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By Lauren Kearney
You may have first seen Gene Baur when he was featured talking about how not eating animal products changed his life in the inspirational pro-vegan film, Forks Over Knives. Hailed as ‘’the conscience of the food movement” by Time Magazine, Baur went from raising funds for farm rescues by selling veggie hotdogs at Grateful Dead concerts to creating one of America’s leading farm animal protection organizations: Farm Sanctuary.
In today’s industrialized farms, animals are treated like commodities. Instead of roaming in their pastures and sleeping in the sun, they are crammed into warehouses so tightly they can’t walk or even turn around. They are denied everything natural to them: fresh air, sun, space and nutritious food. Millions of cows, pigs, chickens, and sheep face this kind of abuse every day before being slaughtered in America alone, and the tragedy of it all is that this is invisible to the public.
In 1986, Baur created Farm Sanctuary and ever since, he has been working to combat the cruelty and inspire change in the way our society perceives farm animals, encouraging a compassionate vegan lifestyle.
In this exclusive interview, Gene Baur talks to me about the empowerment of living compassionately, how we can change our habits, and about the Farm Sanctuary 2015 Gala which drew in celebrities like Jon Stewart and Jesse Eisenberg.
Can you remember the first time you deeply connected with an animal?
The first time I connected deeply with an animal was with my cat tiger. He was my first big love and my first big heartache was when he died. But, while I loved Tiger, I didn’t think about the farm animals whose flesh I was consuming. The first time I “connected” with a farm animal was when I consciously recognized and was bothered to see a dead chicken on his or her back on a platter who was killed and cooked for dinner. I realized this had been someone, not something and stopped eating meat for a while. During Farm Sanctuary’s early days, I came to know many individual animals who touched and affected me, including Maya, a new born calf who had been left for dead at a stockyard. I spent many days nursing her back to health and we bonded as I came to admire her spunky spirit.
What’s been the most valuable lesson you have learned from animals?
Animals teach us to live in the moment, to enjoy life, to be grateful for the good things we have, and to forgive and move beyond past grievances.
You’ve witnessed, with your own eyes, the horrors and the heartbreak of slaughterhouses. Does one particular scene of one individual animal stick with you?
There are many memories that haunt me, but one that stands out is of a downed cow, too sick to stand, who was left in a parking lot at a central California stockyard. She lingered for hours, suffering and moaning in pain. I kept going back to try and help her, but was unable to convince the “owner” and law enforcement authorities to humanely euthanize her and put her out of her misery because she was supposed to be transported to slaughter the next day.
Earlier this year you released your book, Living the Farm Sanctuary Life. Is this book purely for animal lovers or can anybody enjoy and benefit from reading this book – and how?
Living the Farm Sanctuary Life is written for everybody, ranging from animal advocates and vegans, to individuals just becoming curious about living and eating in a more conscientious and earth friendly way. The book provides useful information and practical tips for people across the spectrum, along with 100 amazing recipes from some of the world’s top vegan chefs and cookbook authors.
Could you explain the psychology behind living in alignment with your values?
People feel better and healthier when they live in alignment with their values, as opposed to living in a disconnected and dissonant way. Living in alignment with our values lowers stress, contributes to emotional and psychological well-being, and can be enlivening and empowering.
It’s clear that not enough people are mindful about what they are eating. Bacon, chicken nuggets, hamburgers etc. – a lot of people don’t make the connection between those foods and living beings. Why is that and how can that change?
Human beings are creatures of habit, and we grow up in a social environment where we learn from the people around us. If everybody around us is eating meat, we tend to adopt the habit without thinking very much about it and without thinking about the individual animals who are killed for our consumption. It’s easy to get stuck in habits, even if they aren’t healthy, and change can be scary. When our eating habits are entwined with a cruel and violent industry, people feel badly and tend to look the other way. I believe change starts when people begin paying attention to the consequences of their behaviors, and start making conscientious choices that are aligned with their own compassionate values. I’m glad that more and more people are doing this. But, fear of change is another obstacle, so I think it’s important for vegan advocates to be supportive and to show that plant based eating isn’t scary or difficult.
You have been vegan for thirty years. What have you learned through your vegan journey and how have you changed as a result of living the farm sanctuary life?
I have been vegan since 1985, and it has been great to witness a growing awareness about the benefits of plant based eating, especially in the past couple of years when the popularity of vegan living seems to have exploded. When I first went vegan and grasped how sensible this lifestyle is, I thought we could just explain the facts to people, and they would make the shift as well. However, I’ve come to understand that people are often afraid of change and have emotional attachments to food, and that logic and reason are not usually enough to persuade someone to go vegan. I’ve also come to recognize increasingly that human beings are social animals who are very much influenced by those around us, so change often requires social and community support.
Can you tell us about the Farm Sanctuary 2015 Gala – who was there and how did it go?
It was phenomenal and exceeded our expectations. The event was held at the Plaza Hotel in New York City and sold out early. United States Senator Cory Booker gave a moving talk and introduced Tracey and Jon Stewart who made a big announcement, specifically that they are partnering with Farm Sanctuary to open a Farm Sanctuary branch in NJ. We also honored Bruno, a high school student who decided not to slaughter Lola, a pig he was raising for Future Farmers of America. Instead, he sent her to live at Farm Sanctuary. After being introduced by actor Jesse Eisenberg, Bruno described how Lola influenced him and his mother to go vegan. Throughout the evening, there was a palpable sense of community and excitement.
Apart from adopting a vegan diet, what other lifestyle choices can people make that will make them live more mindfully and in harmony with animals and the environment?
Adopting a vegan diet is the most impactful lifestyle choice any of us can make if we want to live in harmony with other animals and the planet, but other actions matter as well. It’s best to support companies who use plant fibers in clothing, rather than animal products, and to avoid using products tested on animals. Every time we make a purchase, we vote with our dollars. It is also important to be a positive vegan example and to be helpful and supportive of others curious about adopting a vegan lifestyle, or in taking steps in that direction. Humans are social animals. We learn from each other, and each of us can have a positive influence on others.
Farm Sanctuary’s 30th anniversary is next year! How does that make you feel and how do you intend to commemorate it?
Yes, it’s amazing that Farm Sanctuary will be 30 years old in 2016. I am very grateful for our amazing community of caring citizens who have supported and allowed Farm Sanctuary to grow and thrive over the years. And, I am even more excited about the future. There has never been a better time for our movement, and I believe our momentum will continue to grow.