Farm Sanctuary co-founder inspires compassion for critters once destined for slaughter
The chicken dinner did it. Gene Baur was never the same after that meal in his Hollywood home. He was teenager then, nabbing extra parts in McDonalds commercials and working on the Loyola High School set of Hair. That’s when his Catholic mother made a chicken dinner for the family, which included his five siblings.
Baur, co-founder of Farm Sanctuary in Orland and Watkins Glen, N.Y., and author of Farm Sanctuary: Changing Hearts and Minds About Animals and Food, remembers sitting down to join them. He gazed at the meal. And lost his appetite.
“I saw a bird,” Baur said, describing a cooked chicken carcass with outstretched legs and fold-up wings.
Baur, who grew up as a meat-eating omnivore in a conservative household, nixed flesh from his diet for the rest of his high school years. Slowly during college, he returned to his carnivorous ways. But during a hitchhiking road trip in 1985, he permanently converted to a vegan lifestyle.
“I had just learned what happens to these animals,” Baur said, having read Diet For a Small Planet by Frances Moore Lappé. “I have always been one to question assumptions and to question the status quo and to ask if our behaviors are appropriate and sensible, and if they aren’t, then do something different.”
That mindset also stretches back to his formative high school years, which were, in many ways, at odds with one another.
By day, he studied at a Jesuit high school and returned home to a traditional, Catholic family as the oldest of six boys. But during those years he also jogged through Griffith Park, a meandering oasis above the urban sprawl of Los Angeles. It was in that park that the teenaged Baur discovered a hunger for the music that wafted through the park’s Greek Theatre.
Pete Seeger, Arlo Guthrie, Joan Baez and Peter, Paul and Mary moved him. He savored the lyrics of “I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night,” “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “God Bless the Grass.”
The take-away message, which was growing inside of him: “The idea that we should not harm others, that there’s a time to speak out against injustice, that there’s a time to question and to challenge assumptions.”
For Baur, becoming a vegan was just part of the changing assumptions that were welling up inside of him. He dug into slaughterhouse conditions and the way that farm animals, destined for American plates, were treated. And the more he discovered and uncovered, the more he wanted to do something more.
In 1986, “more” became opening Farm Sanctuary in upstate New York, followed in 1992 by the opening of Farm Sanctuary in Orland.
The Orland sanctuary is a 300-acre spread where rescued farm animals live out their lives, free from slaughter. The idea is for visitors to “get to know” them and to see first-hand what modern breeding has done to stock.
After 22 years of activism, Baur wrote his book, which was published in March. It’s been on the Los Angeles Times’ and Boston Globe’s bestseller lists. Recently, he has been touring the country for book signings (such as the one in Chico).
“We’ve had several events that were standing room only,” Baur said.
The book comes on the heels of a growing food movement in the United States. From Slow Food International, which has a Chico chapter, to investigative book Fast Food Nation and the documentary Supersize Me, Americans are becoming increasingly aware—and concerned—about their food: where it’s been, how it was treated and what it does to them.
Baur hopes that wave of concern and activism continues, especially as Americans grapple with industrialized farming practices and the slaughter of downer cows, which are so sick that they can scarcely move.
“I think right now there’s a tremendous concern and interest in how our food is produced,” Baur said. “The issue will continue to garner more attention. What we eat and how we grow our food has a profound influence on our own health and [on the health of] our planet.”
For his part, Baur wishes that everyone would become vegan. A plant-based diet has a smaller carbon footprint. Eliminating beef consumption decreases the use of fossil fuels burned to transport feed to cattle and then cattle to market, for instance.
But if cutting meat from a diet is out of the question, Baur hopes that consumers will think about their choices. And he hopes his book will help them do that.
“My hope is that citizens will choose to buy foods that are healthy and sustainable and consistent with their own values,” he said.