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Memo to Green Mountain College Board of Trustees

Green Mountain College has posted an evidently official refusal to reconsider the decision to slaughter Bill and Lou on its Facebook page. We could–and probably will–go line by line, pointing out the inconsistencies and inaccuracies. However, it seems clear that the college administrators—perhaps due to a combination of Groupthink and the confirmation bias–are too set in a defensive stance to either dispassionately decide what is best for the college or compassionately decide what is best for Bill and Lou.

Therefore, we have mailed off this memo to the Green Mountain Board of Trustees. (This follows a letter from the co-founder of VINE Sanctuary, asking the President to either show mercy and stay the order of execution or delay the slaughter until the Board of Directors has a chance to meet and discuss the question.)

To: Board of Trustees, Green Mountain College

From: VINE Sanctuary

Date: 15 October, 2012

Re: Formal request for inclusion in agenda of next meeting

The decision to send the oxen known as Bill and Lou to slaughter rather than accept the offer of a retirement home at VINE Sanctuary has raised an international outcry that threatens the reputation and academic credibility of the college as well as its ability to raise funds from alumni. Since administrators associated with the decision may be too invested in it to dispassionately consider alternatives, we ask that the Board of Trustees direct the President to delay the slaughter until after the Board has the opportunity to meet to decide the question.

Educational institutions generally greet offers of sanctuary for retired animals with gratitude, so we have been mystified by the response of Green Mountain College. Prominent scholars in the fields of ethics, ethology, animal studies, and environmental studies also have expressed their mystification. We welcome the opportunity to inform the Board on this matter and respectfully ask to be informed of the procedure by which we may sign up to address the Board at its next meeting.


21 comments to Memo to Green Mountain College Board of Trustees

  • Kristin
    This is an excellent letter, and I hope the Board will listen to and act on your important message.
  • CQ
    Today’s letter to the trustees is excellent, as Kristin says, and pattrice’s October 12th letter to college president Paul J. Fonteyn is extraordinary.

    Speaking of groupthink and confirmation bias (rolled into one), Jane Goodall, in her 1999 book “Reason for Hope: A Spiritual Journey,” writes of her first (and last) fox-hunting ride when she was invited by some teenage friends to go along for the fun:

    “What if I hadn’t seen the fox at all? Would I have wanted to go again? What if we had lived in the country, and had horses of our own, and I had been expected to go hunting from an early age? Would I have grown up accepting that this was the thing to do? Would I have hunted foxes again and again,
    and watched dispassionately their suffering, ‘all pity choked by custom of fell deed’? Is this how it happens? We do what our friends do in order to be one of the group, to be accepted? Of course there are always some strong-minded individuals who have the courage of their convictions, who stand out against the group’s accepted norms of behavior. But it is probably the case that inappropriate or morally wrong behaviors are more often changed by the influence of outsiders, looking with different eyes, from different backgrounds.”

    I hope and pray GMC has the moral courage and humility to renounce its “fell deed” — its version of a fox hunt.

  • Steven Fesmire
    October 14, 2012
    I’m a philosophy professor at Green Mountain College who regularly teaches courses in Animal Ethics and Environmental Ethics. When the issue of Lou’s injury arose this summer, my philosophy colleague Provost Bill Throop and I argued that a decision should wait until fall so we could engage in classroom and campus-wide dialogue about the thicket of ethical issues involved. In early October, I moderated an “open class” campus dialogue of around 80 students (including a class in Environmental Ethics and a class in Sustainable Farming Systems), joined by our Farm managers and Provost, which focused in part on the issue of whether to pursue a sanctuary option. As we made clear at the forum, the Farm’s decision was not at that time a “done deal.” Support from the College’s administration would depend upon dialogue with stakeholders beyond the farm.

    In order to offer insight into the decision making process regarding Bill and Lou, let me share some personal ethical reflections, then explain why I support our Farm in making this decision. In lieu of recounting the rationale for the decision, I’ll paste the college’s public statement below.

    Like my colleagues who are affiliated with GMC’s Farm, I’ve yet to see a compelling ethical defense of large-scale concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs). My wife is also a professional ethicist, and we raise our child to be sensitive to, rather than callously indifferent to, animal suffering. Although there are many diets that aim to minimize one’s support for industrially-farmed animal products, my own family’s default diet is vegetarian. As part of the overall deliberative process at GMC, I presented a rationale for sanctuary.

