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My interests include veganism and vegetarianism, health, ethics, politics and culture, media, and the environment. I have three kids; I teach college part-time, study piano and attempt to garden. I knit. I blog on just about anything, but many posts are related to my somewhat pathetic quest to eat better, be more mindful of the environment, and be a more responsible news consumer. Sometimes I write about parenting, but, like so many Mommy bloggers, my kids have recently told me not to. :) Thanks for reading.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Gene Baur's Farm Sanctuary

Several weeks ago, I promised a blog on the books I've been reading on animal rights.  A few of you might be wondering when the *heck* I'm gonna write about those.

I've been, of necessity, reading about status and health, epidemics and stratification, medicalization of everyday conditions, cultural interpretations of symptoms and the history of medicalizing women's lives.  (My fall class is Sociology of Health and Medicine.)

In other words, I *still* haven't finished the pile of animal rights' books I've bought and been slowly reading. 

Rather than wait to write until I've finished *all* of them -- my original plan -- I've decided to write about each one separately.

I have now read Gene Baur's Farm Sanctuary (Touchstone Press, 2008).  I suspect I read it first because the picture of the pig on the cover is so darn cute.  I also LOVE autobiographies, and although this isn't billed as one, you learn an awful lot about who Gene Baur is as a person while reading it.

Who cannot get into the story of a guy, raised in Hollywood, who majored in sociology (!) and ended up being inspired by activists Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman?  A guy who worked as an intern for Ralph Nader and was equally inspired by a talk by Carl Sagan?  A guy who spent some time hitchhiking trying to figure out what to do with his life -- something that would "match [his] values"?  A guy who stayed in a hotel across the street from the New Holland (PA) stockyard and ended up rescuing a sheep who had been abandoned in the trash?  A guy who initially funded his sanctuary by selling vegetarian hot dogs at Grateful Dead concerts?  A guy who proves that "you can achieve amazing things even by the humblest means" (p. 41)?

Gene Baur is my kind of guy, and not just because he majored in sociology.

In some ways, the story of his journey starts on page 23: 

"One hot and humid Sunday in August 1986, as we walked by the dead pile, we saw
carcasses of a cow, a couple of pigs, and some sheep decaying in the heat
-- nothing unusual....  As we approached, something remarkable happened: 
the sheep lifted up her head and looked at us....
we knew we couldn't leave her on the dead pile to linger, possibly for days....
We didn't stop to think about what we were doing. 
This is how he and Lorri (then his wife) began rescuing animals discarded by the factory farming industry.  (The sheep lived, by the way.)  They established a sanctuary for animals in upstate NY (and another in CA) and when they were not rescuing animals, they were documenting inhumane conditions, illegal activities, and putting forth legislation to improve the lives of farmed animals.

The book is chock-full of statistics about factory farming, slaughtering practices, the evils of genetic modifications, environmental calamity, diseases, and the reality that animals are treated as simply objects for our use. I'm not going to reiterate all that here (except for detailing the problems with dairy and genetic engineering below), but I will say that if you've been living under a rock and *don't know* how bad the system is for animals, for the environment and FOR YOU, then you should read the book. 

If you *don't want to know* you should read it too.  Selective ignorance isn't attractive and it certainly isn't an excuse to think that it's OK to keep to traditions just because it's "culture" or "the norm". 

If after reading the book you still think that eating a vegan diet a few days a week isn't a reasonable compromise between an omnivore culture and a vegan one, then I'm not sure I can think you're a reasonable person.  Honestly.  The data is just too strong not to think otherwise.

Though he writes forcefully and convincingly, Baur advocates politeness and reasoned dialogue (p. 65) and a sensitivity to the farmers who, understandably, don't know what life they will go to if they give up what they know (p. 63).  Those are two other reasons why I love his book.  He is unfailingly polite and sensitive to how hard it is for people to change. But that doesn't mean change isn't possible, even against enormous odds.  He proves that it is.


Committed vegans know this, but for my readers who do not, it's worth a few paragraphs.

Few people fully realize why dairy is as inherently violent a food choice as meat.  Though I have blogged in the past that there is a distinction between use of animals that involves death (meat) and use of animals that allows them to live (honey, milk, wool), it's increasingly clear to me that, unfortunately, it isn't all that clear.  I wish that it were.

As Baur writes, there is NO use for a male calf on a dairy farm (pp. 99-110).  Most male calves are taken from their mothers within days of their birth, raised in crates so small they cannot turn around, and fed a liquid diet intentionally low in iron and fiber in order to keep their flesh pale. They are then slaughtered at 20 or 24 weeks.  Some are slaughtered even earlier and end up in TV dinners.

I've greatly summarized the story of veal here in order to make clear the same point Baur does:   DAIRY IS NOT INHERENTLY NON-VIOLENT.  It's a tough lesson, and one that depresses me greatly, not just because I love dairy (I DO!) but because in the days prior to factory farming one, arguably, could have milked one's cow in the backyard and, at least for several YEARS, given that cow and her calves good lives.  (Not a vegan position, but an acknowledgement that dairy coming from an old-fashioned family farm would have definitely involved less violence than dairy from ANY source today, including...drumroll please...organic farms.)

If you care about the treatment of calves, you shouldn't eat dairy.  It's not enough just to give up veal or meat.


A theme throughout the book is how often the animals at the farm sanctuary suffer from physical ailments.  Some of you who eat meat will undoubtedly be thinking "Well, that's why we kill them and eat them first, before they get old and suffer!"

