WATKINS GLEN, N.Y.—There are mornings when Susie Coston, walking up to the gate of this bucolic farm in her rubber boots, finds crates of pigs, sheep, chickens, goats, geese or turkeys on the dirt road. Sometimes there are notes with the crates letting her know that the animals are sick or injured. The animals, often barely able to stand when taken from the crates, have been rescued from huge industrial or factory farms by activists.

The crates are delivered anonymously under the cover of darkness. This is because those who liberate animals from factory farms are considered terrorists under U.S. law. If caught, they can get a 10-year prison term and a $250,000 fine under the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act. That is the punishment faced by two activists who were arrested in Oakland, Calif., last month and charged with freeing more than 5,700 minks in 2013, destroying breeding records and vandalizing other property of the fur industry.

Only in the insanity of corporate America can nonviolent animal rights activists be charged as terrorists while a white supremacist who gunned down African-Americans in a South Carolina church is charged on criminal counts. Only in the insanity of America can Wall Street financers implode the global economy through massive acts of fraud, causing widespread suffering, and be rewarded with trillions of dollars in government bailouts. Only in the insanity of America can government leaders wage wars that are defined as criminal acts of aggression under international law and then remain, unchallenged, in positions of power and influence. All this makes no sense in an open society. But it makes perfect sense in our species of corporate totalitarianism, in which life, especially the life of the vulnerable, is expendable and corporate profit alone is protected and sanctified as the highest good.

The animal agriculture industry causes suffering, death and environmental degradation—to humans as well as animals—on a scale equaled only by the arms industry and the fossil fuel industry. And by eating meat and dairy products we aid and abet a system that is perhaps the primary cause of global warming and is pumping toxins and poisons into our bodies and the rest of the ecosystem.

Animal agriculture sends more greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere than worldwide transportation. The waste and flatulence from livestock are responsible for creating at least 32,000 million tons of carbon dioxide per year, or 51 percent of all worldwide greenhouse gas emissions. Livestock causes 65 percent of all emissions of anthropogenic nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas 296 times more destructive than carbon dioxide. Crops raised to feed livestock consume 56 percent of the water used in the United States. Seventy percent of the crops we grow in the U.S. are fed to animals. Eighty percent of the world’s soy crop is fed to animals. It is a flagrant waste of precious and diminishing resources. It takes 1,000 gallons of water to produce one gallon of milk.

Farm Sanctuary in Watkins Glen—which the government briefly listed as an “extremist” animal rights group in the early 1990s—is probably the world’s most lavish retirement home for farm animals. Gene Baur and Lorri Houston founded it. They raised money to create Farm Sanctuary, and to pass out literature about the abuse of animals at the hands of factory farm operators, by selling vegan hot dogs from a Volkswagen van at Grateful Dead concerts. In all, they drove their van to the parking lots outside nearly 100 concerts across the country. The first animal they rescued was a sheep, later named Hilda, found lying in a pile of dead animals behind a stockyard.

“Farm Sanctuary begins with the idea that there’s this horrible system and most people are unwittingly supporting it by buying animal-based foods,” Baur said when I reached him by phone at his home in Arlington, Va.

“We can only rescue a small handful compared to the billions who deserve to be rescued,” he said. “So we try to model and encourage a new kind of relationship with animals. Rescuing individuals also helped us cope with the horrors of factory farming. Going into these places we would see atrocious abuse. We would witness thousands of animals confined in horrible conditions, held in crates where they couldn’t even turn around. This takes a toll on you emotionally. Being able to rescue a few individuals out of that system helped heal us. Farm Sanctuary is a place of hope. It is a place of transformation. Animals who had been terribly mistreated, and seen only as production units, as commodities, have their lives transformed. They become our friends, instead of our food. You can’t rescue them all, but you do what you can. Farm animal rescue is an immediate concrete response to an untenable chronic problem.”

Farm Sanctuary, which operates through donations, has a budget of $10 million a year and runs two farms in California besides the one in New York state.

There are 1,000 animals at the organization’s three farms—cows, sheep, goats, turkeys, pigs, geese, donkeys, chickens and ducks. The animals, which receive state-of-the-art medical care and are fed vegan food, roam the pastures unmolested. Cows are not impregnated in order to keep them producing milk. Eggs are not taken from chickens for human use. And all the creatures live out their natural lives liberated from the animal holocaust that defines the animal agriculture industry.

