Rescuing the Most Abused and Forgotten Animals

A talk by Gene Baur, President and Co-Founder of Farm Sanctuary,
on March 30, 2009 at the Buddha Hall of CTTB

From the November 2009 Vajra Bodhi Sea issue


It’s wonderful to be here. In 1986 when the Farm Sanctuary was established, I didn’t know much about what was happening to animals raised for food; so I began to visit farms to see firsthand what was happening. In some cases, animals were tossed in trash cans while still alive, or they were left to die on piles of dead animals. So we began to rescue them by taking them home and caring for them. Now we have two farms—in New York and in Orland, California—for animals to live out their lives and as sanctuaries for people who care about animals. On our farms, animals are our friends, not our food. We are trying to reshape how cows, pigs, and other farm animals are perceived in our society, that they’re not just commodities to be exploited for their flesh.

When the animals first arrive at the Farm Sanctuary, they are frightened because all they have known is cruelty. Their cages were often so small that they couldn’t even turn around. For example, if they were chickens used in egg production, they couldn’t even stretch their wings and they were constantly rubbing against the cage bars which caused them to develop open sores. Initially the animals are afraid of people. But over time, when they are treated with kindness, they learn to trust again and become friendly. As the animals’ lives change and are transformed, our lives are changed and transformed as well. It’s a beautiful thing to see fear turn into something different—into empathy, compassion, understanding, and peace. So that’s what the Farm Sanctuary strives to create.

We specifically focus on farm animals because they are among the most neglected, abused, and forgotten animals in the world, treated with absolute disregard. Cruelty for animals is bad for animals, but it’s also bad for us. When you visit most farms, you see not only sick and unhealthy animals, but also unhappy people as well. It’s a whole system we are trying to change.

The fundamental problem is that these animals are not seen as living and feeling creatures. Rather, they are seen as merely units of production, as commodities, or as pieces of meat. When I visited the stockyards in farms, I could see that the animals were afraid by looking at their expressions, but I noticed how the workers would not look at the animals. They didn’t see the expressions of fear or pain in the animals’ eyes because they didn’t look into the animals’ eyes at all. The slaughterhouse workers were living in denial that these animals are living creatures with feelings. Instead, the workers looked at the body parts, such as the muscles that were to be cut up and turned into meat.

There is a disregard for the sentience of the animals; there is the “commodification” of sentient life where living creatures are seen as merely commodities. This sort of careless attitude toward animals spreads: disrespecting animals closes down our hearts and affects our environment. The carelessness also spreads to disrespecting other people. Today we have a system where animals are abused, the environment is destroyed, workers are mistreated, and consumers are sold diseased meat. It’s legal for diseased animals to enter the food supply in the United States— although we unsuccessfully tried to take the U.S. Department of Agriculture to court to prevent it. So the disrespect for animals translates into disrespect for consumers who are buying these diseased products and in some cases getting sick.

Annually, the largest numbers of farm animals slaughtered in the United States are chickens raised for their flesh. Two distinct breeds of chickens are raised in the U.S.: meat chickens and egg-laying chickens. The meat chickens have been genetically bred to grow twice as large and twice as fast as normal chickens. The egg-laying chickens have been genetically bred to produce lots of eggs, but they don’t grow large and don’t grow fast. In the hatchery where the egg-laying hens are hatched, there are both male and female chicks. The female chicks are selected and then raised to become egg-laying hens. For about a year, each hen will live in small battery cages with less space than a sheet of notebook paper. If her egg production drops off after a year, then she is killed. But at the hatchery, the male chicks will never lay eggs and can’t be raised profitably for meat because they don’t grow fast or large. The male chicks are killed on the day they hatch. I’ve seen trash cans full of thousands of these unwanted day-old male chicks. I’ve even seen the chicks thrown into a manure spreader to be spread on the field like manure.

The meat-type chickens grow so fast that their hearts and lungs have a hard time supporting their growth rate. Annually, millions of them die of heart attack just a couple of weeks old. The industry is still profitable because more than 9 billion chickens are raised for their flesh annually; so it’s still profitable to lose millions—or even hundreds of millions—if you have billions that are growing twice as fast as normal.

In the U.S., approximately 10 billion farm animals are raised and slaughtered annually, of which some 9.5 billion are chickens. But other animals are also mistreated, including pigs. Most pigs live indoor, standing on concrete floors, unable to go outside to root in the soil and to do what pigs would normally do. Animals are not allowed to engage in basic natural behaviors: if they are grass-eating animals, they are not allowed to eat grass outdoors. If they are chickens or other birds, they are not allowed to scratch the soil or root in the soil, or to perch naturally. Pigs are not allowed to develop normal relationship with fellow pigs. In nature, when pigs give birth, they would build the nest and mother pigs would raise their young cooperatively in groups.

But in factory farms, the breeding pigs are kept in two-foot-wide crates for most of their lives. Before giving birth, they are put in another crate with little extra space on the side for the piglets. The mother and the piglets never interact in natural ways. The piglets are taken away at three weeks old, and the mother is re-impregnated and returns to another two-foot-wide crate. She lives her entire life between the gestation crate for pregnancy of her gestation period and farrowing crate where she gives birth—this goes on for a few years. Sadly, the farm animals are not allowed to engage in basic natural behaviors and are treated like commodities.

Dairy cows also suffer greatly to produce milk. For a cow to produce milk, she has to be impregnated and give birth to a calf. If the calf is female, then she will be kept and raised to become a milking calf. But if the calf is male, he is useless to the dairy industry. The male calf is taken away from the dairy farm immediately at birth and raised for veal. Veal is a product developed to take advantage of a plentiful supply of unwanted male calves born on dairy farms. Calves are chained by the neck at small wooden crates where they will spend their whole lives until slaughter at 20 weeks of age.

The female calves are also taken away from mothers at birth and raised in small crates for the first couple months. Then they are put in larger pens as they get bigger. They are usually impregnated at 15 months old, which is very young. They start giving birth at two years old. Then they enter the milk-production cycle. Dairy cows are impregnated annually to remain profitable. Each year they have a calf taken away and they are pushed to produce as much as 10 times more milk than they would in nature. The cows are under extreme stress just to produce that much milk, and the stress is worsened by being pregnant during much of the lactation cycle. The animals are pushed hard and their bodies become worn out soon; they are sent to slaughter after only three to four years in milk production.

In a healthy environment, a calf can live for 20 years. The cows become so worn out that sometimes they can’t even walk and are called “downed animals.” They are dragged down the truck with chains or pushed with forklifts to be taken to slaughter. When dairy cows are considered no longer productive, they are sent to slaughter. A lot of beef comes from worn-out dairy cows. So the dairy cows are worse than other farm animals: they are exploited for several years for milk production and then ultimately become meat.

What I have said may be upsetting. But it’s important to know what happens to animals so that we can make informed choices. Many people become vegetarians because they abhor the violence of killing animals. But there’s also violence in the dairy industry. Now it’s easier to find alternatives to cow’s milk such as soy milk, rice milk, nut milk, etc. We can make choices that will make a world of difference for animals and for our planet. We can choose not to eat meat and not to drink cow’s milk or to exploit the animals.

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