I know that folks want an update on the status of the Green Mountain College oxen known as Bill and Lou. I’m sorry to report that, despite what has become an international outcry for mercy, the college remains determined to send them to a slaughterhouse at the end of the month.
Thousands of people have signed a petition, and hundreds have written letters to the Provost and farm manager; prominent organizations like Farm Sanctuary and prominent scholars like Marc Bekoff have weighed in on the side of Bill and Lou.
To no avail.
We can’t give up, but we must adjust our actions in response to new information.
A Matter of Mathematics?
The latest argument we are hearing from Green Mountain College is that these two animals must be sacrificed because the environmental impact of their continued lives would be too great. Evidently, it was fine for Bill and Lou to eat, drink, and excrete as long as they were serving human purposes but, now that one of them has become too disabled to be yoked and worked, their continued use of natural resources cannot be countenanced.
I have two sets of strong responses—one ethical, the other mathematical—to the idea that killing Bill and Lou is the “green” thing to do.
Ethically, I am appalled by the notion that the elderly and disabled should be killed to prevent them from wasting resources now that they can no longer work. Again: According to the college, it was fine for Bill and Lou to consume resources so long as they were working. It’s only now that they can no longer be yoked and forced to plow (or generate electricity) that they must be killed to save the planet.
Ethically, I am alarmed by the notion that any animal who does not produce some material good for people must be killed in order to reduce their drag on the planet. (According to that logic, virtually all dogs and cats should be executed immediately.)
Ethically, I am dumbfounded by the notion that the way to relieve the pressure a human-bred population puts on the environment is to kill already existing animals, rather than to quit breeding more.
Which brings us to math. Green Mountain College says—and we should take them at their word—that they want to conserve the resources that Bill and Lou would consume or pollute if allowed to retire to a sanctuary. Since killing them would be ethically objectionable (not to mention unkind and unmerciful) what can the college do instead?
Here is a list of just a few of the ethically unobjectionable things that the college could do to conserve even more resources than would be conserved by killing Bill and Lou. These are listed from lowest to highest, in terms of resources conserved.
- For the length of time that the college cafeteria intended to sell Lou and Bill burgers, the cafeteria sells no burgers at all, encouraging students to choose healthy plant-based meals instead.
- The college cafeteria institutes “Meatless Mondays” in accordance with the recommendations of United Nations climate chief, Rajendra Pachauri, who has recommended a meat-free day each week as “the biggest single contribution” people can make to reduce climate change.
- The college reduces the number of animals it breeds or buys for experimental or agricultural purposes, replacing the associated research and instruction with research and instruction on low external input sustainable agriculture practices that do not require the use of animals.
- The college ends the breeding (or purchase) of animals for experimental or agricultural purposes, replacing the associated research and instruction with research and instruction on low external input sustainable agriculture practices that do not require the use of animals.
- The college farm becomes a demonstration project of the sustainable production of plant crops for local consumption that is our only hope of feeding the world without wrecking the planet.
I’m just sketching out the possibilities here! Nobody expects Green Mountain College to change its orientation overnight, but it is important to see that there are many, many different ways the college could elect to offset or reduce the environmental degradation associated with its animal agriculture program.
Of course we—and every other farmed animal sanctuary—know all about the environmental impact of animal agriculture. We’re the ones who have collected and publicized the very facts the Green Mountain College now cites as a justification for killing Lou and Bill. But we say that the ethical answer is not to kill already-existing animals like Lou and Bill but, rather, to quit breeding animals for agriculture.
Ecology + Generosity = Sanctuary
As our long-term supporters know, VINE has always taken the position that “green means vegan” and, just as importantly, “vegan means green.” At our original location (when we were known as the Eastern Shore Sanctuary) we were well-known for our “freegan” sensibilities, with visitors often commenting upon the creative uses to which we had put found or discarded objects. A set of steps we found at the dump served as perches for egg factory refugees. Miriam made a bedding shed out of the wood from an old couch plus some scrap lumber donated by a neighbor. We used my late grandmother’s broken-down Buick as a feed shed.
That spirit has continued and intensified since we’ve been in Vermont. Aram routinely brings home odd objects from the dump, which are then miraculously transformed into perches for birds and shelters for feed bowls. Cheryl designed and built ingenious passive solar heat collectors to keep water troughs from freezing in the winter.
Speaking of solar, when we expanded to the 100 acre tract where the cows and sheep (plus emus, ducks, geese, and more chickens) live, we incorporated that and other “green” building practices at every step of the way. Solar panels power the sanctuary, feeding unneeded energy back to the grid.
We used “green building” principles in designing the home occupied by our full-time animal caretaker and her partner. More solar panels, hyper-insulation, and a solar water heater are just some of the features of that dwelling, which consequently uses almost absurdly low amounts of energy to heat. Any land that we’ve cleared for pasture had been pasture previously, so we’ve not cut any old-growth forest. (Even so, we plan to reforest an equivalent number of acres elsewhere.) We’ve also preserved most of the forest on the sanctuary’s land and incorporated forest into the foraging areas used by the healthiest and most agile cows. Hence, ours is the only farmed animal sanctuary where you will see cows in the woods. (It’s quite a sight! Sometimes they look like mastodons in the mist.) Organic gardens feed not only the people but also the non-human sanctuary residents. Kathy routinely sows surprise lettuce, squash, and other delicacies in areas grazed by sanctuary residents.
Of course, all five of the people here (all LGBTQ, by the way) are vegan, which means that we collectively conserve the resources consumed by 95 people eating the standard American meat-based diet. We compost the few kitchen scraps that can’t be fed to the chickens. We all practice the three R’s (reduce, reuse, recycle) religiously and are as “freegan” as possible when we need to acquire things. (I’ve not bought new clothes since 2001, and that was only because I had to speak at the UN World Food Summit and figured I ought not wear my usual assortment of raggedy items that don’t quite fit. Cheryl and Kathy are constantly hauling home items found by the roadside.) Oh, and, none of us have elected to add any high-resource-using American children to the world population.
All of which is to say, if Green Mountain College can’t find a way to offset the resources Lou and Bill will consume during their retirement, we’ll be happy to carry that weight.
Please do incorporate these or other answers to their “environmental” argument for slaughter when writing to Green Mountan College. Please do continue to write to the Provost, but it’s probably not worthwhile to write to the farm manager anymore. Instead, go right to the top, and write to the college President. If you’re a Vermonter, a Green Mountain College alum, and/or an environmental scholar or activist, please do be sure to say so in your note to the college and to get in touch with us.
Addendum: On the question of what’s best for Lou and Bill, remember: (1) Only Lou has the recurring injury—Bill is fine, just elderly; (2) Lou can’t manage the heavy labor demanded of working oxen but is up and walking, showing no sign of wanting to die; (3) Lou was allowed to rest after his initial injury, but the college tried to work him again as soon as he showed improvement—this happened repeatedly, probably aggravating the injury; (4) because of USDA regulations, Lou can’t receive most pain medications if he is scheduled to be slaughtered for meat—in addition to being allowed to rest as much as he wanted, he would receive immediate veterinary care, including pain management, if he came to VINE; (5) the college is not planning painless euthanasia in familiar surroundings but slaughter at a commercial slaughterhouse—a terrifying way to die.