(Clearing throat.)  NO, that's NOT the point. As Baur writes,

"People often comment on Opie's [steer rescued as a calf] size...
A few of [the steers whose mothers were dairy cows] weigh up to three thousand pounds. 
One reason the steers are so large is that the dairy industry has genetically bred cows
for more and more milk production, which has had
the unintended result of producing bigger animals..." (p. 68).

Need another statistic?  Dairy cows now produce 53 POUNDS OF MILK PER COW PER DAY -- three times as much milk as they produced only fifty years ago (p. 113).  It's impossible not to see that the cows are treated as machines, genetically modified for OUR -- certainly not THEIR -- benefit.

What about this?  Pigs and chickens (and cows and turkeys, too) are bred to grow to "such sizes so that their bodies provide more of the parts people like to eat" (p. 137, regarding pigs).  "[B]roilers have been selectively bred to grow twice as fast and twice as large as normal" (p. 149) and have been "genetically manipulated to develop extra-large breasts" (p. 151).  Turkeys routinely suffer fatal heart attacks and are commonly lame AND are so big and shaped so oddly that they cannot mount and breed naturally (p. 160). 

Because of these realities, pigs at the sanctuary are usually unable to live out their intended lifespan and usually have to be put down at 8 or 9 years old because they are so big that they have trouble moving around (p. 137). (Wild pigs can live much longer and move around just fine.) 

Baur writes that

"[b]ecause our society mainly eats the young,
Farm Sanctuary is one of the few places in the country where it is possible
to see the long-term effects of breeding for productivity and industrial confinement.
As they age, the animals need additional care. 
Genetic alterations and the industry's standard practices
have compromised their health in irreversible ways" (p. 230, emphasis mine).

Baur has profiles of rescued animals scattered throughout the book, and many of them end up receiving special care as they age.  Perhaps it is telling that three chickens, Tofutti Cutie, Taboo, and Milky Way (p. 175) -- rescued from the carnage of Hurricane Katrina -- only get one sentence instead of an entire profile.  I suspect that, due to extreme genetic engineering inherent in chicken farms, they led short lives characterized by difficulties walking (due to heavy breasts) and breathing (also due to genetic modifications).  The sentence,
 "[they] were able to enjoy the rest of their lives with
a degree of comfort denied to their fellow Buckeye layer hens" (p. 175)
suggests that I may be right.

How sad.  And all because people like to eat white meat and want it quicker.

Ultimately, Baur believes that vegan is the way to go because doing it is environmentally sustainable and because it removes one from the cycle of violence inherent in ALL farming (p. 218). 

No review would be complete without a few picky criticisms.

There are a few places in the book where I wish he would have cited better.  For example, on page 212, he writes,

"...In 2005, sales of organic foods in the United States were nearly $14 billion. 
That's about 2.5 percent of the total retail market for food,
still just a fraction of the astounding $894 billion Americans spent on food in 2005." 

I don't doubt that last number as much as I wish I knew were it came from.  If you divide that number  by the (July 2009) Census Bureau US population statistic of 306,861,871, you get an annual per capita food expenditure of $2913.36.  For a family of five, that would be $14,566 per year or about $8 per day per person. If you divide $14,566 by 12, you get an expenditure of $1200 per month -- that seems a bit high to me.  I wonder how people arrived at that statistic of how much Americans spend on food.  What does that number include?  Eating out? Groceries AND other stuff you get at the grocery store, such as pet food and cleaning supplies? 

It would be good to know, but the info isn't there.

Similarly, he writes that a "noted writer" for The Washington Post has written that the cause of compassion of farm animals is "the moral calling or our time" (p. 190) and that the Slow Food movement began in Italy in 1986 (p. 217).  I'd love to read the Post article and know who that author is and I'd love to know where Baur got the date of 1986.  Alas, I'll have to do my own sleuthing to figure it out.

When thos are the worst criticisms you can lay at the feet of an author, that is pretty darn high praise.

His sociology professors should be proud. :)


  1. I haven't done the math but I'm pretty sure Gene's figures on the food budget include federal and state subsidies for both crop and animal farming. Food, especially meat, would be a LOT more expensive if these subsidies weren't in place.

  2. I appreciate your angle. I am an animal lover who, although raised an omnivore with meat at every meal, broke down in tears as soon as I was old enough to read when my mom would bring home a "tender young turkey." Creatively, my mother said: "No, that's just marketing. It was old and it died of disease. Silly girl. Don't you know people lie to sell things? It's marketing. It was old and sick and it died."

    I went vegetarian twice as an adult for stints of 1 1/2 to 2 years each. Never vegan, I still had dairy. Buffalo chicken wings is what tempted me off both times. Still, I haven't had beef in 20+ years, pork either with the exception of pepperoni on pizze here and there.

    Now I've been inching in the vegan direction and I am trying to be more vegan than not in the new year. So far so good, and only two days have I had any dairy products since the new year. It really is cruel.

    What I am really interested in is -- I have cats. I know that cats are biological carnivores. Feeding them meat is necessary, they cannot be vegan. How do vegans deal with this?

    And when I have to bring chicken into the house to make food for them, buying the least offensive options I can easily access, is it morally wrong for me to make soup with the carcass once I've fed my cats all the meat? I mean, doesn't it make more sense for me to use the entire carcass if I've still got to bring my cats meat, than throw it away as a matter of principle?


Politeness is always appreciated.