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September 2006
It’s Not a Black and White Issue: Promoting a Humane World for Farmed Animals

The Satya Interview with Gene Bauston


Gene Bauston and friends. Photo by Derek Goodwin

In 1986, after finding Hilda, a sheep left on a dead pile behind a Pennsylvania stockyard, who surprised her would-be rescuers by being alive, Gene Bauston co-founded Farm Sanctuary. Hilda has since been followed by thousands of other sheep—and cows, goats, pigs, rabbits, chickens, ducks and turkeys. And they live in Farm Sanctuary’s two locations in upstate New York and northern California.

Aside from rescue and education, Gene, now president of the organization, plays an important role in bettering the welfare of farm animals. To date, he has helped in some of the first prosecutions for farm animal cruelty, and worked in passing landmark legislation on behalf of farm animals. In 2002, Farm Sanctuary was a leader in enacting an initiative in the state of Florida, banning the use of gestation crates. This was the first time in U.S. history a cruel factory farming practice was outlawed. Gene also gave vital direction in promoting SB 1520 in California, which was signed into law on the 29th of September, 2004. This bill banned the force-feeding of ducks and geese in the production of foie gras andthe sale of foie gras—made from force-fed birds—within the state. Gene has led activists in promoting humane standards for farmed animals in other states, including New Jersey, New York and Massachusetts. He currently sits on the advisory board of Whole Foods’ Animal Compassion Foundation, the first grocery chain to attempt to go above and beyond farm animal welfare standards.

Catherine Clyne had a chance to talk with Gene Bauston about the ongoing debate between animal welfare and animal rights, the dynamics of working with Whole Foods Market, and the semantics behind ‘compassionate’ meat.

As founder of a sanctuary for farmed animals, the most abused of all creatures on the planet, what do you think should be the top priorities for animal activists right now?

I think promoting a vegan lifestyle is number one because consumer habits are what ultimately drive farming and other businesses. So if we can promote a plant-based lifestyle, we will, at the end of the day, prevent enormous amounts of animal suffering. That said, our collective movement is miniscule compared to the industries we’re up against. Even if we combined all of our resources into one single advertising campaign, we would be dwarfed by the agriculture industries. For instance, one dairy industry advertising campaign would cost over $100 million—that’s the annual budget of some of our largest animal protection organizations.

We have had a growth in industrial farming in the past few decades like never before. But there is also a growing resistance to industrial farming, moving us towards more extensive, less industrial animal production. When you have a food retailer who is willing to take one step away from industrial farming, it’s a positive thing. For example, Whole Foods is doing an awful lot to raise awareness about animals on farms and getting people to think about these creatures as living, feeling animals, instead of inanimate commodities in a shrink-wrapped package.

At the end of the day, animals are still slaughtered. But I believe this move toward less industrial production will increase public awareness about animals. It will also, along the way, create vegetarians and vegans. When we have worked on campaigns, such as banning gestation crates in Florida and veal crates in Arizona, a number of people who hear about it decide to immediately go vegetarian.

Anecdotally, I’ve heard from some activists that when they are raising awareness about factory farming, rather than people moving toward rejecting suffering outright by talking about vegetarianism as an option, they say ‘What about humane meat?’ or ‘I’ll just buy my meat at Whole Foods.’ How do you respond to this?
People have raised the idea that if animals are treated more humanely, more people will feel comfortable eating them. I don’t necessarily agree. In most instances, people tend to go from being typical meat, dairy and egg eaters, to giving up industrially produced animal products, specifically going towards free-range. And from there, they go towards vegetarianism and veganism. Right now, the mainstream public is still learning about factory farms and how to express their concerns and discomfort.

You know, it’s not a black and white world and sometimes our movement tends to create dichotomies. Over the years, the notion of rights vs. welfare has been a harmful, internal schism. When people ask Farm Sanctuary if we’re for animal rights or animal welfare, we refuse to jump in one of the boxes. We work to prevent cruelty and promote vegan living.

Correlating to that, what are your thoughts about the proliferation of standards and labels popping up for humane farming conditions?
A lot of these labels are more of a marketing scheme than a legitimate reform in terms of the way the animals are being raised—quality assurance programs represented as humane standards are a sham. I’ve been in front of many legislative committees where industry representatives will say farmers are operating under welfare quality standards, but it’s a joke. They’re pathetic.

In other cases, there are legitimate attempts on the part of food industries, like Whole Foods, to create improved lives for animals that are being exploited. I’ve been going to meetings at Whole Foods with a number of animal advocates and our primary role is to speak on behalf of the animals—what animals want and need; while industry representatives think animals don’t need these things, they don’t feel things. At the end of the day, Whole Foods is going to make a decision about what is appropriate and what meets their compassionate standards. It is an interesting process of different cultures trying to understand each other, trying to make their case.

You were recently quoted in an article about free-range, ‘humanely raised’ pink-fleshed veal (Colorado Springs Gazette). Would you care to comment on the subject?
We encourage restaurants to sign a pledge not to serve veal. If they’re not willing, we also have a pledge asking them to stop serving crated anemic veal. When speaking with reporters we phrase that as “we’re working to prevent cruelty to cows, and a number of restaurants have signed on to not serve veal from calves who are raised in these ways.” Sometimes reporters rephrase it and say we’re for humane veal, which we’re not.

Some people would argue that one of the most powerful things we have as animal activists is the moral high ground and, for lack of a better word, semantics. What do you think of the cooptation of the word compassion and it ending up on the dead body parts of animals, including baby cows?
The term compassion is something I do not see as fitting with the notion or reality of slaughter. I think semantics are important. Words are symbols that guide our thinking and behavior. Different entities will use different words in different ways, and we as an animal organization have a real issue with how the word humane is used as well.

