Cause for Celebration: Farm Sanctuary Turns 25

“It all begins and ends on our plates.” Indeed, the solution’s so simple it’s criminal. A promotional – and emotional – video clip communicated this significant message at Farm Sanctuary’s 25th Anniversary Gala Saturday night. The black tie affair, which took place at Cipriani Wall Street, celebrated this extraordinary animal protection nonprofit, a “…pioneer of social change, ecological sustainability and political solutions…” since 1986. The clip, among others, conveyed this sentiment and much more, but it was my one-on-one interviews with esteemed guests, most especially Farm Sanctuary president and co-founder Gene Baur, and the award recipient acceptance speeches that truly gave voice to the heart of the matter: farm animals’ peril.

“In the mid 1980s, there was very little attention being paid to factory farming and the importance of making sensible food choices,” Baur told me minutes after I arrived at the venue. It’s true, I wasted little time cornering and recording this remarkable – and handsome – activist. “Now there is more interest than ever before in eating well, eating locally, eating organically, eating sustainably and not supporting factory farming cruelty.” (Baur, by the way, appears in the must-see doc Forks Over Knives, which explores the benefits of a whole foods, plant-based diet.)

Baur went on to reveal some disheartening truths about our nation: “When we started, there were no laws protecting farm animals at the state level, and there are still not adequate laws at the federal level. In fact, farm animals are specifically excluded from the Federal Animal Welfare Act.” [Inject despair, dismay and outrage here.] While Farm Sanctuary has seen success in banning some of the worst cruelties, Baur reminded me, “We’ve got a long way to go.” He did, however, acknowledge the movement’s milestones, namely why we were downtown, dressed to the (vegan) nines and walking the red carpet. Said Baur, “It’s important to celebrate the good. There’s a lot of bad things in this world, but I don’t think it’s healthy to dwell on them. Farm Sanctuary has played an important role in bringing awareness to the mainstream and I feel great about that.” Baur’s being modest; he means pivotal.

What began with a Volkswagen van and a rescued sheep named Hilda a quarter century ago has flourished to become one of the most prominent players in animal welfare today. TIME Magazine describes Baur as “…the conscience of the food movement.” While everyone else is wrapped up in nose-to-tail pomposity and reality TV fodder, Baur’s been in the trenches, operating in reality reality. And what he and his team film (in stockyards and factory farms, etc.) doesn’t air on prime time television, except when their undercover footage makes headlines. It is this unwavering dedication to the cause that has brought about so much good amid the brutal and bleak.

The very same VW Baur operated out of over two decades ago was parked outside Cipriani, poised to participate in the Veggie Pride Parade on Sunday and then embark on a three-week cross-country tour. The Just Eats Tour, as it’s called, is now four days in. Its purpose? To seek out the game-changers at the heart of the vegan movement. Part of the passion fueling this endeavor must stem from Baur’s boundless optimism, even in the face of so much injustice. Most people mean well, he told the audience on Saturday; “I think most people are humane. Most people are compassionate. Most people don’t want to support abuse. But most people are unwittingly supporting abuse by buying meat, milk and eggs.” The tuxedoed man added, “There’s a lot of things in this world we can’t control, but we can control what we eat. It feels good to eat in a way that’s aligned with our values.” Here, here!

Baur and his org were joined at the event by a considerable crowd, including local advocates and personal friends Dan Mims, Joshua Katcher and Leanne Mai-ly Hilgart. Not to mention several celebrity supporters, among them Jesse Eisenberg, Eric Roberts, Wendie Malick, Corey Feldman, Fred Willard, Ally Sheedy, Carol Leifer, Simone Reyes, Jane Velez-Mitchell and Loretta Swit. Authors Kathy Freston and Rory Freedman were also on hand, as well as musical artist Nellie McKay. Expected notables Chevy Chase and Russell Simmons were MIA, but it hardly mattered; this event was bound to turn heads and touch hearts regardless who strutted their stuff on the step-and-repeat.

The Social Network star kept a low profile, but an insider later told me that, regardless Eisenberg’s swift arrival and departure by bicycle, “He and his sister have been supporters [of Farm Sanctuary] for a while.” During our interview, Willard told me, “We’re still mistreating animals. Something has to be done.” He added, “How intelligent a pig can be. How sensitive.” Malick said to me, “I’m big on us all becoming more aware of where what we eat comes from and at what cost.” She continued, “Slowly but surely the world is realizing we can’t sustain this. All of these sentient beings need our voices to protect them. Not just the dogs and horses and cats.” Roberts, a compassionate man from a family of animal lovers, shared with me some endearing anecdotes and made his stance known: “People think [farm animals] can’t feel. And that’s completely wrong.”

