Friday, July 10, 2009

Gene Baur: Changing Hearts and Minds about Animals and Food

Leading animal rights activist Gene Baur, co-founder of Farm Sanctuary, likes to rescue animals. His beagle and greyhound are rescues. And just like Gene, they thrive on a plant-based diet.

If you haven’t met Gene Baur, the Toronto Vegetarian Association is pleased to make the introduction this September at the Food Fair. Gene is back by public demand, having wowed audiences at last year’s Food Fair with his talk on how he co-founded Farm Sanctuary in 1986 and built it into the leading farm animal protection organization in the United States. This year, he’ll talk about current trends in the burgeoning food movement, trends such as veganism.

“The Toronto Vegetarian Food Fair is one of the best of its kind in North America,” says Gene by phone from Watkins Glen, New York, where Farm Sanctuary has one of its two sanctuaries (the other is in northern California). “I loved the wide variety of vendors and the abundance of educational material available. I’ve been a vegan for a long time, but I haven’t paid that much attention to the health perspective. I’m doing more of that now.”

Farm Sanctuary works to expose and stop cruel practices of the food animal industry through research and investigations, legal and institutional reforms, direct rescue efforts, and educating people about what life is really like for farm animals.

Over the years Farm Sanctuary has won many battles in the fight against the cruel treatment of animals on factory farms. In November 2008, Farm Sanctuary celebrated a landmark victory for farm animals: the passage of Proposition 2 in California. This law phases out some of the most restrictive confinement systems used by factory farms, giving 20 million pigs, calves and egg laying hens space to stand up, stretch their limbs, turn around and lie down comfortably. “This year we’re looking at launching similar initiatives in the American Midwest,” says Gene.

“While we are doing battle in the marketplace by confronting cruelty, we do so in a way that is respectful and compassionate,” says Gene. “We want to educate people. We keep our arguments objective, reasoned and rational. We step back and question underlying assumptions that don’t hold up, and we ask the farming industry and consumers to question current practices and think about what makes sense.”

In April, 2009, Farm Sanctuary published a groundbreaking report, entitled The Truth Behind the Labels. This report describes how food producers and retailers, seeing the increasing consumer opposition to the way farm animals are treated on industrial farms, use labels suggesting that their animals were raised ‘naturally’ or treated ‘humanely’. “These terms are often just marketing schemes,” says Gene. “We want to educate consumers so that they can make more informed choices. Our goal is to encourage people to eat in a way that is consistent with their values and best interests.”

Though a U.S.-based organization, Farm Sanctuary has a very strong following in Toronto. “Watkins Glen isn’t that far from Toronto, so it’s easy for people to visit,” says Gene. “But also, we are a very forward-thinking organization and in a cosmopolitan city like Toronto we find a relatively sympathetic audience. Folks in Toronto tend to be more open-minded. In some parts of the United States, our message can sometimes be dismissed without much thought.”

To learn more about Gene Baur, please visit the Farm Sanctuary website and read his exceptional book, Farm Sanctuary: Changing Hearts and Minds About Animals and Food (available for loan or purchase through the Toronto Vegetarian Association).

Gene has seen a lifetime’s worth of egregious atrocities committed against defenceless animals, and yet the evil he has seen has not embittered him. He is a pleasure to meet: friendly, generous, and quick with a smile.

“Being able to rescue animals and watch them recover helps keep me sane,” he says. “I also see people make changes as they learn more about where their food comes from, and this is very inspiring to me. I’m essentially an optimist. I believe most people will do the right thing, and therefore, I believe change is inevitable. As Dr. Martin Luther King said, ‘The arc of the universe is long but it bends towards justice’.”

If you want to help Gene Baur and Farm Sanctuary help farm animals, here are some suggestions from Gene on how to do it:

• Educate yourself – read Gene's book, go through the Farm Sanctuary website

• Spread information about the reality of factory farms to your friends and family

• Get literature from Farm Sanctuary to give to people, or leave in public places

• Wear T-shirts or buttons with a compassionate message

• Put a bumper sticker with a compassionate message on your car

• People are social creatures and we learn from those around us, so invite people over for some vegan food – that’s the best way to teach folks that eating plants is better than eating animals

• If you go to a barbecue, bring a delicious veggy dish

• Create a vegan dining group – call ahead and let the restaurant know your group is vegan; the restaurant now has a strong incentive to modify their cuisine and to provide vegan dishes on the menu

Gene Baur and me at last year's Food Fair.

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