“[At Green Mountain College] the idea of sustainability runs so deep that instead of machines fueled by diesel, a pair of working oxen have tilled the fields for the better part of a decade… Their names are Bill and Lou, and by the end of the month, they are to be slaughtered and turned into hamburger meat for the dining hall.”
~ NY Times story, October 28th
Four days ago, the New York Times ran a story about Green Mountain College; an environmental school in Vermont, where public emotion has exploded over the fate of two oxen, Bill and Lou, who were previously put to work in the fields as part of the farm’s ‘sustainability model’. As is inevitable in such situations, Bill and Lou are now too old to continue pulling the yoke, and a recent injury sustained by Lou has caused the college to retire both animals. In adherence to the trendier-than-ever principles of ‘farm sustainability’, Bill and Lou were scheduled to be slaughtered and brought back home as food for the campus.
The end of October was earmarked for their final day, but as of November 1st, Bill and Lou are still alive. Could the decision to push the date back have had anything to do with the massive controversy surrounding the announcement? As was described in the Rutland Herald,
“Bill and Lou have won friends around the world. Letters have arrived at the Herald, via email, from Portugal, Ireland, England and around the United States, mostly pleading for the lives of the two oxen. Green Mountain College has reportedly been flooded with angry messages.”
As of yet, the college appears to be firm in its resolve to sacrifice the two animals, maintaining that the farm’s purpose is to produce food in a humane and sustainable way, not to shelter animals (or spare them from a horrifying fate, apparently). As explained by the farm director, Philip Ackerman-Leist:
“It makes sense to consume the resources we have on campus… We have to think about the farm system as a whole.”
Perhaps someone at the school should ask Bill and Lou whether they think that this model is ‘sustainable’. I suspect that, along with the other living ‘resources’, they might take issue with the use of the word, not to mention the sickening double-speak of referring to such hard-heartedness as ‘humane‘.
Ackerman-Leist acknowledged that there were other options, including allowing the college’s beloved animals to live out the rest of their days in safety, as some of the faculty and students have requested. But when a local animal sanctuary made an offer of refuge for Bill and Lou, the college administration refused, claiming that “this decision is another step in our college’s longstanding effort to foster a community-based food system.”
As a result of statements issued by the animal sanctuary and the college’s other critics, the situation has turned into a full-fledged battle in the blogosphere and social media, complete with petitions pleading for Bill and Lou to be spared.
It seems that the subject has struck a nerve. But why? Aren’t people being a tad hypocritical? We humans take great pride in bragging about how easily we can write off an animal’s life if we like the way he or she tastes. We are living in a time when people actually pay money to be part of the audience at butchery competitions, and buy t-shirts emblazoned with the words “Meat is Murder… Tasty, Tasty Murder”. Have we ever been so proud to advertise our inability to empathize with other living beings?
It happens every second of every day… In the United States alone, every year, millions of Bills and millions of Lous are sacrificed on the altar of human pleasure. Each one of these animals, in different circumstances, is just as capable of touching our hearts and capturing our imaginations, and yet each one is needlessly sent to slaughter to fill the demand we generate for their body parts. The majority of students and staff at Green Mountain College probably eat flesh from Bill and Lou’s distant cousins every day.
The college’s provost, William Throop, claims, “Our 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.”
Many of the people outraged by this story are probably vegetarian, abstaining from flesh for the simple reason that no sentient being should be used for meat… But isn’t this as much a lesson for them as it is for everyone else? Bill and Lou are no different from your average family-farmed dairy cow, or free-range layer hen: disposable once they’re spent. And just like cows being used for dairy and sheep being used for wool, just like hens being used for eggs and horses being used for riding and racing, Bill and Lou’s lives had value only until they could no longer fulfill the purpose for which they were bred. What happens after that point is no secret. Economic viability requires that even sustainable farms kill animals who are no longer ‘useful,’ even those who were once loved.
But in most cases, the animals we eat are unknown to us – hidden away on farms where the vast majority of people will never even catch a glimpse of their bodies, let alone their personalities. Small-scale farming brings the animals back into view, and although we may struggle to ignore it, the inevitable result is that people are beginning to have feelings for the animals who are a part of the ‘farm system’. Bill and Lou, for instance, are perceived as members of the community at Green Mountain, and are known by name to the school’s neighbors, not to mention the faculty and students, with whom, over the course of ten years, they have become friends.
