POULTNEY — For Green Mountain College’s longtime oxen team, Bill and Lou, a trip to the slaughterhouse has been postponed.
The two draft animals have been a daily sight at the college’s organic Cerridwen Farm for the past decade, plowing and tilling the fields and hauling heavy loads of compost. After Lou injured his leg this summer, however, the animal was deemed unable to work, and the team, trained to work together for many years, had to be retired.
Animal slaughter is rarely a comfortable topic of discussion, but it was one option that school administrators presented students at a community forum that convened this fall to decide what do do with the two farm animals. The other option was to send the animals to sanctuary, but the majority of students supported the slaughter and processing option.
It was a decision that made sense given the farm’s ethos, said Philip Ackerman-Leist, farm director and professor of environmental studies. He said as students were drawing up a farm plan 10 years ago, it was vegetarians and vegans who were some of the most vocal supporters of establishing a sustainable animal agriculture system at the college. The hope, he said, was that students who chose to eat meat could gain an understanding of the life cycle and care of the animals they were eating.
“The college farm is part of the college food system,” said Ackerman-Leist. “It was intended that way from the very beginning, and that’s the path that we in the community have stuck to.”
Green Mountain Animal Defenders launched an online petition, which at the end of last week had 47,300 signatures from across the nation and world.
Just as soon as the college announced its plans for Bill and Lou in early October, however, a number of groups began to express their concern for the decision. Green Mountain Animal Defenders, a Burlington-based organization, worked with an animal sanctuary in Springfield called Veganism is the New Evolution, or VINE, to offer to take the retired oxen off of the college’s hands at no cost.
VINE, which has been vocal in advocating for the animals’ lives, has posted several open letters on their blog, arguing that hamburger meat that will serve the college dining halls for just a few months is not a worthy trade-off for the lives of the two oxen. “These two members of the Green Mountain College community have gracefully and faithfully served and educated so many, and they deserve to be honored by a retirement befitting their years of dedicated service,” VINE representatives write.
Green Mountain Animal Defenders launched an online petition, which at the end of last week had 47,300 signatures from across the nation and world. The story has been picked up by the New York Times, the Boston Globe and the Huffington Post.
Ackerman-Leist said groups from as far away as Australia and New Zealand have weighed in on the subject, bombarding college faculty and spokespeople with emails and phone calls, some supportive but many opposing the college’s decision. In one day recently, he said he received more than 1,000 emails about Bill and Lou.
Ultimately, this cyber outcry is what led to the college’s decision to cancel its appointment at the slaughterhouse, which Ackerman-Leist said is a small facility the college has used in the past that has animal welfare approval.
College administrators discovered recently that a list had been posted online of all of the slaughter facilities near to the college — mostly very small, family-owned businesses — and all of those facilities had received a high volume of calls and emails requesting that they refuse to slaughter Bill and Lou. So as not to cause trouble for any local slaughter business, the college cancelled its appointment until it could reschedule for a later date.
Meanwhile, following the widespread publicity of the topic, multiple groups have offered to pay the college for the two animals.
Last Thursday, VINE posted a memo to its website stating that it had secured a home for Bill and Lou at Farm Sanctuary, a national organization with shelters in California and New York.
“Along with tens of thousands of people here in Vermont and around the world, we continue to implore Green Mountain College to abide by the agricultural tradition of kindly retiring elderly or disabled work animals,” read the memo.
Ackerman-Leist said sanctuary was initially on the table for Bill and Lou, but that a main goal of the farm is to offer students a holistic view of animal agriculture from birth to death.
“Part of this is taking responsibility for an animal from beginning to end. It’s not about casting away that decision,” he said.
“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.” ~Ackerman-Leist
Steve Fesmire, a philosophy and environmental studies professor at the college, writes in a not-yet-published article that though he is a vegetarian and drawn to the idea of a living retirement for the oxen, he stands with the college’s democratic decision to slaughter the animals as part of the farm’s commitment to sustainable meat production.
“(This) is light years away from the inhumane treatment of animals (and humans) that now dominates global agriculture,” writes Fesmire.
VINE cofounder Pattrice Jones questioned the decision-making process in an open letter to GMC parents, arguing that many of the students at the college are still too young to fully grasp the consequences and the results of their decision to send Bill and Lou to slaughter.
What’s more, she added, “students did not anticipate that likely outcome … because they were provided with biased ‘information’ in the deliberation process.”
Fesmire and Ackerman-Leist detailed student trips to slaughterhouses and ongoing campus-wide and classroom-based discussions of life and death on the farm. The ethical dilemmas of animal agriculture, said Ackerman-Leist, will be present for as long as animal agriculture exists.
“The notion that we’re going to eliminate livestock agriculture is very problematic, illusory in my view,” he said.
Ackerman-Leist said this incident has reaffirmed the college’s goals of teaching sustainable animal agriculture and opening up discussion to all of the ethical questions that this entails.
“I’m fine with people disagreeing, and I’m fine with them being from outside our community,” he said. “But a lot of it is just being bullied through the Internet and social media. It’s not a dialog, and it’s not democratic.
“We’re standing our ground, in part, because this is no longer just about Bill and Lou, no longer about Green Mountain College,” he said. “It’s about the ability of Vermont to rebuild its community food systems.”
While discussion over the fate of the two animals rages on, the cycle continues at Green Mountain College: a new team of oxen, Speck and Spook, can be found working the fields at Cerridwen Farm.