Freedman, who co-wrote , the infamous essential read for any wannabe vegan (and my personal inspiration for taking vegetarian to the next level), was warm and sweet, sharing with me her transformation from corporate cog to animal activist. Said Freedman, “I’ve been a fan of Farm Sanctuary for as long as I can remember. They are the reason I quit my job.” Freedman divulged to me how she said to her friends, “I don’t know what the hell I’m doing at my job. I’m quitting and becoming a full time animal rights activist.” She summed it up thus: “Because of Farm Sanctuary, Skinny Bitch exists.” Kudos on all counts. P.S. She also has three vegan dogs. Swoon. Girl crush.

Freedman later introduced Freston, who was being honored with the Healthy Living Advocate Award. Freston, whose book rose to the top of the New York Times bestseller list and afforded her opportunities to appear on countless talk shows, from Ellen to Oprah to Martha, approached the podium in tears. The towering blonde proved both humble and eloquent, deeply moved by not only the dire circumstances for farm animals, but also the collective hope and perseverance within the room. Freston’s message to all animals? “We’re coming.” The author, to whom I can relate in terms of her overwhelming sense of disgust with the industry, said, “The depth and breadth of what’s wrong is just mind-numbing.” She spoke of myriad reasons for eliminating animal products from one’s life and was sympathetic to others “…leaning into it.” In other words, “Progress, not perfection.” At its most elemental, she encouraged, “We can, meal by meal, bite by bite, shift our personal path while at the same time be the global movers and shakers this world so sorely needs.”

Other award recipients included the Melrose family, namely Kendra Melrose, an inspiring woman who, like so many others, was moved by Baur to reconsider her eating habits. A vegetarian since she was nine, Melrose confessed, “I always thought I loved animals and was a friend of animals. Until I learned about Farm Sanctuary and realized that, actually, if I really was a friend of animals, I’d be vegan.” Perhaps even more laudable, her ethical transition, which occurred while studying at Columbia Law, came accompanied by her father’s fortune, which has helped Farm Sanctuary immeasurably. For this I give thanks. As a little girl I sent checks, but it’s reassuring to know there are deep pockets behind this worthy group. Every little bit helps, but big bucks make progress possible.

Another award recipient was corporate lawyer and law professor David Wolfson, an extraordinary man who represents Farm Sanctuary on a pro bono basis and has been doing so since 1993. He was honored with the Humane Legal Progress Award. And rightly so. Said Wolfson, “I do what I do because it is clear to me that animals are astonishing, sentient beings and that animals used for food suffer horrendous lives due to human action. Or, perhaps more specifically, human inaction.” While by all appearances he looks unlike the “typical” vegan, Wolfson represents the potential for progress, to extend the moral movement well beyond what some might perceive as boundaries, be they professional, social, etc. He had a charm about him, bolstered by his praise for Baur but also attractive independently of that. Said he, “Farm animal suffering represents the overwhelming amount of animal suffering in this world. There is not one good reason for this suffering and there are countless valid reasons against it.” Perhaps most poignant, and most likely to be combated, however futile, Wolfson declared, “The reason for our success is very simple; we occupy the correct position. We are right.” I’ll toast to that.

David Lee, the genius behind Field Roast, was another award recipient. His honor? Corporate Leader in Compassion. And, Farm Sanctuary’s very own Susie Coston was honored as well, with the J.D. Farm Animal Ambassador Award, named after a special pig that passed. But I’m bypassing highlights of these acceptance speeches and skipping to dessert. Yes, dessert. Danielle Konya’s company, Vegan Treats, supplied the Willy Wonka-esque spread of decadent single-serving cakes on Saturday. Konya, from Pennsylvania, came accompanied by not only her team, but also a camera crew. You see, she’s being tailed for Animal Planet’s forthcoming series Sweet Avenger (working title), airing in July. Said Konya, “I would go out on a limb any day to help Gene.” Which seems to be the consensus, and exactly what she did by lending her talents to the finale portion of the evening. As for her perspective on veganism, Konya said to me, “Compassion starts with your fork. Easiest way to make a change in the world.”

The event included both silent and live auctions, as well as a three-course vegan meal, which I neglected to go into detail about before because the participants, to me, are more significant than the eats. Though, I assure you, everything was scrumptious. I’ll leave you with some particularly telling words from Baur, a modern-day real life hero. About Farm Sanctuary and the movement overall, he explained, “We’re challenging habits. We’re challenging assumptions. We’re challenging a belief system that says, ‘These animals are commodities for us to use.’ These animals have feelings; they deserve to be treated with respect. Treating them with respect is good for the animals, but it’s also good for us. Cruelty is cruelty, violence is violence and kindness is kindness.” We are not so different from our animal friends, the “food” on many people’s plates. It is imperative that we together transcend what some might term the species barrier and collectively fight the good fight, protect rather than exploit our voiceless but far from faceless fellow earthlings.

Thank you to the kind and gentle Gene Baur, Farm Sanctuary and every single soul living vegan. Congratulations on 25 years and looking forward to the next…

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