Farm Sanctuary, the national leader in advocacy for farm animal protection, was born at the Lancaster Stockyards.
In 1986 Gene Baur was living in Wilmington and traveling to Lancaster to document the brutal treatment of animals crowded in the auction pens at the stockyards.
it was a time when "downer" animals - those too weak to walk - were a common site, prodded or dragged to and from the auction floor.
Those that didn't make it and ended up in "the dead pile."
That's where Baur found Hilda. Amid the maggot infested carcasses of other animals, a sheep lifted her head and Baur picked her up and carried her to his Volkswagen van. He thought the veterinarian would have to euthanize her, but she perked up during the examination. Baur nursed her back to health and Hilda became the founding animal of Farm Sanctuary when it opened in Watkins Glen, NY.
Baur sought cruelty charges filed against the stockyard in Hilda's case but was unsuccessful. Seven years later the tide would turn as a Lancaster court convicted the stockyard operators of animal cruelty in the case of a downed cow - the first time a stockyard anywhere in America was found guilty of cruelty.
Farm Sanctuary celebrated its 25th anniversary Monday night with a vegan dinner served at the historic Stockyard Inn, one of the last remaining buildings from the stockyard era - once the site of the largest livestock auction and holding facility east of Chicago.
An amazed Baur told the crowd of more than 100 that he couldn't believe he was sitting in the Stockyard Inn - a famous steakhouse - eating a vegan meal. Not only was the stockyard gone, Baur said, but as an added bit of good news, the Inn pledged to add a vegan item to its menu.
While eating a soy patty and veggies, Baur reflected on what happened here over the last quarter century, how Hilda's plight had energized the movement, sparked protests, news stories demanding change and, eventually, criminal prosecution.
"It was significant in that it legitimized our concerns," said Baur of the court's precedent-setting ruling in 1993. "Legally farm animals had been excluded and the case concluded they would be included."
Attorney Rick Gray - now Lancaster's mayor - represented the stockyards, which closed in the late 1990s.
Outside the inn Monday sat Baur's beat up VW van, the one that carried Hilda to the vet, which was resurrected for a cross-country tour in search of "vegan America." A portrait of Hilda painted on a cobblestone liberated from the stockyards was auctioned to a supporter Monday night for $2,050.
After its humble start in Lancaster, Farm Sanctuary would take its fight to courtrooms and statehouses across the country and also to the U.S. Congress seeking to outlaw cruel practices of factory farming and to mandate more humane treatment for farm animals.
In 2007 the group was back in Lancaster, investigating the infamous New Holland Sales Stables - where hundreds of animals, including horses, continue to be sold for slaughter each week. The auction was found guilty on three counts of animal cruelty for failing to provide veterinary care for three downed sheep.
But the fight is not over by a long shot.
Here in Pennsylvania in just the last eight months there have been several cases of farm animal cruelty in which those responsible paid little or no penalty - 900 hogs found dead months after being abandoned and trapped in a Fulton County barn, veal calves found languishing in an auction pen in Lebanon County, and in March 300 horses documented at a Lancaster auction likely bound for slaughter, suffering from untreated wounds, severe disease and starvation.
Baur said the farm animal welfare movement continues to battle "an entrenched industry," along with cultural assumptions and beliefs that farm animals are not worthy of humane treatment.
"But if Hilda was found on the dead pile again," he said, "we'd have a good chance of having them convicted."
For Baur every animal saved has a story to share and a lesson to give.
"Animals were nameless, faceless and absent from people's lives," he said. "Now people know they are not inanimate pieces of meat."
Hilda, the sheep that started it all, enjoyed a blissful life in the Farm Sanctuary's pastures until she passed away peacefully in her sleep, from old age on September 25, 1997. She is buried on the farm in a garden grove with a memorial plaque marking her grave.