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News Feature

Originally published in Compass, June 19, 2014
Local groups host national animal advocacy leader
Plight of animals on industrialized farms discussed

by Tevlin Schuetz

Gene Baur, president and co-founder of the farm animal protection organization Farm Sanctuary and author of Farm Sanctuary: Changing Hearts and Minds About Animals and Food, spoke at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Ellsworth Sunday night, June 8, before a group of over 40 people.

Baur presented a slide show documenting his investigations into large farm operations and the often miserable conditions that exist for livestock. He spoke in support of veganism, which is a philosophy of abstaining from consuming animals and using animal-derived products.

Baur made a case for changing the way people relate to animals. The crux of the problem is that animals raised for food “are seen as commodities” and not as living creatures, he said. “Are animals our friends or our food?”

“We can thrive on a plant-based diet. Slaughter [of animals] is unnecessary violence. If we could live without killing others, why wouldn’t we?” Baur asked the audience.

Broadening the scope of the issue to the environment, Baur said food choices “have a profound impact on the planet,” citing studies which show the consumption of a meat meal uses 16 times more fossil fuels than eating a vegan meal.

“Bad becomes normal”

Of particular concern to Baur are the animal confinement systems used in large farm operations and the cruel means of disposing of sick or otherwise undesirable livestock.

In pork farms, nursing sows are frequently kept in enclosures that don’t allow for any movement, resulting in areas of open wounds on the animals. Male chicks hatched in egg laying operations are often thrown in dumpsters while still alive.

The ways in which animals are pushed to produce are also alarming to Baur. Dairy cows—which would normally live up to 20 years if allowed to graze freely—only live three to four years in production before being sent to slaughter. The intense stress on their bodies from being continually impregnated and milked multiple times each day ultimately shortens their lives, Baur said.

Nevertheless, agricultural practices considered to be “common” are exempt from most state anti-cruelty laws, so “bad becomes normal,” Baur said.

Cautious optimism

Baur and the animal protection movement have achieved some successes, however. Due to their efforts, ballot initiatives in Florida, Arizona and California have been passed which make tight confinements for animals illegal. In addition, down cows—cows that are sick or too weak to walk—can no longer legally be sold as food.

More can be done, however, Baur maintains. Conditions for animals could improve significantly if large animal farming operations were to stop receiving subsidies from government, which would raise the price of meat. Subsidizing soybean and vegetable-producing operations and “small, community-based” operations instead would help. The growing discontentment with “factory farms” within the environmental movement is a step in the right direction, but things need to move more quickly, according to Baur.

Outreach and changing minds

Baur, whom Institute of Humane Education of Surry president Zoe Weil called the “nicest and least judgmental man in the animal protection movement,” addressed breaking through vegan stereotypes and trying to open minds.

“Vegans can do stuff like [run] marathons,” he quipped. They are often portrayed as “finger-wagging, angry vegans,” he said, but “this is not the case for most vegans.” Social situations can be challenging, but a vegan can “show up with good vegan food at an event [and it creates] an opportunity for people to try it.”

Baur suggests creating positive vegan experiences for people as a means to introduce them to new dietary possibilities. Teaching kids to garden is a good place to start.

When asked about whether keeping chickens for eggs is a good way to promote healthy interactions with animals, Baur conceded that it could work: it all boils down to the relationship between human and animal. “Is it of mutual benefit, or is it [a relationship] of exploitation?”

Local groups support animal protection

The event was sponsored by the Good Life Center of Harborside and was the first speaking date of the 2014 Nearing Lyceum Speaker Series, which will include 11 more speaking dates this season. It was also promoted by the Institute of Humane Education in Surry and the Ellsworth Unitarian Universalist Church.

After Baur spoke, Melissa Andrews of Peace Ridge Sanctuary in Penobscot talked briefly of her organization’s mission. Peace Ridge is a nonprofit which shelters rescued farm animals and operates a dog adoption program. Well over 100 animals are sheltered and cared for at any given time.

Peace Ridge Sanctuary has monthly open houses and will be hosting a vegan wine and cheese event at the Castine Inn on a date yet to be decided.