Elevate Difference

Farm Sanctuary: Changing Hearts and Minds about Animals and Food

Among radicals and vegan activists, farm sanctuaries are well known as safe havens for animals escaping the cruelties of factory farms and slaughterhouses. Having previously volunteered at a small farm sanctuary in Massachusetts, I am convinced that face time with our four-legged friends is the single most effective way to inform other humans about the individual personalities of animals and convince people of our responsibility to overcome the habits of our speciesist culture. I also think everyone is capable of extraordinary activism in their own ways and that passing money to already successful advocates for a cause can be a cop-out. That said, I like to give money away, believe we must work as united allies for a cause, and I recognize and respect that everyone has to start somewhere.

In 1986, Gene Baur founded Farm Sanctuary, which has since grown to be one of the largest animal sanctuaries in the world. Baur came of age in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, attending lectures by radical activist Abbie Hoffman, his then-reformed pal Jerry Rubin, and consumer advocate Ralph Nader, and throughout his education, Baur became increasingly aware of how factory farms have increasingly dominated U.S. agriculture since the Eisenhower administration. After meeting a dying sheep in a stockyard and rescuing her on a whim, Farm Sanctuary began. It has since expanded to two locations in New York and California, providing refuge for thousands of animals over the last twenty-two years, and has had a large role in heading up many of the political animal advocacy campaigns in the United States over the past decade.

Organizations like Farm Sanctuary are one critical part of the giant activist network organizing around issues of food justice, animal welfare, media, and veganism. Books like Farm Sanctuary provide a basic introduction to many of these issues, down to the sometimes-uninspiring bureaucratic details. In reality, the facts are not so complicated. Big agriculture, not unlike big tobacco, spends untold amounts of money to make consumers feel better about their choices. Massive food industry conglomerates like Kraft and Kellogg’s own supposedly animal-friendly subsidiaries like Boca Burger and Silk, makers of tasty and affordable alternative veggie meat products and soy milk. It is fair to point out that in some ways, Farm Sanctuary operates on a similarly large scale, raising incredible funds and heading up national campaigns to ban the force-feeding of foie gras geese and getting behind the recently passed Proposition 2 in California.

Baur’s writing can be touching, and his life’s work is certainly unprecedented in many ways. Throughout the book, profiles of the sanctuary residents—sheep, chickens, and pigs—compliment historical accounts and details of the farm’s success. Despite its important overarching message, the problem with Farm Sanctuary lies in the contradictions. While Baur diligently points out many problems within big agriculture, he also believes that fast food giant Burger King’s willingness to offer veggie burgers is a victory. Bargaining with local pig farmers may be the first step toward changing hearts and minds, but it also speaks to Baur’s comfort with caving to middle ground that ultimately continues to harm animals. This is not an indictment of the good work Baur has started and continues to inspire, but to not name these contradictions as they are is perhaps the biggest disappointment and largest failure of Farm Sanctuary.

This book is an accessible introduction for people who have never considered the compassionate reasons behind the decision to go vegetarian or vegan. Anyone familiar with the overlapping and complex issues of animal welfare, particularly those of farm animals in the U.S. and Europe, will not be shocked by much Farm Sanctuary offers. Those who believe a vegan revolution is our only hope will probably be (or already are) bored and dismayed by Baur’s centrist efforts. Everyone is on their own path as awareness exists on a spectrum, and along the range of resources available to animal rights advocates, the story of Farm Sanctuary is a primer that will hopefully move many towards more radical resources when the time is right for them. Hopefully, that time is sooner than later.

Written by: Brittany Shoot, January 26th 2009