By Spencer Lo
There is an extraordinary story developing about a global effort to save two 11 year-old oxen from slaughter, whose bodies will serve the appetites of students at Green Mountain College (GMC), a small institution in Poultney, Vermont. Bill and Lou, affectionately named, have labored at GMC as part of the college’s Food & Farm Project for over a decade—their tasks included plowing fields and even generating electricity. According to the official college statement, Bill and Lou are “draft animals,” rescued from neglect and malnutrition to “do important work which would otherwise be performed by equipment that consumes diesel fuel.”
Now their ability to do that “important work” has ended: this past July, after stepping into a woodchuck hole, Lou reinjured his left rear leg which rendered him incapable of working, and his friend Bill, while uninjured, will not likely accept a new teammate. So what to do with a pair of unworkable, elderly oxen, GMC residents who have become de facto mascots? Eat them, of course—which was the decision reached in “an open community forum” participated by both students and faculty.
Bill and Lou are still alive, for now. Although originally scheduled for slaughter by the end of October, immense public pressures – particularly on local slaughterhouses – forced a postponement. Still, GMC remains unwavering in their decision: “Eventually the animals will be processed as planned.” This in spite of a standing offer by VINE Sanctuary, and now also Farm Sanctuary, to provide permanent homes for Bill and Lou at no cost to the college, in addition to offers of tens of thousands of dollars to purchase them from GMC.
GMC’s decision to slaughter and consume two farmed animals is nothing new, since nameless millions are killed every day in factory farms—and yet the public outcry has been astonishing, overwhelming for many at GMC. Several prominent animal advocates have loudly and persistently voiced their opposition, including Bruce Friedrich, Steve Wise (check his fb for updates), Marc Bekoff, James McWilliams, as well as others. The situation is unusual in at least one respect: GMC, an institution of higher learning, and a few faculty members, have publically articulated various justifications (and non-justifications) for their decision which are transparently weak. GMC considered the decision as touching upon “complex ethical matters,” one that was “many months in the making, with members of our community carefully weighing alternatives.”
One stated justification, put forth by William Throop, a professor who teaches environmental ethics at GMC, is that their choice is “either to eat the animals that we know have been cared for and lived good lives or serve the bodies of nameless animals we do not know.” But no explanation is given for why the obvious third choice—not to eat animals at all—isn’t viable. Or a more modest proposal: don’t eat animals for the next two months, which roughly corresponds to how long the meat from the bodies of Bill and Lou would last.
As one of the greenest colleges in America with an “environmental liberal arts” core curriculum, it is difficult to understand how GMC could permit the purchase of factory-farmed products even as an option, let alone one to be weighed against “humane” alternatives. They explicitly adhere to an ethic of environmental sustainability, and recognize that meat “from a factory-farm setting…carries with it a significant amount of ecological impact. For example, the American agricultural system uses approximately 5 million gallons of water to produce the same amount of beef (not to mention greenhouse gas production, soil erosion, and water pollution).” Thus the false dilemma argument rings hollow.
Another main line of defense comes from Professor Steven Fesmire, who teaches philosophy at the college. A vegetarian, Fesmire notably does not agree with the decision even though he stands by it; for him, the outcome is defensible given the democratic process by which it was reached (student vote). He seems to believe that the slaughter decision, because it involves “complex ethical matters,” is one which “thoughtful and well-informed people may reasonably disagree.” If this were true, then his paradoxical stance would make sense: on complex ethical matters, it’s possible to disagree with the opposing viewpoint and believe that the latter is stillarguable. Is this the case here? Despite his detailed missive (over 1,000 words) criticizing the narrow focus of abolitionists and vegan activists, Fesmire does not articulate a single ethical argument on behalf of slaughter. Nor can he, as many have amply demonstrated.
Most recently, farm director Philip Ackerman-Leist explained why GMC is standing firm: “We’re standing our ground, in part, because this is no longer just about Bill and Lou, no longer about Green Mountain College…It’s about the ability of Vermont to rebuild its community food systems.” Yet, Ackerman-Leist does not bother to offer any explanation or clarification for his grandiose claim, which many find incomprehensible (see Steve Wise’s comment here). The fact is, GMC’s decision has no plausibility outside a certain morally discredited viewpoint, one which views Bill and Lou as mere resources, commodities with no value other than their ability to serve human ends—however inconsequential. A trip to the slaughter house would simply be, in the words of the Vermont Secretary of Agriculture, Food, and Markets, Chuck Ross, “the progression of two animals from one stage of the food system into the next.”
Will Bill and Lou live? Whatever the outcome, it bears remembering that what happens is entirely up to us—for even those with names have no say. Hence it’s all the more necessary to speak up for them.
[An excellent interview, with VINE Sanctuary, on the Bill and Lou situation.]
[James McWilliams has blogged extensively about Bill and Lou and GMC. Additionally, see philosopher John Sanbonmatsu's detailed reply to Steven Fesmire and aneloquent plea by graduate student Antonia Fraser Fujinaga.]
[Rebecca Kneale Gould, an associate professor at Middlebury College, recently added her voice on behalf of Bill and Lou.]