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Letter to the President of Green Mountain College

In light of allegations made in response to our open letter to parents, we think that students and parents should see this past letter to the college President, which was emailed on 12 October and sent by post to the college a couple of days later. The President never replied and (so far as we know) has never publicly admitted that VINE communicated with him in this respectful manner. Please attend carefully to the closing four paragraphs.

Paul J. Fonteyn, President
Green Mountain College
Poultney, VT 05764

Dear President Fonteyn,

In addition to being the co-founder of VINE Sanctuary, I am a scholar, an author, and an educator. I have taught at the University of Michigan, the University of Maryland Eastern Shore, Metropolitan State University, and Minneapolis Community & Technical College. I am an associate at the New Zealand Centre for Human-Animal Studies and an advisory faculty member at the Kerulos Center. I serve on the editorial boards of the Journal for Critical Animal Studies and the Peace Studies Journal. My own publications include one book and multiple scholarly anthology chapters as well as peer-reviewed journal articles.

University of Maryland Eastern Shore is a land grant college with an agricultural program. So, I do have some sense of where Green Mountain College might be coming from in its thinking on the oxen known as Lou and Bill. At the same time, I feel—strongly—that defensive digging-in-on-a-decision has prevented college administrators from adequately grappling with several key questions.

Here they are:

(1) What about the scholarly principle of reconsidering in light of new data? As I understand it, the decision to kill Bill and Lou was made in August and most of the discussions verifying that decision occurred before VINE learned of the controversy and made the offer of sanctuary. Prior to VINE’s offer, the decision was between (a) killing them, (b) paying for their care, or (c) selling them off to an uncertain fate. But now there is a new option, and I do not believe you can sincerely say that option has been fully and fairly considered.

(2) What about the confirmation bias? Once a decision has been made, people tend to cognitively favor information that confirms that decision and to disfavor information that disconfirms it. This is not necessarily conscious. Experiment after experiment has demonstrated that people tend to forget, not notice, or discount information that contradicts a currently held belief or suggests that a previous decision was wrong. What steps have been taken—in considering VINE’s offer of sanctuary—to override those natural cognitive biases?

(3) Should public opinion be ignored? Another piece of new information is that this decision has shocked the conscience of people around the state and around the world. Going by the public statements of the college, it appears that information has been greeted with the same disdain with which international outcries about human rights are sometimes greeted. But don’t we want countries—and communities—to listen seriously, and sincerely reconsider their position, when “outsiders” tell them that something they are doing is cruel or unfair?

(4) Have students been well served by this process? I have several concerns here. First, since there is a well-established gender difference in opinions about animal rights and animal welfare, I worry that the women on campus have been overridden or made to feel silly or sentimental if they opposed the slaughter. Apart from that question, I am very concerned about the well-being of students who feel close to these animals and oppose their slaughter. Whatever they themselves choose to eat, how will they feel knowing that Lou and Bill are on the menu for others? But, I am possibly even more concerned for those students who have voted to kill Lou and Bill. My guess is that many will later regret and feel deep remorse about this decision. I do not feel that college students should be put in the awful position of deciding whether sentient beings should live or die. If this were an experiment on the students, it would be considered unethical due to the stress involved in making such a decision. This should have been a thought experiment, not a decision upon which the real lives of innocent being depended. That can still be the case, if the administration steps in to stay the order of execution.

(5) What about callousness? Lou and Bill were forced to work whether they liked it or not. To make them work, the farm manager and the students he directed yoked them and even—it appears, given the picture of the faculty member with the raised whip over the animals’ backs—beat them. To do this, they had to numb their feelings of sympathy. They had to specifically ignore Lou and Bill’s wishes and interests. How, then, could they possibly suddenly be capable of adequately considering Lou and Bill’s wishes and interests when deciding their fate? It is not an accident, I think, that the farm manager came up with the slaughter-for-hamburger idea. Were it not for his idea, no student would have suggested slaughtering the animals who had become the school’s mascot—especially not with the offer of a free home for the rest of their natural lives on the table.

