Bill and Lou still enjoy the sunny fall afternoons at Green Mountain College, a Vermont school that teaches sustainable farming to its students. The two elderly oxen, who have worked the fields there for more than ten years, are no longer good for tilling fields and pulling heavy carts, so they’re being retired. But what happens to them now – living out their lives at their college home … going to a sanctuary … or being killed – has sparked an uproar across the country and beyond.
The question, which goes to the heart of how we treat our fellow animals, has landed on the front pages of newspapers and websites all across the country, and beyond. Here are the basics:
- Bill and Lou were born at a dairy farm. They were promptly taken from their mother so that her milk, too, could be taken from her and used for dairy products. The two calves would normally have been put in small cages for a few months, fed a diet that leaves the muscles pale and the bones weak, as favored by people who eat veal, and then slaughtered.
- But Bill and Lou were saved from the veal industry and brought to Green Mountain College, where they could earn their keep as oxen working in the college’s sustainable farming program. They became college mascots and beloved friends of the students.
- This year, Bill and Lou were due to retire, and the school started making plans for a new team of oxen. Then Lou stepped in a woodchuck hole and injured his leg. The two oxen were so used to working together that they couldn’t easily be separated; nor would Bill adjust easily to working with another ox. In any case, he becomes very distressed if ever he’s separated from Lou.
- Nor would it make logical sense, in terms of the philosophy of “sustainable agriculture” to have two large animals using up grass and water on a sustainable farm. Nor, equally, would it make sense, according to that same philosophy, to send them to a sanctuary – which would simply be displacing the issue. Whatever the decision, it had to be one that would fit the rationale of what the school was teaching its students.
- And so the logical decision was made: to kill Bill and Lou while they were still edible.
E-mails have been pouring into the school’s administration, pleading for the two oxen to be spared. Internet campaigns and petitions have been circulating around the world. But last Thursday, Philip Ackerman-Leist, director of the school’s farm and food project, said the slaughter would take place within a week – so any day now.
Bill Throop, the school’s provost, explained that any other conclusion would violate the principles of sustainable farming. He said that the campaigns and petitions fail to take into account the complexity of the moral issues the college faces in its food decisions and in having an educational farm.
“They see us as doing something terrible, rather than trying to provide humanely grown and sustainable meat for our dining hall,” he toldthe Boston Globe.
All of which is true. If it’s about “sustainable farming,” then it makes sense to kill the animals while they’re still edible.
But that’s the whole problem with “sustainable farming.” Once again, it’s all about us – how to conserve our “resources” in a responsible fashion that’s good for the ecosystem and therefore good for us. And it includes a consideration of “animal welfare.” But it has nothing whatever to do with the ethics of how we treat our fellow animals in their own right.
The reason for letting Bill and Lou live out their lives at the school’s farm, or for sending them to a sanctuary, has nothing to do with sustainability or responsibility. It has to do with how we see nonhuman animals: as things that are here for our benefit … or as fellow beings with whom we want to have a deep and meaningful relationship. Bill and Lou have given the lie to the entire philosophy of “sustainable farming” and “happy meat.”
People who want to spare Bill and Lou but who eat meat and dairy products are caught on the horns (pun intended) of a fundamental dilemma. That’s because it’s entirely hypocritical to want to spare these two, but to go on eating animal products from elsewhere – like from a factory farm. Why should another cow or bull pay for your squeamishness with his or her life?
(Farmers with any level of conscience have always had this problem. Hence the common farming maxim: “Don’t ever give a name to an animal you plan to eat.” )
The school’s logic is inescapable: To keep Bill and Lou in retirement and, instead of killing and eating them, to buy meat from another farm, would be sheerest hypocrisy – devoid of moral sense and justification.
The simple fact is that Bill and Lou have given the lie to the entire philosophy of “sustainable farming” and “happy meat.” Humans do not need animal products in order to survive. The only reason we eat them is because we enjoy eating them.
There’s only one way out of the Bill and Lou dilemma: Stop raising animals for food. Instead, turn the farm over to a plant-based diet. Make it a farm that’s sustainable not only to humans but to other animals who call it home.
It’s a simple, logical solution that solves the moral and ethical dilemma – and one that teaches the students that we can, indeed, live in harmony with the natural world.