    On complex ethical matters, thoughtful and well-informed people may reasonably disagree. For me, the idea of sending Bill and Lou to a farm sanctuary has an immediate, intuitive “pull.” I’ve conducted (optional) field trips with students to observe the slaughtering process first-hand many times at a small-scale, family-owned facility. So I have no difficulty imagining what will happen to Bill and Lou in their final moments at a similar facility. Like my colleagues over at the GMC Farm, I’m dismayed with large-scale U.S. facilities that handle tens of millions of cattle annually. However, for reasons explained in my published work on ethics, I believe small-scale processing of cattle is neither inherently ethical nor unethical. Small-scale facilities range from the clear track-record of the local facility selected for Bill and Lou, to the infamous violations of the Humane Slaughter Act at the Grand Isle facility shut down by the USDA in 2009. (I was a guest on Vermont Public Radio’s “Vermont Edition” discussing that shutdown.) But neither do I think an aversion to the killing is necessarily a throwback to innocence, an escape from the circle of life (to the maudlin tune of Disney’s “The Lion King”), a mark of moral immaturity (as in Vermont’s “coming of age” classic The Day No Pigs Would Die), or any other related stereotype of vegetarianism. One can have a mature understanding of agriculture and farming systems, coupled with wide experience, while taking several steps back from our purported dietary and economic need for meat.

    Now here’s the most important thing I can offer in an era of “fight club” political polarization: We readily assume everyone with an alternative ethical perspective is trying to set himself or herself up as a little enlightened czar for whom inclusive deliberation inconveniently gets in the way of getting “the right thing” (whatever I believe) done. Note the fishy, unexamined assumption here about ethics: we figure out the right thing to do by applying the right abstract principle. Then, having completed this armchair deliberative process, we’re all set to put it into action. The title alone of Peter Singer’s book Ethics into Action sums it up. No wonder our country is politically gridlocked and mired in propaganda! Ethicists haven’t done enough to help us steer between such extremes of absolutism, on the one hand, and moral arbitrariness, on the other hand. Like Burlington’s own native philosopher John Dewey (1859-1952), I believe democracy requires inclusive deliberation with a keen ear to other voices, not only in institutional decision making but also ideally as a way of life.

    A decision making process gains legitimacy and direction by openness and inclusion. In this respect, the democratic decision making process at GMC regarding Bill and Lou has been a model. Consequently, I stand by the decision that has been reached. Democracy is widely yet poorly understood as “majority rule,” as though it means no more than “one person, one vote” with all duties exhausted at the polling booth. In The Republic Plato criticized this as “mob rule” and advocated the rule of philosophers. He was fundamentally mistaken, though Madison and Hamilton were right in The Federalist Papers to pick up on the need for protection from majority and minority tyrannies. Democracy gains traction as an ideal when we realize that less inclusive approaches (in which “the decider” ignores stakeholders) understandably raise suspicions about aims, interests, and background assumptions. Less inclusive approaches also frequently lead to myopic and hence unworkable decisions and policies. To paraphrase Churchill, democracy is the worst approach to decision-making, except for all the rest. In addition to glaring inaccuracies, Vermont’s VINE sanctuary and other well-intentioned groups petitioning sanctuary for Bill and Lou suppose, wrongly, that there’s a single right way (theirs) to reason about this vexing ethical matter, that they (and not the teamsters who have worked with Bill and Lou for a decade) are clearly the best-positioned proxies to speak for the interests of Bill and Lou, and that inclusive deliberative processes are irrelevant to determining what, all things considered, we ought to do.

    Green Mountain College is home to students, alumni, faculty, staff, and administrators whose value orientations on animal ethics are as different as Wes Jackson’s neo-agrarianism is from Peter Singer’s animal liberationism. (Singer argues that egalitarian regard for animal interests morally requires us to phase out small-scale animal husbandry along with CAFOs). Far from shying away from these complex tensions and divergences, we seek them out and welcome them. We strive to be a community that listens to, responds to, and thoughtfully incorporates different voices. Yes, Bill and Lou’s voices too, so long as we acknowledge that their interests are not obviously best respected by transporting them to a sanctuary—remember that I’m drawn to that option, and I think a coherent argument can be made in favor of it, but on-the-ground familiarity with the situation assures me that many petitioners have been taken in by their own distant, tangle-free moral clarity.

    Perhaps petitioning groups, who on many issues I regard as allies, believe themselves to be in possession of a universal moral compass, and that my colleagues over at the Farm have thrown theirs overboard. On the contrary, the Farm’s decision reflects a well-articulated position on the vital role of grass-fed animal husbandry in ecologically sustainable food production. Food writers like Michael Pollan have given popular voice to the view—another competing certitude?–that such an approach mimics perennial natural cycles better than exclusively vegetable-based agriculture. Incorporation of grass-fed animals requires less tilling (hence less soil depletion) and may be better adapted to cold climates like our own. Adherents of this view sometimes let their confidence outstrip their evidence so that it comes across as a new party line. Personally, I find that it’s a worldview best swallowed in selected parts, not whole. But as an agricultural worldview it’s coherent, defensible, and to a great many people deeply inspiring. It’s at any rate an ethos that aspires to responsibility for the systemic impact of our behaviors, and it’s light years away from the inhumane treatment of animals that now dominates global agriculture.