(6) What about authority? Green Mountain College prides itself on respecting student self-determination. But I wonder if the persuasive power of authority has been fully accounted for in this case. The farm manager is a trusted authority figure to whom many students undoubtedly feel loyal.  We saw, with the infamous Milgram shock experiment, that many people readily behave hurtfully if an authority tells them this is the right thing to do. The farm manager, for reasons of his own, has been adamant that these oxen must be killed. Can the college be certain that his strong feelings about this have not influenced the many students who look up to him?

(7) What’s wrong with mercy? Even if the decision to kill Bill and Lou was made without any of the problems I have described, what would be the harm of staying the execution and showing mercy? Convicted killers at least have the opportunity to argue for clemency. But, it seems, Green Mountain College has refused to seriously consider VINE’s offer of sanctuary, insisting that Bill and Lou must be killed because the decision had already been made.

(8) Are Lou and Bill objects? I understand that the college wants this decision—including any subsequent feelings—to be an object lesson for the students. But haven’t Lou and Bill served as objects for long enough? They are sentient beings. Oxen share the same basic brain architecture responsible for emotion in people. To kill them just to make a point, when you could so easily grant them ease and freedom, seems to me—and to so many others who have written to the college—to cross the line into what even many animal farmers and meat eaters would consider “inhumane.”

(9) Is this good for the college? The decision to kill Lou and Bill has assaulted the ethical sensibilities of people worldwide—including prominent scholars like Marc Bekoff, who has written that he “will do all I can to publicize the heartless and unnecessary slaughter of these amazing animals far and wide” if the college persists in carrying out the death sentence. While the campaign to save these oxen was begun by local animal welfare advocates, national organizations have taken note. I see from the most recent issue of the newsletter of the Institute of Animals & Society that the college is seeking to promote its new animal studies program. Is the slaughter of Bill and Lou the way to kick off that effort? Or, would the news—now sure to be spread worldwide—that the college has elected to spare their lives make more of a positive impact?

All of the foregoing represents my personal assessment of the situation as a psychologist and educator. Let me now speak for VINE:

We reiterate our offer of a retirement home for these two college workers. Our ability to care for them is uncontested and can easily be verified by Farm Sanctuary (the oldest and most reputable farmed animal sanctuary in the country) and our veterinarian.

We understand that the college may feel we have misrepresented its position. We are not responsible for the text of the online petition created by another local animal advocacy organization. Our own action alert was informed by a conversation between VINE Cofounder Miriam Jones and Kenneth Mulder and does not misrepresent what he said. It was he who foregrounded the economic issue, secondarily raising the issue of wasting resources on no-longer-productive animals.

We are ready and eager to work with Green Mountain College to bring this to a conclusion that spares the lives of Lou and Bill while also rewarding the college for its humane decision. Looking past that happy outcome, we would be delighted to be part of any on-campus debates or fora on relevant ethical or environmental questions.

We ask you, as President, to step in to offer clemency to Bill and Lou. In the alternative, we ask that you delay their slaughter until after the next meeting of the Board of Trustees and place the question on the agenda for that meeting.

Sincerely,
pattrice jones
Co-founder, VINE Sanctuary

cc. Board of Trustees
Bill Throop, Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs

28 comments to Letter to the President of Green Mountain College

  • pattrice

    Just FYI, this is one of many respectful communications to the college, including a specific request, to the moderator of a campus forum on the issue, to be allowed to attend the forum in order to answer any questions of fact the students might have. That request was refused.

  • M-D Kerns

    Vine Sanctuary:

    I just sent the following desperate plea to Howard Dean, former Governor of Vermont, via his McKenna-Long-Aldridge email account (he works as a consultant for them in D.C.) on behalf of Bill & Lou:

    Good Day Mr. Dean:

    I apologize, in advance, for contacting you via your McKenna-Long-Aldridge email account about…

    …what you may regard as an unusual, obscure, & even ostensibly a- or non-political matter:

    Green Mountain College’s (State of Vermont) decision to send to slaughter two long-serving & beloved (by literally thousands & thousands) innocent oxen named Bill & Lou…

    …who have faithfully been serving Green Mountain College for the last 10 years.

