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Changing Hearts and Minds About Animal Food

by Gene Baur

Most of us don’t give much thought to the significance and impacts of our food choices. But what we ingest has profound consequences. Food is literally incorporated into our bodies, bringing about either positive or negative affects on our health. The growing obesity epidemic is just one among many consequences of unhealthy consumption and lifestyle patterns.

Industrialized animal production pollutes the environment and destroys rural communities, but their impacts extend far beyond the rural landscape. In 2006, the United Nations reported that the livestock industry is a major contributor to global warming, spewing more greenhouse gasses than every plane, train or automobile combined. Concern about global warming is leading many to alter the way we travel, but we can have an even greater impact on climate change by shifting toward eating plants instead of animals.

Besides threatening human health and the environment, our institutional exploitation and abuse of other animals causes enormous suffering. Perpetrating violence and abuse on animals often leads to denial and rationalizations as we seek to justify our behavior and resolve the discomfort and cognitive dissonance that occurs when our actions are inconsistent with our values. It is the rare societal miscreant who actually wants to act in a cruel or irresponsible manner. Still, as a society, we have unwittingly come to support institutional factory farming cruelty by purchasing meat, milk and eggs en masse.

In the U.S., we raise and slaughter ten billion farm animals each year, and most of us rarely think about these animals and their abuse. When confronted with the reality, people come up with various justifications, saying that other animals have always been eaten by us, or they are here for that purpose, and that eating them is necessary. In fact, eating animals is not necessary, and throughout history there are examples of people who have been vegetarian. We can live and be healthy without eating animals.

Treating animals as exploitable commodities and systemically abusing them engenders callousness and insensitivity, which can have wide ranging affects. Once we rationalize and defend cruelty in one instance, it is easily extended to other instances, and just as diseases, like mad cow disease, can spread from animals to people, so can abuse. Violence and cruelty toward others indicates a failure to empathize, a condition that is sociopathic in its advanced stages. Abusers rationalize their behaviors and demean their victims, and there is no place where these pathologies exist more than on today’s factory farms.

Beginning in 1986, Farm Sanctuary has provided refuge for animals rescued from cruelty and worked to raise awareness and promote compassion. We have found living animals literally discarded as trash, sometimes in garbage cans or on piles of dead animals. We rescued them and gave them a decent life.

Opie, for example, was a day old calf who was too sick to stand, so he was left for dead in a stockyard alleyway. It was a cold day in upstate New York, and Opie was suffering from severe hypothermia. His temperature would not read on the thermometer and was estimated to be 10 degrees below normal. Thankfully, after he came to Farm Sanctuary, Opie made a full recovery and grew to weigh 3,000 pounds!

Opie and other animals who live at Farm Sanctuary serve as ambassadors for other less fortunate members of their species. Visitors have a chance to get to know cows, pigs, chickens and other “food” animals as individuals who are not that different than cats, dogs and other companion animals who many of us share our homes with.

We encourage people to recognize that farm animals, like all animals, feel pain, and want to avoid suffering and enjoy life. Unfortunately, most animals raised for food in the U.S. only know pain and misery, until they are killed prematurely at the slaughterhouse.

Farm animals in the U.S. are victims of genetic manipulation; overcrowded, filthy living conditions; brutal handling and cruel slaughter. Some are packed so tightly in cages and crates that they can’t walk or even turn around, and they experience both physical and psychological disorders as a result. Such inhumane conditions are repugnant to most consumers, and they have only been able to spread and flourish because the have been hidden from public view.

In recent years, however, citizens have started asking questions and paying more attention to the source of their food, and they have started speaking out against factory farming cruelties. Some of the most extreme forms of animal confinement, such as “gestation crates” (two foot wide enclosures where female breeding pigs are kept for years, unable to walk, turn around, or even lie down comfortably) have been banned and are being phased out in a few states. With more open discussions about farming practices, even industry representatives have acknowledged that “bad has become normal” on today’s factory farms.

How we treat other animals says a lot about us. Kindness and empathy toward animals is an indication of a humane culture. It can become contagious and spread, just like cruelty and callousness. Mahatma Gandhi said you can judge the moral progress of a nation by its treatment of animals. If that is the case, our nation has some real soul searching to do. Thankfully, we’re beginning to pay attention and to adjust our behavior so that it is more consistent with compassionate values.

By Gene Baur, president and co-founder of Farm Sanctuary, the nation’s leading farm animal protection organization. Gene has been instrumental on the front lines of efforts to confront factory farming for more than twenty years. His book, ‘Farm Sanctuary: Changing Hearts and Minds about Animals and Food’ was published by Simon and Shuster in March, 2008, and has become a national bestseller. A starred Booklist review calling it “A life-altering read.” For more information see www.farmsanctuary.org or www.genebaur.org.

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