    Warm regards,
    Steven Fesmire
    Professor of Philosophy and Environmental Studies
    Green Mountain College

  • CQ
    What a thoughtful letter you have written, Professor Fesmire. I especially appreciate your comments on the meaning of democracy and on the need for more inclusive listening and deliberation, as well as your point about the extremes of absolutism and moral arbitrariness.

    It occurs to me, though, that all of us may be making this issue entirely too complex, too intellectualized.

    How about applying a dose of childlike simplicity? Children, before they are desensitized — that is, socialized to accept a bifurcated view and treatment of animals — identify with the essence of animals. That is, with their innocence, goodness, and honesty.

    I cannot imagine that, if given the alternatives and asked to decide the ultimate fate of Lou and Bill, any sensitive child who has not yet been programmed by our animal-exploiting culture would say aught but “sanctuary” (probably pronouncing it “thank-chew-air-ee”).

    The intuitive mercy and justice of that answer is what I think Leo Tolstoy was thinking of when he wrote in Anna Karenina: ” “Hypocrisy in anything whatever may deceive the cleverest and most penetrating man, but the least wide-awake of children recognizes it, and is revolted by it, however ingeniously it may be disguised.”

    For the life of me, I can find neither moral absolutism nor moral arbitrariness in Count Tolstoy’s perceptive understanding of children, nor in my own impression that “thank-chew-air-ee” is the only decent “thanks” to two cud-“chew”ing, crisp-“air”-loving cows who served a college so faithfully for an entire decade.

  • Valerie Traina
    Prof. Fesmire says: “We strive to be a community that listens to, responds to, and thoughtfully incorporates different voices. Yes, Bill and Lou’s voices too, so long as we acknowledge that their interests are not obviously best respected by transporting them to a sanctuary…”
    What on Earth are you talking about? You will consider the desires of Bill and Lou as long as they conform to your farm’s interests? Are you kidding? Your view of the rights of sentient beings is based on utilitarianism. Now that the oxen are no longer useful, you wish to slaughter them for their meat. How offensive. They served you well, professor. I don’t know what constitutes “ethics” at your college, but I want no part of them.
  • MiniBobcat
    Once 6 very large cows were transported from the upper midwest which was a 12 hour ride. While stiff upon arrival; they all integrated very well. GMC has made comments that it would be too hard or traumatic to have Bill and Lou ride for a little over an hour or so to VINE, yet they will take them just about the same distance to the slaughterhouse? Their arguements; which constantly change as to their reasons hold little merit, if any at all. They’ve held fast to killing these animals who gave everything to the school; including being their mascots for parades and fundraising efforts, but have created a hot mess as the news of this spreads worldwide. It’s already been on CNN, and the spotlight of the media will just continue to grow; likely causing them to lose support in many ways…
  • GMC Sustainable Ag. Student
    Part of majoring in a Sustainable Ag. degree is a field trip to a slaughter house and discussion on meat production and decisions on when and how to decide.

    GMC’s statements and beliefs are transparent and are no different from Sterling College, which also raises animals for meat.

    CQ, beautifully put. A grand thank you to Alexandria for posting the link for Earthlings, a film which I watched in its entirety. Thank you to all of you in support of saving Bill and Lou and caring for all creatures in general. My grandfather’s generation certainly didn’t consume the quantities of animals that we Americans do per capita today, in part because it was a luxury few could afford. Today we have so many alternatives that provide us with all the nutrients our body’s need, why do we still turn to animals? This blog has been inspiring spiritually and intellectually and has spilled over onto my significant other, who since this story broke become a vegan. <3
    To GMC Sustainable Ag. Student and others who defend Bill and Lou’s slaughter…
    It doesn’t matter what other schools support and while GMC’s tenets may be transparent, it doesn’t mean they are valid. I have to agree with comments I saw posted elsewhere about this story: group think has jaded reasoning. Bill and Lou have won the lottery. VINE has offered to take them. Private citizens have offered money for medicines and future care… at what point do you persist in killing these animals when they have a chance to live? For a principle? Is that really justified? And as for this story being blown out of proportion, the fact that it has touched so many people across the US and abroad means that this story is getting the attention it deserves because it strikes a chord with people. Don’t your heart-strings twinge at all at the idea of taking these two animals lives when you know it doesn’t have to happen?
  • pattrice
    We’ll be on Vermont Public Radio in the morning on Friday, October 18th between 7:30 & 8:00 a.m., and the segment may be archived on their website.