    Here is a hyperlink to Vine Sanctuary’s (in Vermont) appeal to the directors of Green Mountain College to accept Bill & Lou–at NO COST, to Green Mountain College, as residents at the Sanctuary:

    http://blog.bravebirds.org/ (Vine Sanctuary’s Blog with multiple entries & updates on its appeal to GReen Mountain College).

    I realize you are a very busy person, Mr. Dean, & I would not presume you to have an interest in or even perhaps an awareness of Bill & Lou’s situation & fate.

    However, I & many, many thousands of people have written & called Green Mountain College, from the Farm manager to the President, asking Green Mountain College…

    …to show compassion & set what I would regard as a shining moral example for others…

    …to allow Bill & Lou to live out the rest of their lives–after 10 years of selfless service to Green Mountain College, at Vine Sanctuary.

    I beg of you to contact President Pual J. Fonteyn, & ask him to intercede to save the lives of Bill & Lou.

    If you (actually) read this email & feel disposed to intercede, I thank you profusely.

    Finally, if I may be of any assistance, please contact me. I may also be reached by telephone at 240-489-2982.

    I am

    Sincerely yours,
    Michael-David (M-D) ARR Kerns

    *************************************************************************
    I see life as a phenomenon to be treasured, revered, & respected. I do not see non-human animals as either “The Enemy” to be subdued or as the materials for food, fabric or fun, who were put on earth for use by human animals. I see myself as a part of the natural world rather than as its master or owner. I recognize no expendable or superfluous species that human animals are free to hurt or destroy. Species of life forms need not justify their existence or plead with human animals for protection from extinction on the grounds of their potential usefulness as food or medicine or clothing for human animals.

    We continue to be burdened & misguided by adages such as “A weed is a plant we have not yet found a use for.” I recognize the intrinsic legitimacy of all life. I reject any hierarchy of acceptable suffering among sentient beings. It is no more acceptable to torment or kill sentient beings with “primitive” nervous systems than those with highly developed nervous systems. The value of life to its possessor is the same, whether it is a clam, a crayfish, a carp, a cow, a chicken or a human child.
    ****************************************************

  • pattrice

    And, also FYI, here’s a link to the online version of a public access TV show we were interviewed by about a week ago:

    http://blip.tv/for-the-animals/99-green-mt-college-animal-abuse-6420752

    (The producer chose the name for the episode.)

  • Great letter, do you know if Lou and Bill are still alive. It is unfortunate that humans have the ability to speak as so much of what they say is just rhetorical or ego bound. I hope so much that Bill and Lou’s lives will be spared.
    Photos of kids attending that college seem very upper class and the classes to me don’t seem to represent what a farmer’s life is really like.i would like to learn to can fruits but not interested in sausage making.
    i also wonder if the college’s plan was carried out if the students even would like oxen meat. I have never heard of it being served except you hear of a soap for the tail, (awful).
    I have read a post that a student said that they are still alive, i hope that is true. dO you know if they are still alive. Pat.

  • meant to say in my email, a soup for the tail, not soap, that is another class, i would think.

  • Thank you for doing all you did to try to save the lives of Lou and Bill. What a senseless murder…

  • Wonderful letter and interview. I never thought of the option of clemency for Bill and Lou – But it’s an extremely appealing idea! Everyone would be a winner in that scenario. It would be the happy ending that this story desperately needs. Thanks for all you continue to do to make it happen.

  • Wen

    Blown away by this letter. So well thought out. Thank you.

  • pattrice

    Pat, as of this evening, they are still alive. A memo from the President to the students, which one student shared with us, states that local slaughterhouses now refuse to “process” Bill and Lou because they fear protest. Bill and Lou will *not* be sent to sanctuary, the President specifies, but will be cared for on campus until a “processing” date at another slaughterhouse can be arranged.

