World-renowned activist, national bestselling author, and President and Co-Founder of Farm Sanctuary, Gene Baur is taking part in a Hamptons International Film Festival panel following the October 8 screening of the award-winning film The Last Pig, which is being fêted with the 2017 Zelda Penzel “Giving Voice to the Voiceless” Award. The documentary follows Bob Comis, who after 10 years of being a pig farmer decides to leave the industry after struggling with the profession’s ethics.
We recently caught up with Baur about the animal haven, eating mindfully, The Last Pig and more.
What led to the founding of Farm Sanctuary?
GB: Farm Sanctuary started back in 1986 to combat the cruelty of industrializing factory farming. We started by doing investigations, exposing conditions and we would literally find living animals left for dead. We started rescuing them and this was obviously good for the animals, but it was also good for us. To watch these animals recover and heal sort of helped us recover and heal from the cruelties we were routinely witnessing during our investigations. Farm Sanctuary ultimately is a place of transformation and where animals who had been seen as mere commodities become part of our extended community. They become our friends, not our food and we try to model that connection and relationship with other animals. We want people to think about how they eat and what that means regarding the impact on other animals. We encourage people to eat plants instead of animals, but we also recognize everybody has to make their own choices and one of our important organizational values is we speak to people who are on their own journeys. So we just encourage people to take steps in a positive direction and whether they become vegan or not is really up to each person to make their own decision.
How has it expanded?
GB: Well, we started small, an all volunteer, grassroots organization and we didn’t own anything. In fact, in the early days I lived in a school bus on a tofu farm and we operated from there. We funded it by selling vegan hot dogs out of our Volkswagen van at Grateful Dead concerts. Today, we operate sanctuaries in New York, in California. We have a staff of over 80 people and we have hundreds of volunteers who help us out and thousands of supporters, including well-known influential folks. Historically, we have been very fortunate to work with cultural icons like Mary Tyler Moore, who chaired one of our campaigns for a number of years. We’re going to be partnering with Jon and Tracy Stewart to open an educational facility in New Jersey. So, we started largely as an investigative group that led to rescue and awareness raising and we still do all of that. We also recognize that we can’t rescue all of the animals so we had to go upstream. We worked on laws to prevent certain cruelties and we’re still involved in that. I think right now, our big push is to raise awareness in the marketplace and to encourage citizens to make more mindful choices about their food that are better aligned with their own values and interests because most people are humane and would support compassion instead of cruelty. If we live in alignment and eat in alignment that means definitely changing and not supporting the factory farming industry, possibly going vegan. The other thing is that we encourage people to make choices that are aligned with their own interests. I think most people would rather eat food that doesn’t make them sick, but in our country, we eat food that makes us sick. It’s been estimated that we could save 70 percent on healthcare costs by switching to a whole foods, plant based diet. Also, I think most people would rather support a food system that doesn’t destroy the planet.
What does a day in the life of a Farm Sanctuary (animal) resident look like?
GB: It’s nearly heaven on earth. These animals get to be who they are, enjoy every aspect of their life. If they are sick, they are given the necessary care to recover, they are given clean, spacious barns, they are allowed to hang out with their friends, the groups are managed so that certain animals who get along with others are able to spend time with who they get along with. There are times where we have human visitors at the Sanctuary and animals that like to be around people have that opportunity. Animals that don’t are able to have their own space where they don’t have to deal with people. We have a sign at the entrance that says: You are now entering the animal’s sanctuary. Please remember that you are a guest in their home. So, these animals are treated extremely well and they have everything they need to thrive. As I mentioned before, spacious, clean barns, straw bedding that’s changed regularly, they have pastures where they can graze, if they’re grazing animals, they have trees where they can perch, if they’re birds, they have areas where they can wallow, in if they’re pigs, and they get the food they need – healthy, nutritious whole foods, plant foods – because all farm animals are basically vegan too. If they’re in pain, because some of these animals have suffered in the factory farming industry and they bring these injuries with them, so we will give them pain relief if they are in pain and if they are to a point where they’re not enjoying life and suffering, we will humanely euthanize them. But those types of decisions are made with a lot of input with the various staff members that work with these animals on a daily basis. The animals will sometimes in a sense let us know when it’s time. They may stop eating or do things like that.
The Last Pig seems to contradict Farm Sanctuary’s mission. What made you want to participant in this panel?
GB: It does and it doesn’t. What I like about The Last Pig is that it focuses on a particular farmer, who many people consider to be a humane farmer because he doesn’t treat the animals badly like the factory farm industry. Today, there’s a lot of concern about factory farming and many people will say: I don’t eat factory farm products; I can’t stand it. I only buy humane products. What this film does, I think, it’s an insight into this one farmer’s struggles with killing animals, even though he was treating them much better than they’re normally treated. It really speaks to the fundamental question about what our relationship with these other animals should be. I first learned about Bob Comis, the pig farmer, when he first started writing in the Huffington Post. He was struggling with what he was doing and I remember one of the things that he had written said: People look to me and they consider me to be this very humane guy, but at the end of the day, I’m essentially a slaver and a murderer. And he used those words, slaver and murderer – because he was essentially seeing these animals as commodities to be killed and cut up and sold. That was his insight and the struggle he had and he decided he could no longer do this. The reason I am very supportive of what this film does is it speaks to what our relationship with these animals should be and Bob ultimately becomes vegan and gets out of the pig business because he can’t keep doing this anymore. I think that’s a good model and I would love for other farmers to have that same insight and make similar decisions.
You were named to Oprah Winfrey’s SuperSoul 100 dream team. What does that entail?
GB: I attended a brunch out there with her. I felt very honored that I got to meet her and we had a chance to talk with a variety of other people that are trying to make the world a kinder place. It was a great honor and privilege to meet Oprah and to be included in that list.
In your book, Living the Farm Sanctuary Life: The Ultimate Guide to Eating Mindfully, Living Longer, and Feeling Better Every Day, you cover eating mindfully. Can you please speak about that?
GB: Most of us grow up eating how everyone else around us eats, without really thinking about it. That was the case with me, I grew up eating meat and didn’t really think about what that meant. As I learned about factory farming, the inefficiency of animal agriculture, I learned that it was possible to live well by eating plants instead of animals, I went vegan back in 1985 and eating mindfully is essentially just paying attention and recognizing the impact of our food choices, on ourselves, on others and on the earth. I think if most people do that and make choices that are mindful and aligned with their own values and interests, we would see a revolution in the food industry and I think that’s starting to happen. In the book I have five tenets, and one of them has to do with enjoying a mindful relationship with our food, which involves knowing where it came from, paying more attention to when we eat it, eating it more slowly, eating it with friends. Food historically has been about community, so that’s another aspect of eating mindfully.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
GB: The way we treat animals says a lot about who we are. Treating animals with compassion is not only good for the animals, it’s also good for us.
The Last Pig will screen at East Hampton UA2 (30 Main Street, East Hampton) on Sunday, October 8 at 2 p.m. (a panel will follow) and at Bay Street (1 Bay Street, Sag Harbor) on Monday, October 9 at 2 p.m.
The 25th annual Hamptons International Film Festival will be held Thursday, October 5 through Monday, October 9. Founders Passes and tickets are currently available for purchase.
For more information, visit hamptonsfilmfest.org.