“It is very easy to love dogs and cats,” Coston, the sanctuary’s shelter director, said as we stood amid a flock of turkeys one rainy morning. “They are everywhere. They are in our world. But it is not easy to love turkeys because very few people get to meet turkeys. But look, they just followed us in,” she said as we stepped into a barn. “They love being around people. They love attention. They are no different from pets. They also like to be petted.”“Every animal [at the farm] has a different personality, every animal has a name, all have health records,” she went on as we walked to a barn that held rescued pigs. “We are saying they are as important as any other individual.”

The relationships between the animals, including two blind cows that are inseparable, and between the animals and the men and women who work at the sanctuary were evident, and often moving. Pigs, chickens, turkeys and cows often responded to those working in the barns the way pets respond to their human companions. The animals gathered around barn workers to be scratched or stroked. Coston often suspended our conversation to address a pig or a cow by name and explain the intricacies of their histories and personalities—some shy, some gregarious, some rebellious, some jealous of others in the herd or flock, some moody and some attached to a particular worker at the farm.

Coston said the farm keeps the numbers small to maintain the relationships. “I won’t overcrowd,” she said. “I could go out now and save 5,000 spent layers [chickens]. But I would not see them, and many of them would die. They would no longer be individuals.”

Farm Sanctuary has been behind ballot initiatives to end the worst abuses in factory farming and has rescued pigs trapped by flooding in Iowa and more than 700 chickens at a Mississippi broiler factory struck by a tornado. Coston said that after storms hit factory farms—some of which can house more than a million chickens—the animals often are bulldozed alive into pits.

Yet the sanctuary movement is not without its critics within the animal rights community.

“Farm Sanctuary is a strong supporter of what I call ‘happy exploitation,’ or the idea that we can exploit nonhuman animals in a ‘compassionate’ way through welfare reforms that supposedly make animal exploitation more ‘humane,’ ” said the animal rights philosopher and author Gary Francione, whom I spoke with in New York City. “This sort of approach sends a most problematic normative signal and encourages people to be comfortable about their continued participation in the institutionalized exploitation of animals. For example—one of many—Farm Sanctuary joined with Peter Singer and others in publicly expressing ‘appreciation and support’ for the supposedly ‘pioneering’ effort of Whole Foods that has evolved into the Animal Welfare Rating program, which gives Whole Foods customers a choice of what level of animal torture they will purchase—and all with the stamp of approval of ‘animal advocates’ such as Farm Sanctuary. To the extent that Farm Sanctuary promotes veganism, it does so as a means to reduce suffering, along with ‘enriched’ caged eggs, crate-free pork and other supposedly more ‘humane’ foods, and not as a moral imperative required by fundamental justice. Indeed, Farm Sanctuary denigrates principled, consistent veganism as a moral imperative, characterizing it [instead] as involving ‘personal purity.’ “

Farm Sanctuary’s Baur said he is more willing than strict abolitionists such as Francione to “meet people where they are.” He sees his organization’s farms as educational tools, a way for visitors to begin to recognize that food-stock animals are worthy of life.

“We are a vegan organization. We encourage people to eat plants, instead of animals, but we also understand that sometimes change happens incrementally,” Baur said.

Proposition 2 in California was an initiative that was on the ballot in 2008 to ban the use of veal crates, gestation crates and battery cages in the state of California,” Baur said. “It was approved by voters. Gary sees this as a ‘welfare reform’ that only enables and further codifies this notion that animals are consumables and commodities. My belief is that it gets people thinking and talking about farm animals as living creatures who suffer. It begins a process and a discussion. If these are living, feeling creatures, don’t they deserve to be treated with compassion and respect? When you start thinking through those issues, the logical conclusion is that you don’t eat animals.”

Baur, like Francione, dismisses what he calls industry “marketing tools” that present cattle or chicken as free-range, grass-fed or naturally raised. “[These animals] basically still live on a factory farm,” Baur said. “And at the end of the day, there’s the fundamental question of whether or not we should be killing and eating animals. If we can live well without killing and causing unnecessary harm, why wouldn’t we? The words ‘humane’ and ‘slaughter’ don’t fit well together.”

“Our food system is a mess,” Baur said. “The vegan movement and the animal rights movement have focused largely on what happens to the nonhuman animals who are exploited. But the human beings in the system are also treated very badly,” he said in speaking of workers in the slaughterhouses and factory farms. “They too are treated as expendable commodities. To me, being vegan is about trying to live as kindly as possible. That includes how we relate to nonhuman animals, as well as to human animals, as well as to the planet. It’s about creating mutually beneficial relationships, instead of abusive and exploitive relationships.”

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