Or so they might have thought.
As explained by Mr. Throop, Bill and Lou are a part of the school’s sustainable farming mission, not the school’s family:
“‘Bill and Lou are not pets,’ he said. ‘They’re part of an intimate biotic community on the farm, in food webs and relationships of care and respect.'”
When you hear terms like ‘intimate biotic community,’ ‘food webs’, and especially ‘relationships of care and respect’, better start bracing yourself for what inevitably comes next. This new-agey vernacular almost always conceals a colder reality, and its proponents couldn’t be more confused: These beautiful animals deserve our care and respect. They are sentient beings whom we love, and they have become an intimate part of our lives. But we mustn’t be sentimental. Sooner or later, we are going to kill them and it will be an honor to eat their bodies.
“On campus, support for [Bill and Lou’s] consumption is strong… ‘It’s about sustainability, and I’ve been a vegetarian for three years, but I’m excited to eat Bill and Lou,’ said Lisa Wilson, a senior. “I eat meat when I know where it comes from…’ Andrew Kohler, also a senior, took a course in which he learned how to drive the oxen team… ‘They start listening to you, and they become your friend,’ Mr. Kohler said. ‘I feel honored to eat them.'”
For my part, I can’t help but ask the question: What is it that this school is really teaching? And not just this school, but every example of community-based, hands-on animal slavery education, from backyard slaughter workshops to family-run butcher shops, where brutality to other animals is enthusiastically packaged as ‘ethically-sound’ simply because it takes place right in front of our eyes.
Is the message to be taken away really about sustainability, or is it just about learning how not to care?
To many on campus, these are two beautiful individuals who are loved; beings of a different species with whom they have actually become friends. What kind of a lesson is this? Do we really want to teach our young people that there isn’t something absolutely shameful about killing and eating someone you would describe as a ‘friend’? Do we believe that a wholesome education includes learning that eating the flesh of a beloved animal is an ‘honor’? Or that, when someone has known and trusted you for years, a reasonable outcome of your ‘care’ and ‘respect’ is to engage in the ultimate act of betrayal?
I suppose you could argue that it’s a necessary life lesson when you live in a world where every single mealtime, everyone around you is dining on the carcasses of animals just as gentle and just as comforting as Bill and Lou… In a world where other animals are considered food, it’s a bad mistake to allow a cow to have a place in your heart.
Let’s face it, Bill and Lou never were a part of the community. They didn’t just pick up the yoke one day and start tilling the fields in selfless service to the farm’s ‘sustainability model’. More than likely, the staff wouldn’t even have had a chance of yoking them in the first place if they didn’t first force them into submission by castrating them. Bill and Lou weren’t the school mascots so much as the school slaves – pulling the yoke to till the fields so their human owners could take credit for farming ‘sustainably’.
But this notion of sustainability is missing one incredibly important piece of the puzzle. For something to truly be sustainable, it has to be sustainable for all, not just for the ones cracking the whip. Otherwise, we’re perpetuating the same selfish and misguided idea that has put us in this position in the first place: that everything and everyone else is here for us to use. To ignore the interests of other beings in favor of fulfilling our own desires is exactly the mistake we need to try to correct, and so-called sustainable farms that don’t take this into account are doing nothing to pave the way for a truly sustainable future.
But in my opinion, Green Mountain has done us a service. Through Bill and Lou, this tiny environmental college has unintentionally shown the world that the animals we enslave do have names, and they do have faces. Bill and Lou may be saved, or they may be slaughtered, we don’t yet know. As of now, they still have a chance. But if we, as onlookers, really care about their story, we have a responsibility to them. We need to start seriously thinking about our relationship with all animals, and what kind of a future we wish to have with them.
Will we continue to go on as though we care more for the satisfaction of our own tastebuds than we care for the very lives of other beings? Or will we finally come to realize that each one of these animals wants to live? They all love a scratch on the back, and they all fear and resist death. They’re all Bill. They’re all Lou.