Three decades ago the horrific scenes at a Lancaster County stockyard inspired Gary Baur to found Farm Sanctuary, now the nation's oldest and largest farm animal welfare organization with sanctuaries dedicated to animals rescued from slaughter in New York and California.

Baur, the author of the national bestseller, "Farm Sanctuary: Changing Hearts and Minds About Animals and Food, brings his story and observations on current challenges facing the farm animal welfare movement  to suburban Philadelphia on Thursday when he speaks and signs books at Ursinus College in Collegeville.

In a Q&A we asked Baur to share with us the role Pennsylvania played in his group's founding and to offer his thoughts on several hot topics in the animal welfare movement today.
Pennsylvania holds a special place in the history of Farm Sanctuary, tell us why.
In our early days, Farm Sanctuary was housed in donated space in a row house in Wilmington, Del. and on a farm in Avondale, PA. We spent untold hours visiting farms, documenting abuses, and rescuing animals, mainly from locations in Pennsylvania, which is a major agricultural state. We’d care for rescued animals at our small sanctuary in Avondale, and were regulars at University of Pennsylvania’s New Bolton Center veterinary clinic in nearby Kennett Square. Our first agribusiness target was Lancaster Stockyards, in Lancaster, PA, where we campaigned to prevent the suffering of downed animals (animals too sick even to stand). And, while we were challenging the factory farming industry in rural Pennsylvania, we were also working to raise awareness and funding by selling vegan hot dogs out of our Volkswagen van. Much of our outreach and veggie dog sales occurred at Grateful Dead concerts in the parking lot of the Spectrum in Philadelphia, and we also stopped by South Street and the Philadelphia Zoo on occasion.
What message are you bringing to college students today about farm animal welfare?

I think it's important for college students, and U.S. citizens in general, to live more mindfully. We grow up and adopt the habits of those around us. We become accustomed to certain behaviors, like eating animals, without making a thoughtful, conscious decision to do so. College is a time for students to become more aware of various issues, and I hope they will think about the consequences of their food choices. How we eat is among the most important decisions we make every day with impacts on our own health, the environment and billions of farm animals who suffer terribly on factory farms. How we treat other animals say a lot about us, and the conditions under which animals are exploited today are abominable. We can live and be healthy by eating only plant foods, and I encourage citizens to consider this option.

One of the biggest issues for animal welfare advocates in Pennsylvania now is the introduction of so-called “ag-gag” bills in the General Assembly that would make it a crime for a worker to document using cameras that conditions inside agricultural operations. For readers not familiar with such legislation please explain why this is a harmful.

Animals suffer terribly as they are exploited for meat, milk and eggs. Most citizens are appalled to learn about the cruelties, such as painful mutilations, inhumane confinement, and brutal handling that cows, pigs, chickens, turkeys and other animals endure in the food industry. Rather than improving how the animals are treated so that industry practices are more aligned with societal values, agribusiness is pushing state legislation to make it more difficult to document inhumane factory farming conditions. It is very telling that agribusiness is actively working to enact legislation like Pennsylvania's ag gag law to hide it's unethical practices. Farm Sanctuary is part of a broad coalition that is opposing this legislation. We believe more transparency, not less, is what is needed in our food system today.

Please describe a few examples of what Farm Sanctuary’s undercover work has uncovered?

Over the years, Farm Sanctuary's undercover work has exposed numerous instances of intolerable cruelty, and thankfully, this has helped bring about needed reforms. Beginning in 1986, we documented the mistreatment of downed animals at farms, stockyards and slaughterhouses. These incapacitated animals were left to suffer for hours or days without receiving necessary food, water or veterinary attention, and if they survived, many were dragged onto truck with chains and taken to slaughter. It is now illegal for down cows to be slaughtered for human food, and we are working to have this ban applied to other animals as well. Farm Sanctuary investigators have also visited farms across the U.S. to expose the inhumane confinement of farm animals in veal crates (calves), gestation crates (pigs), and battery cages (chickens). Animals confined in these restrictive enclosures are packed so tightly that they cannot walk, turn around, or even stretch their limbs. Several states have started to prohibit these cruel systems, most notably California with passage of Proposition 2 in 2008, but we still have a long way to go.

There has been some progress on the front to improve conditions for animals in production such as some state and corporate bans on confinement practices such as gestation crates and battery cages. What are the immediate challenges and what do you see as the major challenges in the years ahead?

We have made progress at lessening the worst suffering of some farmed animals, but the majority still suffer terribly, and even where we've succeeded in passing laws to prevent cruelty, the animals still suffer. The good news is that consumers are learning about factory farming and oppose it. The bad news is that laws and policies to prevent cruelty are modest and only apply in limited circumstances. Agribusiness remains deeply entrenched and influential in Washington, DC and in state capitols, and it is very difficult to enact needed reforms. What's more, besides hindering the progress of animal welfare legislation, the factory farming industry is also pushing through policies (like ag gag bills) to limit transparency in food production so that consumers are kept in the dark. I think our immediate and long term challenges are similar and it boils down to consumers becoming more informed and ultimately making food choices that are aligned with their own values and interests. Rather than living in denial and saying "don't tell me, I don't want to know about how my food is produced", citizens need to take more responsibility and live more mindfully. As that happens, we will see a revolution in our food system and a shift away from eating animals.

Do you keep a tally of the number of animals saved by Farm Sanctuary since its founding and if so, what is that figure?

Yes, we have records for all the animals who have come to live at Farm Sanctuary. That number is approaching 10,000. We've also helped to find good homes for thousands of other animals who have not come to a Farm Sanctuary shelter through our placement network.

What can college students and others do individually to help improve the treatment of farm animals in this country?

The most important thing that college students and others can do to help improve the lives of farm animals is to not eat them, and to also avoid cows' milk and birds' eggs. The reason that farm animals suffer so badly is that they exploited for food and seen as commodities rather than as living, feeling creatures. At Farm Sanctuary, the animals are our friends, not our food, and we hope that people increasingly come to relate to other animals similarly. Kindness to animals is good for animals, and it's also good for us. In addition, it's important to become involved in the political process and to let your elected officials know about your feelings and concerns. For people interested in getting involved politically, as well as eating a plant based diet, you can get become part of Farm Sanctuary's Compassionate Communities Campaign efforts.

What: Animal Advocacy Coalition presents Farm Sanctuary founder and president Gene Baur
When: Thursday, April 4, 2012; 7:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m.
Where: Ursinus College, Musser Auditorium in Pfahler, 601 East Main Street, Collegeville. Event sponsored by the Animal Advocacy Coalition.