Bill and Lou: Two Oxen at a College

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 still arguable. 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.


Related links.

[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 an eloquent 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.]

[See this great letter to Bill and Lou by Kalypso Arhilohou.]

[Antonia Fraser Fujinaga, in another beautiful piece, makes the case for extending compassion to Bill and Lou.]

[Another by Antonia Fraser Fujinaga, who makes a careful analysis of the arguments for and against slaughter.]

10 Responses

  1. every since i heard about Bill and Lou .i was disturbed why because its heart breaking story which doesn’t make sense .. i signed many petitions and since 30 of OCT until now i am protesting on BMC page .. and many other ppl as well from all over the world .. mans greed, now become no end to it .its started in the school now instead of teaching compassion love understanding of another living being .now they teach how to breed your own animals in back yard and taste it .. .. this freedom makes people come up with ridiculous ideas ..if they talk about sustainable farming , then we should sustainable humans too .. why not .. why we take this horrible decision is it because animals can’t speak or fight for their rights ? GMC shows no respect to animals or humans .they only talk about tasting this beautiful hard worked animals ..and they say its love .. am i really living in a civilized world ? i doubt it ..

  2. Brilliant move, GMC! I had never heard of your school before, and now the only thing I know about it is that it’s run by a bunch of barbarians who stink at creative problem-solving. Way to promote your “brand,” folks!

  3. Spencer, that’s a fine summary of the thousands of words that have been devoted to the fate of Bill and Lou.

    What you say about indefensible, unethical, erroneous arguments reminds me of this definition of error: “Error is neither Mind nor one of Mind’s faculties. Error is the contradiction of Truth. Error is a belief without understanding. Error is unreal because untrue. It is that which seemeth to be and is not. If error were true, its truth would be error, and we should have a self-evident absurdity — namely, erroneous truth [the last two words are italicized]. Thus we should continue to lose the standard of Truth.” ~ Science and Health, p. 472

    Dil Siri, your English may be imperfect — and I say that with a smile, considering I know zero words in your native tongue — but the language with which your heart speaks is eloquent. Your sentiments remind me that if our freedom is not used unselfishly, to obtain freedom for all beings, we end up losing it and being destroyed by selfishness — in this case the selfishness of speciesism.

  4. Bill and Lou have a fan club established and I am one of them. It would be so heatbreaking to kill them after all they have done for you you need to let them go to a retirement home and live out their lives that is the right think to do. Slaughter is cruel and inhumane and they do not deserve to die that way!!

  5. Thank you for the article… Thousands and Thousands of people from around the world have more compassion and concern for Bill & Lou than the very college that “used” them for close to 11 years. GMC’s legacy will be theirs to decide: kill two wonderful oxen that have done nothing but work for you and serve them as burgers to the students (who are gleefully looking forward to this… please go to their college facebook page and read the juvenile, insulting posts) ; or, show compassion and allow them peaceful retirement as a reward for their service.
    A closer look at this college reveals some very disturbing things. Mutilated animal photos, dead animals hanging from rafters with gleeful seniors looking at them, Kenneth Mulder smiling while he loads dead sheep into the back of a truck… (sone have since been removed, but they are circulating on the internet)
    There’s an embedded culture at this college that is very disturbing. Students are posting that they decided to go to GMC to learn “how to slaughter”…
    Please write to the college, post on the facebook page, on the Green Mountain College Alumni Community facebook page, contact Vermont tourism, everyone and anyone you can to help us Save the lives of two oxen, Bill & Lou. Thank you.

  6. I wonder why your standing so firm in your decision to slaughter these two animals who have given everything that they are for you. Now that retirement has been forced on them instead of caring for them you’d rather throw them out with yesterday’s trash.

    I read one of your students claims last week that you were going to humanely slaughter them. NEWSFLASH slaughter is not, never has been, nor will it ever be humane. By its very definition it is a cruel and barbaric death.

    And given that these animals have worked so hard for your school you would do better keeping them.

    Why won’t you reach out to a sanctuary that has offered them a home for the rest of their lives? This is of NO COST to your school.

    Please end this cruel and deliberate debate. It’s hurting the animals and humans. It is so easy to give them an early Thanksgiving pass. And it wouldn’t cost your school a cent.

  7. Thanks for your comments everyone!

    My post was also picked up by Opposing Views:

  8. […] 3) Great piece by Spencer Lo at Animal Blawg […]

  9. […] between eating Bill and Lou and eating factory-farmed meat is false, because GMC could equally well avoid factory-farmed meat by consuming vegetable protein during the time when Bill and Lou would have been on the menu. It is […]

  10. These are elderly animals who have worked all of their lives. I seriously doubt their flesh even would meet the expectations of modern palates.

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