That’s true, but humane was coopted and slapped onto slaughter years ago. But under our watch, the word compassion is now going to be placed on dead animals sold at Whole Foods.
I think this is a developing situation. It does make me uneasy. The term compassion is used to refer to animals who are being exploited and slaughtered. But there is also, again, the broader context of how these animals are absolutely commodified, and Whole Foods is taking a step away from that—inserting a level of understanding, recognizing that animals are sentient creatures and deserve to be treated with a degree of respect. Now, it is not the ideal outcome and there is an inconsistency there—compassion and slaughter do not go together.

Compassion: It’s almost meaningless when you have John Mackey saying there are animal rights and animal protection groups on the Animal Compassion standards committee. When used to sell body parts, don’t words like compassion begin to lose their meaning? It’s like: Animal Compassion = slaughter. It’s quicksand.
These meetings Whole Foods is convening bring together a diverse bunch of individuals representing various interests and Whole Foods is ultimately the one that is making decisions. So the question is: are we being used to sell something? I don’t know. I think we’re there to speak on behalf of animals and to raise awareness about what animals want, who they are. You know, John Mackey is a vegan and I believe when people in that room, people in the world, hear about animals as sentient beings, they will also become vegans.

When Farm Sanctuary was started in 1986, six billion farm animals were being raised and slaughtered, today it’s nearing 10 billion. We have this horrendous trend we need to reverse. The animal movement has to work with and operate within a broader context in order to have an impact. Whole Foods is a major player who can help reverse this trend. At the end of the day we can make a decision to participate or not. We believe this process does have the potential of reshaping how animals are regarded, beyond just Whole Foods.

But while we work toward reform, don’t we run the risk of the general public believing that the animal groups involved with Whole Foods support eating meat?
Well, each organization has to speak for itself. And people will often be misquoted and mischaracterized [laughter]. You know, there are certain mantras: you can only control yourself, you can’t control others. But we have to be realistic and recognize that there are other players. In the case of Whole Foods, I believe there is an actual desire to change how animals are being raised. In the case of these quality assurance programs that agribusinesses have put together, those are an attempt to mask the cruelty and call it humane. Within the industry, you have different entities operating to different values and different visions of the future. You know, with industrial farming, we just outright oppose it. With Whole Foods, we are opposed to slaughter but we support a movement away from the commodification of animals. So it’s a little bit more complex.

The WorldWatch Institute recently observed in their report, Vital Signs, that global meat production and consumption is rising steadily—still. And this is solely due to an increase in factory farming, specifically in developing countries. What are your thoughts on this?
It’s a huge problem. I’m concerned about what’s happening around the world, but I also believe what happens in the U.S. often spreads and is promoted around the world. So what we’re seeing globally is partly a result of the industrial farming model we have developed in the U.S. I think if we can reverse the current trend toward more industrialization, more consolidation, more concentration toward more extensive, decentralized, deindustrialized farming, that trend is more sustainable and will lead to awareness and people making choices that are much more humane.

Global development and the promotion of industrial farming and meat consumption around the world is a very disturbing trend. It is one, though, that I don’t think is inevitable. We can create a different model. Perhaps in the U.S. we can have a post-industrial model—going back to smaller farms, back to more local production, more community-based agriculture. With that, when people get in touch with the source, and if it is animals and they look in the animals’ eyes, I think they’re going to be affected and hopefully choose not to eat animals.

Well the crazy thing is, most developing countries already are that model—with smaller farms and community-based agriculture—and they are eating less meat. What’s happening is the American diet coupled with multinational corporations are coming in and destroying small farms by setting up concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) and encouraging people to eat McDonald’s.
What do you do with that? You have to empower people in other countries—they have to be at the core of the resistance. I think in the U.S. we need to uproot the industrial model in place because from here it can spread. So we need to stop the spread of it here.

There are still rural parts of the U.S. where CAFOs are trying to move in. Thankfully, there is a growing resistance—rural communities are fighting the influx of industrial farming. But we need to go beyond that and start dismantling some of these industrial operations in creating another model. Ideally, it would be a vegan model, but that’s in its infancy.

With animal activists, do you think there should be more of an effort to support small farmers? A lot of effort is going into changing industry, making factory farming more humane, yet it doesn’t seem like there’s a lot of support for small farmers who are doing some things right—even if they are raising animals.
I am a strong proponent of supporting farmers that farm in a humane way. Now, we will never support a farm that raises animals. So that means that we are in a sense limited to only supporting veganic farms. I’m very interested in doing that. I am also a strong proponent of community gardens, CSAs, farmers markets—anything that connects consumers more closely to the source of and the individuals who produce their food. I believe that process breaks down barriers, increases understanding and sensitivity, and results in more humane behavior. I think that is something we could do more.

Fast-forward—five years, ten years from now. What are your hopes, realistically, for farmed animals in this country?
[Sighs.] I hope our movement is not marginalized, the way it has been, that our point of view is taken seriously by the mainstream and there is a recognition that eating animals is not necessary. I hope industrial farms are universally opposed and condemned. I’m not being particularly realistic here, I guess, but I’m a dreamer, so I’m dreaming.

Realistically, I think some animals may be given more space, more natural environments, and suffer less than those on industrial farms. I think within five years, we may see a decrease in the number of animals on industrial farms, an increase in extensive farms and a growing awareness about vegan living. In terms of more extensive, less cruel operations, I think it’s a positive trend but ideally, I’d rather they all become sanctuaries. I think awareness will continue to grow, I think vegan food will continue to be more available.

To learn more about the work of Farm Sanctuary or arrange a visit, see

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