    The segment will run on NPR’s Sunday Morning this weekend.

  • CQ
    APASTOR, that’s wonderful news about your significant other, who must now feel so FREE. It shows me that already Bill and Lou have been doing the world great good, though they know it not. Just by “BEING,” they are a testament to the inherent value of every life. Thanks for your compliment; your own comments are bursting to the brim with the (nondairy) milk of human kindness. :-)

    Yay re VPR and NPR, pattrice.

  • HEY since they are slaughtering the oxen for the educational value do you think they will let us film it to be shown to the students? I am sure PETA and Mercy for Animals will film it.
  • Professor of BS is more like it.
    I don’t care what your profession is. After I read this sentence of yours “I’m a philosophy professor at Green Mountain College who regularly teaches courses in Animal Ethics and Environmental Ethics,” I stopped taking you seriously.

    If environment is your concern, at your college, you would actually promote a plant-based diet as it is a known fact by now that consuming animal products actually destroys the planet, which is why the United Nations is urging everyone to adopt a plant-based.

    If you actually cared about animals, you would not, for a second, defend the idea of slaughtering these animals; you would instead defend and promote the fact that all animals, not just Bill and Lou, are not here for us but with us. If you actually cared about ethics, you’d be a vegan and an animal rights activist.

    The arrogance you and your kind display is sickening. You think you own this planet; you think of yourself in some kind of God-like position that you think you can decide who gets to live and who gets to die on this planet. Those 2 oxens have as much right to existence on this planet as you do. It’s safe to say you greatly suffer from a God complex and should seek professional help as I think this problem also affects other aspects of your life. No species on this planet destroys the environment like humans, which is why then according to your own belief system, you should walk the walk and kill yourself.

    Your doubletalk is not fooling anyone, and you’re not a philosopher; you’re a mindless product of society; you’re a professor and product of indoctrination – nothing more. Notice how unlike you, I did not bother to be polite and respectful because I have no moral obligation to be polite and respectful towards those who choose, defend and promote slavery, cruelty, inequality and the killing of the innocent.

    “200 years ago, Americans would have thought you were absurd if you advocated for the end of slavery. 150 years ago, they would have laughed at you for suggesting that women should have the right to vote. 75 years ago, they would have loudly objected to the idea of African Americans receiving equal rights under the law. They laugh at us now for suggesting that animal slavery be ended. Someday, they won’t be laughing.” – Gary Smith

  • Bill & Lou
    As far as we know, there are currently 5 petitions for Bill & Lou. The last one is on facebook and has over 32.000 signatures. The first one is only a few days old and already has over 5000 signatures and gets a new signature every 10 min. At this point, it is safe to say Green Mountain College’s reputation is going downhil and will continue to, and the faculty members are getting defensive and stubborn and insists on slaughtering Bill & Lou simply to send a message to their students and that message is, “You shall respect our authority.” This issue is about the ego of those at Green Mountain College; it was never about ethics; it was never about the environment.






    Does anyone know any of the board members at Green Mountain College?
  • jacquie lamont
    Steven you have quoted John Dewey I would like to point out he also said
    “just as a flower which seems beautifull and has colour so are the fruitlesss words of the man who speaks them but does them not”
  • Susan Harrison
    I find Mr. Fesmire’s letter a detailed memo with the run around, eloquent, explanation of the school’s heartless decision! IMO, it’s disgusting how GMC runs this place! Sad!
  • Deb
    Its not as if these two are part of the “feed” lot they have been named and have worked long, hard and loyally for many years what this college is taching is that when a human, an animal no longer meets your “needs” they are disposable. When these people/students go out into the work world how many of them will callously disguard people and animals who no longer fill the needs they were hired for. I will never support this school, will not recommend it to my students, my children/grandchildren will never attend. I will never hire a student from this school, buy a product from this school or use a company affiliated with this school. I am also scrapping our trip to Vermont that was planned for spring.
    Video of some of the interaction with GMC students at the campus the other day. Please share far and wide. The world needs to know how GMC is educating these young minds:

    We are working hard at addressing each and ever one of GMC’s Prof. Fesmire’s points. We encourage any of you to chime in. He evidently speaks of black and white thinking (referring to outsiders) when black and white thinking is behind the school’s decision, notwithstanding the new information that has come in.

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