Images of dirty and diseased animals crammed into tiny cages are powerful in their own right. Yet contrasted with scenes of these same animals resting in peaceful pastures and unwinding on rolling hills, the horrors of industrialized farming take on new meaning: it becomes clear that animals raised for food are stripped not only of their right to live without excruciating pain, but of their right to be animals.
Gene Baur, cofounder and president of Farm Sanctuary, an animal protection organization that has rescued over 1000 abused and discarded farm animals, conveyed this stark contrast in a talk last week at Harvard Law School. Pigs receiving belly rubs from sanctuary visitors were contrasted with pigs held in cages so tight they could not turn; chicks nurtured by their mothers on the sanctuary were compared to chicks taken from their mothers to be ground up alive into feed for their sisters.
Baur chose to stress this juxtaposition because one’s eating habits are a personal decision based in emotion. First, though, he began the talk with the traditional arguments against factory farming: that animals are sentient, intelligent beings who should not undergo great suffering for the benefit of our taste buds; that animal agriculture contributes more to climate change than the entire transportation industry; that animal cruelty laws are extremely limited and hardly ever enforced on the farm. But, said Baur, despite overwhelmingly agreeing that animals should not be treated this way, people continue to fund this mistreatment by consuming meat, eggs, and dairy. He attributed this discord to a human tendency to rationalize one’s actions and a resulting desensitization towards animal suffering.
Farm Sanctuary’s mission is thus to remind the public that the animals who become our food are not economic inputs but rather intelligent, emotional creatures who love a scratch behind the ears as much as one’s dog or cat. The pigs, chickens, cows, sheep, and other animals on the sanctuary, once destined for a life of misery, can now live out their days peacefully and engage in carefree animal behaviors they could not while on the industrial farm.
It has been a long, difficult journey to win better lives for animals, and Baur has been at the forefront of the movement since Farm Sanctuary’s formation in 1986. He spoke of his beginnings selling veggie hot dogs at Grateful Dead concerts to fund animal rescue efforts; back then, the animal protection movement had little publicity and had made few advances.
Decades later, progress has been slow, but steady. Initiatives to widen farm animals’ living spaces and reduce the pain of slaughter have passed in numerous states, and public awareness of animal issues has increased, leading Americans to alter their diets. Today, 400 million less animals are slaughtered for meat each year than at the peak of meat consumption in the mid-2000s. This past summer, Baur attended the Grateful Dead’s farewell concert at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, California, and witnessed winding lines of concertgoers outside entire snack bars devoted to veggie hotdogs.
Gene Baur’s talk was sponsored by the Harvard chapter of the Student Animal Legal Defense Fund.