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March 2004
Walking the Talk to a Compassionate World

By Gene Bauston


Gene and Lori Bauston
Photo courtesy of Farm Sanctuary

Those of us working to prevent animal cruelty and exploitation currently face an impossible reality. Ethically, we cannot accept the widespread torture being perpetrated every day, every second, by humans against nonhumans. Ethically, we must stop this cruelty right now, but sadly, despite our best efforts animal abuse continues. Thus, we are forced to tolerate cruelty that is intolerable.

Animal rights advocates face a painful dilemma that can tempt us to engage in desperate, sometimes violent, retaliation. But retaliation usually invites more retaliation, which perpetuates violence and misunderstanding. This approach has been rampant for thousands of years among human “civilizations,” and it has wrought intense suffering for humans and nonhumans alike. Those of us seeking to create a more compassionate society must distinguish our behavior from that which has caused, and continues to cause, so much pain.

If we treat others unkindly, especially if we threaten to harm others, we invite a response to our actions, instead of a response to the animal abuse we seek to end. If we victimize animal exploiters, their nonhuman victims go unnoticed. We need to develop means to liberate all animals, human and nonhuman, from animal exploitation. And this means rejecting the cycle of violence and evolving beyond it.

The animal rights movement is rooted in compassion, and I believe that most people, including those currently disconnected from animals, can embrace this core value. Even persons engaged in animal cruelty can ultimately adopt a humane, vegan lifestyle. Howard Lyman, a former cattle rancher turned vegan activist, is a perfect example of what can happen. Most of us, myself included, did not grow up vegan. We need to reach out in a compassionate, non-judgmental way, and we need to create opportunities for people to make humane choices. There are millions of individuals who are likely to become vegan if approached in the right way.

It has been said that the only constant is change. It is up to us to help shape and facilitate positive change with thoughtful and effective education and communication strategies. Our movement is also becoming more politically active, and we have started enacting groundbreaking animal protection laws. For the first time in U.S. history, a factory farming system was outlawed when millions of Floridians voted in November, 2002 to ban gestation crates (two-foot wide enclosures where breeding pigs are confined most of their lives). A growing number of citizens are learning about animal issues, and vegetarian food is becoming increasingly accessible, even at fast food restaurants.

Public opinion polls consistently show widespread opposition to industrialized farming and other institutionalized forms of animal cruelty. Yet, many of the conditions that people find repugnant continue out of public view, while consumers unwittingly subsidize and support them. When these atrocities are exposed and consumers made to understand that their buying habits are supporting this cruelty, many are moved to change, especially when they see that humane, vegan alternatives are easily available.

Undercover investigations and open liberations are excellent examples of nonviolent activism. In addition to modeling honesty and compassion, these approaches effectively draw attention to animal abuse. By fixing the public’s attention on cruelty, we can turn existing popular sentiments into laws, policies, and consumer choices that prevent suffering.

Animal abuse is a people problem, and it will continue until people question their assumptions and reevaluate their habits. Although most people make choices that contribute to unnecessary cruelty every day, it is the rare individual who wants to be cruel or unethical. Many act in harmful ways out of habit or because they believe they must. But when consumers recognize that certain behaviors, such as eating meat, are harmful and not necessary, I believe most can and ultimately will abandon bad habits.

None of us can change everything, but all of us can change some things. We cannot control others, but we can control ourselves. It is our charge to act with compassion, even in the face of cruelty and hostility, and to consistently provide opportunities for people to make humane choices.

We should be heartened and empowered by even the smallest advances, such as when a person stops eating veal or stops wearing fur. Small steps lead to larger improvements. But each step forward enhances our collective sensitivity and improves our understanding of others, which leads ultimately to human and animal liberation.

Gene Bauston is President and co-founder of Farm Sanctuary. To learn more, visit or call (607) 583-2225.


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