POULTNEY, Vt. – Lou munched grass on a farm at Green Mountain College, his legs unsteady and his days numbered. For a decade, the beloved ox and his teammate, Bill, worked the fields at the school, becoming the symbol of its farm program, until Lou aggravated a recurring leg injury this past summer.
Soon the pair will be on their way to a slaughterhouse. The college has decided, after exhaustive discussion that included input from students, to kill the oxen and serve them as hamburger in the campus dining hall.
The college posted a statement on its website explaining its decision, and the four-year liberal arts college, nestled amid rolling hills and farmland west of the Green Mountains near the border with New York State, is feeling the heat. Lots of it. Thousands of calls and e-mails and several thousand Facebook posts for starters.
“Unbelievable,” said Philip Ackerman-Leist, director of the school’s farm and food project and associate professor of environmental studies, who said the slaughter will take place within a week. “E-mails and phone calls, things are coming through in all directions.”
Kevin Coburn, the school’s communications director, said about a dozen e-mails and calls pour into his office every day. Some express support for the decision, he said, but quite a few are acrimonious, with about 60 percent of the total opposed. Some alumni have complained, although most have been supportive, he said.
Several online petitions are calling on the college, which emphasizes environmental studies and sustainability in its curriculum and whose working farm is a key part of its learning experience, to allow the oxen to be sent to an animal sanctuary in Vermont that has offered to take them.
Miriam Jones, coordinator and cofounder of VINE Sanctuary, said people looking to place animals generally are very happy to find a home for them, and she was shocked when Green Mountain College refused her offer to take Bill and Lou.
“I really didn’t expect to hear anything but awesome when I called,” she said.
The college defends its decision not to send the two to a sanctuary, noting in the statement on its website that Bill and Lou are large animals, weighing more than a ton. Moving them to a new setting would be difficult for them, “and only postpones the fact that someone else, in the not-too-distant future, will need to decide that it is kinder to kill them than to have them continue in increasing discomfort.”
Sending only Bill, who has developed arthritis, would be difficult, given a limited grazing area made tighter with a new team of oxen and the cost of feeding him, Ackerman-Leist said. And it could be tough for one to live without the other. Bill once displayed apparent separation anxiety, breaking out one day and charging across the athletic field in search of Lou, who was visiting a veterinarian
A petition sponsored by the Green Mountain Animal Defenders of Burlington calling on the school to send the oxen to VINE Sanctuary in Springfield, Vt., had surpassed 25,000 signatures early Thursday night. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals said that at least 28,926 people had contacted the college as a result of the group’s online alert.
Jones said a few days ago that “almost 100,000 people have signed one petition or another at this point.”
But the Internet campaigns do not capture the complexity of the moral issues the college faces in its food decisions and in having an educational farm, said Bill Throop, the school’s provost and vice president of academic affairs.
“They see us as doing something terrible, rather than trying to provide humanely grown and sustainable meat for our dining hall.”
Attacks on the school ignore the more serious issue of abuse of animals in factory farms, said Shelby Hieter, a freshman from Oregon. “They’re trying to narrow their focus on these two animals when in reality their whole belief system should be the rights of all animals, and that includes farm animals who will eventually be eaten anyway,” she said.
Hieter said she would like to sit at a table with animal activists and tell them, “We’re actually on the same side. We don’t agree with animal abuse, and we would like to change that.”
The issue has heightened efforts on campus to purchase only animal products that are humanely raised and produced.
“Green Mountain College’s goal is to become the first college or university in the United States contracted with a major dining services provider to purchase all animal products provided through its dining services from humanely managed sources, as defined either through a reputable certification or our own research on a farm operation,” said Ackerman-Leist and Steven Fesmire, professor of philosophy and environmental studies who teaches courses in animal and environmental ethics at the college, in an e-mail to the college community.
After Bill and Lou arrived 10 years ago as calves, they became more than draft animals for the college.
“They filled that role, but they also gained a lot of prominence on campus as a symbol of the farm,” Ackerman-Leist said.
As Bill and Lou aged, the college prepared for a transition to a new team, which took over in late August when Lou was deemed too injured to work. “After attempting several remedies and giving him a prolonged rest without any improvement, it was the professional opinion of the farm staff and consulting veterinarians that he was no longer capable of working,” Coburn said.
Farm staff looked for an animal to pair with Bill, “but were uncertain that Bill would accept a new teammate,” Coburn said. “After much discussion it was the recommendation of the farm crew to process the animals for meat.”
While the issue has inspired much contemplation and discussion at the college, about 30 percent of whose 680 undergraduates are vegetarian or vegan, there has been no uproar, Ackerman-Leist said, because students are accustomed to these kinds of conversations.
“They’re aware that chickens are slaughtered and pigs are slaughtered, and we’ve had beef cattle that have been slaughtered,” he said. “With Bill and Lou it’s a bit more poignant because the attachment level is high; there’s no question about that.”
Fesmire said the decision has inspired “hundreds of student essays and class discussions.” The school held an open forum Oct. 4, attended by about 80 students sitting at tables.
“Every single table said that slaughter was the right decision,” Ackerman-Leist said. “I’m sure there were people who were uncomfortable, who were opposed. People have divergent opinions, and so our method is to try to find what feels like a reasonable consensus.”
Emma Robinson, a sophomore from Portland, Maine, said she does not believe animals should be eaten or used as beasts of burden.
“I do not believe raising animals as a food source is environmentally sustainable when considering the amount of water, grain, and pasture needed to do so ‘humanely,’ she said in an e-mail. “Of even more importance to me is that the oxen, and all animals on our farm, are not tools to make human life more ‘ecofriendly,’ but living beings that value life, as well. While I do not have the personal relationship with Bill and Lou that many older students do, I do not think it does any animal any ‘honor’ to be eaten by a master.”