  • Beth Stigleman

    I have also personally written emails to Mr. Mulder and Mr. Throop, simply to ask for confirmation on why the institution feels it is necessary to kill these oxen, and the exclusion of other possible solutions. I did not express anger or insult or threaten either administrator in any way; I just asked for information relating to their strict adherence to their decision. I have not received any reply from either of them; not even an automated reply.
    To me, this indicates that the President’s recent comments about extreme animal rights activists and their threats to GMU are being used as an excuse to NOT address the situation at all. It doesn’t matter how many thoughtful, educated or logical inquiries are made directly to them….the administrators refuse to address them. These gentlemen may post all the press-release style rhetoric they like upholding their decision to kill the college oxen, but until they respect the public enough to respond to legitimate and civilized inquiries, I doubt that most thinking individuals will respect their words enough to believe them.
    What a poor example they are setting for their graduates about working within a community.
    Sincerely,
    Beth Stigleman

  • Patrice

    pattrice;

    Thank you so much for all you are doing. I signed the petition, wrote a note and shared on fb. I am heart broken that Bill and Lou are held hostage so the president of the college can flex his authority. It makes no sense to me. Why will he not release them to sanctuary? What else can we do to help them?
    I think it’s time to be stealth.
    And you know, it’s an election year now, I would ask President Obama to pardon the annual turkey and include Bill and Lou because they worked hard all these years without complaint and we respect and reward hard work in this country. What do you think? Gotta move quickly.
    I am worried for them and absolutely flattened by all this posturing by the college. Enough already. Time to take the bull by the horns… x

  • I thought I had read they had been euthanized. So there is still hope? Thank you for all you are doing for these two noble animals.

  • Dear Pattrice,

    Thank you all for the wonderful letters. And thanks to M-D Kerns for the letter that reached out to Dr. Howard Dean.

    I also like the idea of clemency.

    Has anyone had time to give some thoughts to the idea of Bill and Lou being considered and treated as state treasures? I wrote about this thought somewhere else (I can’t find it now). If Bill and Lou are considered de facto mascots for the school and now they have enjoyed the affection of tens of thousands of people from around the globe urging the college (and now the state) to grant them a reprieve, what would be involved with declaring them state treasures?

    No need to reply to me. This is just another angle I thought might be able to pursue with others who are not part of the school holding them.

    Thank you for all you are doing. I’m so glad to know you.

    Boe Devi

  • nita m moccia

    How can Green Mountain College not acknowledge that this has become a WORLD WIDE PLEA for sanctuary for BILL and LOU???? How can they turn a “blind eye” on this matter? Pat , your letter was excellent…..but why are they not replying?? Has anyone contacted Bernie Sanders? Not too long ago Vermonters took a stance on Saving a MOOSE in a humans care….why can’t Vermonters save Bill and Lou? What has happened to Vermont? Organizations are willing to donate food to the college in exchange for Bill and Lou….why is it so important that they be murdered???Is it part of the farm [programs curriculum? God I hope not. How can parents of these students NOT STEP IN and remove their kids from a “slaughter House” of a College. The kid with the dead chicken and horrific t-shirt has become a POSTER CHILD for this school. Parents should pull their kids from this school….I also believe that the school needs to be investigated on inhumane practices on animals ……….Can that be done? Is there another way to save them? Perhaps through another venue like animal abuse and neglect? That chicken photo speaks a thousand words. If this inhumane slaughter commences I will never step foot in that so-called progressive state again………….I have seen enough in that State over my 24 years of trying to live there…..At this point i believe Vermont is NOT a GOOD place to raise your children. Keep up the good/excellent work.

  • Animal Activist

    Here’s a question. You’ve stated many times this website is not an open forum, it is a place for like minded individuals to share their views.

    Why should we create an open forum for you to join on our campus? You do many things in bad faith, insisting on an issue that we disagree on.

