I think in the U.S., in fact, the number of animals being killed for consumption has actually started going down because there is recognition that this is an inhumane industry, that we eat way too many animal foods, and it’s causing harm to our own health. It also creates environmental problems. But what’s happening also around the world is in certain countries like China, for example, where you have growing wealth, there’s a tendency for people to start eating more meat, and that’s very frightening. So, there’s good news and bad news. The good news is that in the U.S., right now anyway, there’s recognition that this is an industry that causes lots of harm, and there are more and more plant-based options that are starting to replace animal foods on people’s plates. But in places like China that are sort of developing right now and becoming financially wealthy, there’s a push to produce more meat, and that’s a big problem.
I was very encouraged to see the Meatless Monday program that a number of restaurants have adopted. Do you think that’s something that can blaze a trail across the country, to eat at least, one day a week, a plant alternative?
The Meatless Monday campaign has been very effective, and I think lots and lots of people are adopting that. They recognize that eating less meat or perhaps even no meat makes sense. So I think the Meatless Monday campaign has been very very positive.
Do you ever get to go into the schools to try to give kids an awareness of what’s going on and to teach kids to be kinder to animals?
There are some schools now that are offering vegetarian food and that are actually participating in the Meatless Monday campaign, so that’s very positive. Now, Farm Sanctuary, from time to time, over the years, has been in the schools. We are not currently in elementary schools, although we do speak in colleges and stuff. But what we do is encourage children to come out and visit our farms. We now have a farm near Los Angeles–it’s in Acton, which is about 45 minutes north of Los Angeles–and so school kids routinely visit our farm out there, and we love it when that happens.
Tell me, what else do you want to say that can help get your message across to people?
I think the bottom line is that when it comes to many things in this world, it’s hard for us to see how we can make a difference. But when it comes to animals who are mistreated on factory farms and all the problems that the factory farming industry causes, each of us, every day, can make choices that can make a big difference, and we can choose just not to eat animals. It’s getting easier and easier to find vegan food, and by choosing to eat plant foods instead of animals, we are preventing incredible animal suffering, we’re preventing enormous harm to the planet, and we’re improving our own health. So each of us can make that sort of choice, and it’s an empowering, healthy choice.
What do you see for the future happening in the next decade?
I think in the next decade we will see a continuation of certain trends, and I think there will be an ongoing phase out of some of the worst inhumane systems that are currently used to raise farm animals. But the changes and the improvement in their welfare will be not that great–not huge. Where I think the big movement is going to be is in the marketplace, where you have fast-food restaurants now that are completely vegan that are spreading. You have farmer’s markets that are spreading. You have community-supported agriculture programs that are spreading. You have more and more consumers that are thinking about the way they eat and the consequences of their food choices. So I think that we’re going to continue to see movement in the market away from animal foods and towards more plant foods, and I think that’s something to be very, very optimistic about.
Do you think that the general public makes a connection between global warming and animal farming, or do you think that gets lost in the rhetoric?
I don’t think most people get that message as strongly as they need to. I think a growing number of people are realizing how animal agriculture contributes to global warming. The United Nations has talked about that, and other experts have talked about it, but it hasn’t seeped into the public consciousness as much yet as it needs to.
How old were you when you got into this, if you don’t mind me asking?
23. Yes, I went vegan in 1985 when I was 23.
Wow, you were a visionary at age 23. Thank you, Gene, for all the work you are doing on educating the public and making the lives of farm animals better.
To learn more about Gene and Farm Santuary, click here to vist the website. They are always looking for volunteers, donations and check out Gene's book Farm Sanctuary: Changing Hearts and Minds About Animals and Food available here on Amazon.
The Farm Sanctuary just celebrated 25 years. Watch the video.