9 min read

The Childhood Horror That Gave This Man His Life's Calling

<p> Farm Sanctuary </p>

When Gene Baur was 6 years old, he saw a deer with her head stuck in a chain link fence. He watched the animal struggle from the backyard of his house in the Hollywood Hills, until she was eventually shot by the homeowner.

Shortly after, Baur watched an enormous old oak tree crash to the ground, as another neighbor was enlarging his house.

It wasn't until he was in high school that Baur realized that these experiences, which had upset him thoroughly, would be a part of the rest of his life. Baur, then a meat-eater, asked his grandmother how veal was made. She didn't mince words. Since then, he hasn't looked back.

Now, nearly 5 decades after he witnessed the deer's suffering, Baur thinks back on those early days when he first considered the animals he ate.

"As time went on, I started learning more," Baur told The Dodo. "Until that time, my assessment was that you were supposed to eat these foods, this meat, for your health."

Farm Sanctuary

But soon enough, everything changed. Baur went vegan in 1985, and the following year he started the organization that would become his life's work: Farm Sanctuary, an animal welfare and rescue organization that also advocates for veganism and farm animal-friendly legislation. He spent years visiting factory farms, witnessing horrors like live animals thrown in trash cans, or onto heaps of dead animals. While he knew it was impossible to save the other billion animals in the system, Baur started rescuing the few he could, one by one.

"I had always wanted to make a positive contribution to the Earth, I didn't want to be a cog in the system," he said.

Baur has done what he wanted and more. What started as a small organization that would simply rescue and relocate animals cast off at factory farms in Maryland has become a national non-profit with several rescue facilities and an enormous adversary: the entire factory farming industry.

While Farm Sanctuary has conducted undercover investigations in the past to show people the realities of animal farming, its tact has been more light-handed than many other animal welfare organizations.

"Looking at factory farm images can sometimes be painful," Baur said, emphasizing the importance of showing people how animals can heal after a life of abuse. "At the [Farm Sanctuary] farm, they're our friends, not our food. I want people to recognize that farm animals are not unlike cats or dogs."

Farm Sanctuary

Showing farm animals in a sweet, playful light is one way he draws interest to a topic that people often don't want to think about: how their meat is made. People don't want to see themselves as mean or cruel or irresponsible, Baur says, but our choices can be incredibly destructive.

With a new book dedicated to vegan lifestyle, Baur asks people to consider a happy and healthy life that doesn't involve eating animals. As an Ironman triathlon runner, one of the mantras he repeats over and over is, "If we can live well without causing harm, then why wouldn't we?"

There are, of course, people who would argue that animal protein is vital to their health and well-being (though a recent slew of world-class vegan athletes have challenged that perception). Baur shrugs this idea off.

"We can get plenty of protein by eating plants instead of animals," he said. "There are people that say when they go vegan they don't feel as good. Well, we need to understand why that is. There are a number of reasons - perhaps there's a psychological element to it - our brains are powerful things, and sometimes it's hard to give up habits. It's also possible that people aren't eating nutritious vegan food."

Vegan plantain tacos, a recipe featured in Baur's new book. (Farm Sanctuary)

Most of all, Baur is hopeful. He mentioned that the number of animals killed at factory farms has been going down in recent years - a sign, he says, that the consumer's demands are shifting. And the consumer, he says, is the key to changing the entire system.

Some recent consumer-driven victories suggest he's right. In 2002, after pressure from consumers and from Farm Sanctuary, Burger King announced it would offer veggie burgers on its menus nationwide. Several companies, including Kraft Foods, Panera Bread and Costco, and even states have banned or promised to phase out cruel gestation crates, a movement that grew from consumers' disgust at the mistreatment of breeding hogs. Most recently, egg-laying hen welfare standards are getting upgrades, with California passing a major law to give chickens more spacious cages.

"I think the consumer, ultimately, is where the decision resides," Baur said. "Consumers, unfortunately, tend to go along with what most others are doing. But now, there are more vegans in the world. As we rub off on others, more and more will join. Incremental steps are critical, and they're happening all over the place."

It's not just an uphill battle against factory farming, he added. In fact, by buying responsibly, every consumer is helping create a world that more closely reflects his or her own values.

"We vote with our dollars every day," Baur said. "If we are buying animal products, we are giving to animal abusers who then give that money to politicians. But if we give them to vegan businesses, that money will then increase the power of the vegan."

Baur's new book, "Living the Farm Sanctuary Life," includes information on mindful eating and plant-based diets, vegan recipes and humane lifestyle tips. See the trailer below: