The concept of animal rights and welfare doesn’t come easy to conservatives. The term brings to mind PETA zealots throwing paint on ladies in fur coats, or—this really happened to my wife and me—angry crones screaming at parents pushing a stroller, calling them “breeders” who are destroying the animals’ planet. Most conservatives see a concern about animal welfare as an eccentric hobby at best, and at worst a form of misanthropic psychosis.

The excesses of pro-animal crusaders make it far too easy for conservatives to ignore evidence that in our current age the relationship humans have to animals—to be precise, the animals we raise for our food—is morally disordered and even something close to—dare I say it?—evil. That’s a strong judgment, but it is difficult to reach any other conclusion after scrutinizing the conditions under which food animals are raised in vast factory farms. The same system of mass depersonalization and subsequent mass cruelty that the Leviathan state wrought against individuals in the 20th century, against which conservatives rightly fought, has been reproduced on factory farms in contemporary America. And conservatives for the most part see no problem with this.

To be sure, it’s ridiculous and offensive to compare the gulag of Stalin to the chicken-farm archipelago of Tyson Foods, and the very suggestion is what makes many morally serious conservatives ignore what animal-rights activists have to say. But there are parallels. Thoughtful carnivores—and I am an enthusiastic meat-eater—need not swear off animal flesh altogether to recognize that there is something very wrong with the way we exercise stewardship over farm animals. This is an integral part of the spiritual sickness of our age—a disease that conservatism ought to be fighting.

The book to read is Dominion, conservative writer Matthew Scully’s trenchant 2002 meditation on the prudent and moral exercise of our power over animals. Scully’s friend Gene Baur is no conservative, and he doesn’t have Scully’s gift for moral philosophizing. But his Farm Sanctuary: Changing Hearts and Minds About Animals and Food is nevertheless a powerful witness to the wickedness of the American way of growing meat—a testimony that is all the more persuasive because Baur is not a hysteric. Somehow, confronting what a man of his convictions and sensibilities cannot regard as anything but a moral catastrophe, he has retained his faith in the humanity of others and hope in their ability to reason. No doubt it’s because Baur is not by nature or belief a utopian. “I have always thought it’s better to do something positive and practical,” he writes, “and not to make the perfect an enemy of progress.”

Baur is a middle-aged activist and the co-founder of Farm Sanctuary, a refuge (two of them, actually) for farm animals rescued as “downers” from discard piles at stockyards or recovered from other abusive conditions. Baur and his volunteers nurse the creatures back to health and let them live out their natural lives in a traditional farming environment—except the animals are not eaten by their caretakers nor are their milk or eggs taken. The Farm Sanctuary folks are vegans, meaning they don’t eat meat or dairy products.

Admittedly, Farm Sanctuary initially set my teeth on edge. Some people are born animal lovers who, depending on your point of view, either discern noble qualities in animals or impose human traits upon them. And then there are vinegary cretins like me. Baur’s interstitial personality profiles of individual rescued animals (Hilda, Maya, Cinci Freedom, and the huggable lot) are heartfelt and true to his philosophy of elevating creaturely dignity, but they’re pretty cloying all the same.

You would expect the entire book to be like this, given its author’s background. Mercifully, no. Baur believes the world would be a better place if no one ate meat or dairy products, but in this book, at least, he’s not a proselytizer on that point. Nor does his wincingly potent case for reform rely on sentimentalizing or anthropomorphizing livestock, which makes Farm Sanctuary harder to ignore.

What Baur does well is discuss in everyday language the conditions in which most of the meat Americans eat is produced in the industrial farm system. It is a horror show, the depravity of which requires no artificially vivid prose to elucidate. Baur understands that he doesn’t need the activist’s cheap rhetorical theatrics to make his point. His polemic has such cumulative force because he deftly piles up facts, personal observations, and arguments without engaging in histrionic deck-stacking.

