If there’s one man who has inspired a new generation of compassionate people to dedicate their lives to the overwhelming task of protecting farm animals, the most commodified and brutalized beings on the planet, it’s Gene Baur. Since cofounding Farm Sanctuary in Wilmington, Delaware nearly thirty years ago, hundreds of similar sanctuaries have cropped up around the world to give farm animals safe refuge from the very system of industrialized factories that bred them in the first place. With his Hollywood good looks, charming smile, and ever-patient demeanor, Baur navigates one of humanity’s most contentious ethical quandaries — our dominion over other animals — with grace, if not ease. Farm Sanctuary, which operates one farm in upstate New York and two more in California, is the largest of its kind. Yet Baur, the poster boy for farm animal protection who is known worldwide for his efforts to help chickens, pigs, and cows, is as modest as they come. He is the living, breathing definition of a compassionate man, and we were honored he agreed to speak to us from his home in Arlington, Virginia, for our first issue.
Laying the Groundwork
Baur grew up as the oldest of six kids in a conservative, Catholic home, and to this day credits at least some measure of his ethical underpinning to those roots. While the rigidity and judgement that can accompany that sort of upbringing strikes him as a little crazy, now, he feels it also laid the groundwork for his strong sense of morality. Certain biblical concepts took hold, like Thou shalt not kill, and Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. “But I grew up just sort of wanting to do good, essentially, and I didn’t want to contribute to the harm that humans were creating on the planet.”
Some of his earliest memories involve spending time in nature around his home in the Hollywood Hills. He felt somewhat isolated in his love for trees, even as a young boy, and recalls how sad he was to see them cut down to make room for more homes. He remembers seeing animals suffer, though, and that troubled him more than anything else as a boy, setting the stage for what would become his passion to protect them only about a decade later. One such memory made an indelible mark, when a deer had to be killed after becoming stuck in a chain-link fence near his home. The experience shook him to his core.
But despite his love for animals, he never gave too much thought to eating them, and even appeared in commercials for McDonald’s and Kentucky Fried Chicken as a teenager.
“Being a Man” Meant Being a Tough Guy
Many children have an unfettered ability to empathize with animals, but that quality is often discouraged in boys. By the time he reached high school, Baur remembers thinking that real masculinity had little to do with caring about injured animals or finding solace among trees; rather, being a man had more to do with joining the military and playing football. “It was about being a tough guy, you know. Sort of going to war and trying to win. That was masculinity, the macho thing, and I wanted to grow up to be a football player.”
Once he reached tenth grade at Loyola High School in the Pico-Union neighborhood just west of downtown Los Angeles, however, those ideas started to wane. “It was a different sort of educational institution, and I was exposed to other perspectives. I stopped playing football and started playing ultimate frisbee. I was starting to think more and trying to live in a way that was more aligned with what felt right.” Around the same time, Baur started venturing up the hills above the Greek Theater in Hollywood and discovered musicians like Peter, Paul and Mary, Pete Seeger, and Joan Baez, “…and they were singing things that meant something to me, you know? So that was a sort of affirming place to be, in nature with that kind of music and that sort of activist thinking.”
Turning Passion Into Purpose
Several years later, on the cusp of earning his degree in sociology from California State University, Northridge, that activist thinking led Baur to consider the relationship between humans and animals, particularly in regards to animal agriculture. He saw that system as not only inefficient and wasteful, but cruel. After reading Diet for a Small Planet, Baur also realized that eating animals wasn’t necessary for his health, and went vegan.
He joined forces with his passionate activist friend, Lorri Houston, to start Farm Sanctuary in a Delaware row house in 1985. Though small and urban, the house served as a place where they could rehabilitate animals they rescued while documenting conditions in nearby stockyards and slaughterhouses. “Her fire, her passion was inspiring, and it helped kind of awaken the passion in me to do something positive.”
They found safe, loving homes for the rehabilitated animals, allowing them to rescue even more, and that little operation eventually blossomed into a full-blown farm in upstate New York and, later, two more in California. Those sanctuaries give people an opportunity to interact with farm animals as fellow beings with personalities and a zest for living rather than simple economic units of production. The chickens, pigs, and cows act as ambassadors to the farm animal kingdom, and visitors can’t help but walk away with a deeper appreciation for them, if not a brand new, kinder approach to eating.
“To me,” Baur says, “Being vegan is really an aspiration to live as kindly as possible, and a lot of this is really about an aspiration to do as well as possible while knowing we’ll never be perfect.” That ethic of kindness is reflected in what he calls the Five Tenets of Farm Sanctuary Living:
- Live and Eat in Alignment with Your Values
- Engage in a Mindful Connection with Animals
- Engage in a Mindful Connection with Your Food
- Eat Plants for Your Health
- Eat Plants for the Health of the Earth
Becoming a Better Man
Life is filled with challenges. It’s just the nature of the beast. But as we navigate our own journey, the hope is that we can use our experiences, both good and not so good, as opportunities to grow, and to continually forge our better selves through trial and error. Baur doesn’t see himself as a finished product, but as a guy who is still working to become a better man. “You know, at times I can be impatient, like when I’m getting on an airplane…things as simple as that. It’s my job to recognize when my thoughts are not as clean or respectful as they could be and try to work on that.”
Doing the inner work necessary to discover your true self – your interests and passion and purpose – is vital to getting the most out of life and becoming a more complete man. Indeed, Baur’s unwavering dedication to helping farm animals has been central to his evolution. But, as he notes, it can require internal fortitude and a willingness to confront our fears head on. “Being true to one’s self is key, but then having the courage to do that, especially when it doesn’t fit the mold is also important.” As he let go of certain notions of masculinity and began to formulate his own ideas about life, he felt a bit out of step with the rest of society. “I think it’s easy to just sort of go along with the status quo, but then ultimately doing that we often don’t deal with our doubts or fears, and we haven’t been ourselves, or our best selves, you know?”
Today he realizes that living in alignment with your own values can have a ripple effect. “You can’t control others. You can only control yourself. Sometimes I think people get distracted by worrying about what other people are doing, but taking full responsibility for one’s own actions and behaving in a way that is healthy and fulfilling to one’s self tends to validate and enable others around you to do the same thing.”
The Little Things Add Up
There is no doubt that taking our lives to the next level and becoming better men, perhaps shedding unproductive or unhealthy habits, typically requires a dedication to doing our deep inner work. Finding and committing to our passions can involve years, even decades worth of exploration. Some people never identify that burning passion. But when asked what specific steps we can take to become better men, Baur suggested we start with a few little things to make the process less overwhelming. “One of the things I have been paying more attention to in recent years is just to eat better and take care of myself. Hydrate. Simple things like that make a difference. If you eat junk, it affects you physically and it affects your brain. Eat more whole foods and greens, and make sure you get enough sleep and drink enough water. You know, those basic things help us become better people. Life is very complex in some ways, but also very simple, and the little things add up.”
In a world that glamorizes the macho, domineering man, Gene Baur is a refreshing example of a strong man who is working to protect the most vulnerable beings on the planet. His passion and courage to spread kindness in an often brutal world should serve as inspiration for guys of all stripes to take concrete steps toward becoming better men.
You can learn more about Gene Baur and his Five Tenets of Farm Sanctuary Living in his recently published book, Living the Farm Sanctuary Life, available online at Amazon.com.
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