By now, the stories he tells aren’t new, at least not to readers of the recent bestsellers Fast-Food Nation and The Omnivore’s Dilemma, which have deconstructed American eating habits in stomach-turning detail. Farm Sanctuary takes us back to the confinement crates, the stockyards, the slaughterhouses, and so on, exploring the revolting particulars of contemporary animal husbandry. It is hard to read this stuff without flinching or worse, not simply because one is tenderhearted about animals.

Killing a living creature and preparing it for the table is not and never can be a clean, easy, and carefree act. What’s so troubling about factory farming is how the system thoroughly instrumentalizes animal life, treating animals not as creatures that have an inherent nature, the limits of which we are bound to respect, but rather as abstractions, units of production that can be infinitely manipulated to suit man’s desires. In his 1991 encylical Centesimus Annus, Pope John Paul II condemned as “anthropological error” the common modern assumption that human beings are free to exploit the natural world without respect to its “God-given” purpose.

Factory farming subjects cows, pigs, and the like to conditions that are perverse in the sense that they radically disfigure the animals’ nature. And when the suffering creatures go mad or become ill as a result, farmers often deform them (e.g., burning off chickens’ beaks) or jack them up with antibiotics to mask the effects of their mistreatment. What can we call a system that condemns animals raised for our nourishment to such a pitiless, unnatural existence, if not evil?

Accounts such as Baur’s unavoidably raise the question of how participation in the system deforms our own moral nature. What does it do to our collective character to ignore, dismiss or remain indifferent to the torture of factory farming because our appetite and convenience depends on keeping the system going? On the other hand, though, what about the slaughterhouse workers (many of them poor immigrants) and the farmers who, given the way the industry is structured, have little choice but to conform if they want to support their families? It’s a credit to Baur that he sees these folks not as villains but as victims of agribusiness interests and complicit politicians.

Ultimately, in a market culture, the responsibility lies with consumers. Cutting through the philosophical cant that pro-choicers deploy to mask selfish motives, Mother Teresa once said, “It is a poverty to decide that a child must die so that you may live as you wish.” One does not have to buy into Peter Singer’s absurd and dangerous notion that animal life is morally equivalent to human life to recognize the same bad-faith dynamic in the factory farming discussion. Many of us who are sticklers for virtue ethics in other areas become consequentialists around the dinner table.

What Baur and those like him want is hardly radical. In fact, it’s perfectly sane, even modest: a return to a morally responsible standard of animal husbandry. “The animal protection cause simply asks that animals not be treated like things but respected as creatures with inherent rights,” he writes. “It also maintains that we have an ethical responsibility not to abuse them.”

What does this mean in a society that’s not about to give up meat anytime soon? Baur praises the tiny but growing number of small-acreage farmers who raise their livestock in ways more attuned to the animals’ particular nature. Cows allowed to roam and graze on pastures, chickens ranging in actual yards—that sort of thing. Despite government regulations favoring mass farming, the rise of ethical and health consciousness has spawned a cottage industry of localist family farmers. They are supported by carnivorous consumers who want no part of the factory-farm system, and who are willing to pay higher prices to escape it.

Alas, these consumers represent only a fly on the hind quarters of the gargantuan American meat market. Despite the slew of books, movies, and newspaper articles about factory farming, and well-publicized videos like the recent one showing slaughterhouse workers illegally driving sick downer cows into the food chain, most Americans remain unfazed. To modify an Upton Sinclair quote cited by Baur, it is difficult to get a man to understand something when his dinner depends on his not understanding it.

Wendell Berry has identified “the addict’s excuse”: the belief that “we cannot change because we are dependent on what is wrong.” Whether he realizes it or not, Gene Baur, writing from the agricultural front lines, effectively advances a traditionalist conservative case for applying natural law and localism to the American farm, which has been mutated beyond recognition by modernity and the appetites of mass society.

Rod Dreher is a columnist at the Dallas Morning News, a Beliefnet.com blogger, and author of Crunchy Cons.