    I would support Bill and Lou being kept alive, but I wouldn’t not support them going to your sanctuary – you have been far too cruel to my institution and the legacy of change and social action we uphold.

    You are an inconsiderate organization that should lose all respect from it’s supporters. The lies and slander you promote is far too aggressive to simply be ‘educational and psychological analysis.’

  • Nancy

    I just read this report by the USDA about local “meat” not being sustainable.
    http://www.humanespot.org/content/local-meat-research-nutshell
    Patrice, thank you for not responding to all the ridiculous ad hominem comments.

  • This letter from John Sanbonmatsu is thought provoking and worth sharing.

    Bill and Lou are scheduled to die today, and it is unlikely that anything will prevent their being killed. Despite the pleas of thousands of concerned citizens and animal rights activists, and notwithstanding a gracious offer from an animal sanctuary in Vermont to take the animals so that they might live out the remainder of their lives in ease and dignity, the community of Green Mountain College has turned a deaf ear to any talk of sparing the two gentle oxen, who have been found guilty of the one unpardonable sin for draft animals on a working farm–to have outlived their usefulness as exploitable labor. And for that they must die.There are any number of nauseating aspects to this controversy: the hypocrisy of those who would claim to “care” about animals, yet who think nothing of killing them; the bunker mentality of the campus community, which believes that moral and political decisions are proprietary to their tiny hamlet, while the rest of the world has no standing to speak on universal matters of justice; the sadism of the GMC students, some of whom have been quoted in the press as eager to sample Bill and Lou’s “delicious” flesh. Yet, and here I speak personally as someone who teaches ethics, what I find most depressing about the whole spectacle is the sheer tawdriness of the arguments advanced by GMC’s administrators and faculty in defense of the planned killings. It is nothing new that those who would defend an unjust act should go about it in an intellectually disingenuous and cheap way. But it is always upsetting to see, especially when some of those who would defend an injustice are themselves professional philosophers, as is the case here.William Throop, the college Provost, for example, who has a background in environmental ethics, has made such logically fallacious arguments to the press that they would make even an undergraduate philosophy major cringe. “Our choice,” he solemnly told the New York Times this week, “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.” This false dilemma–either we eat Bill and Lou, or we eat some wretched animal who was raised in intensive confinement on a factory farm–is but one symptom among many of the bad faith that has infected the GMC campus. Throop of course ignores the existence of a third choice, which is simply not to eat the bodies of animals at all. He does not bother to explain why killing Bill and Lou constitutes an important moral good. It is enough for him that they have previously been categorized as objects for free manipulation and use. “Bill and Lou are not pets,” he told the Times reporter, but “part of an intimate biotic community” based on “relationships of care and respect.” It is this self-same “intimate community” of “care and respect” that will shoot Bill and Lou in the head and cut their throats. But if Throop senses the doublespeak required in making such public utterances, he has so far not let on.Perhaps the most detailed defense so far of the GMC decision by an academic is that by Steven Fesmire, a philosophy professor at the college, who this week dashed off a testy reply to James McWilliams’ eloquent blog entries in defense of the two oxen. For this reason it will be Fesmire’s missive I’ll focus on here.The first thing to note is the tone of Fesmire’s letter, which is one of strident indignation. Fesmire’s tone in fact coincides with the general feeling of the college’s faculty, staff, and students at Green Mountain College that they are being unfairly singled out for criticism in a world that treats nonhuman animals with indifference and cruelty. The gist of the campus response has been, in fine, “How dare you outsiders judge Green Mountain College, or second-guess its communal decisions?” What is odd, or simply curious, about the GNC community’s palpable irritation is that college wears its environmentalist ethic openly on its sleeve, proudly and publically touting its working farm as a “caring” place for “its” animals. Indeed, the college invests good money in promoting this ethical image nationally, to attract students as well as external grants. Why then should the GMC community be so irritated, or surprised, that the world has at last come around to take a look, to take the college at its “ethical” word? Yet here is Fesmire, sneering in his letter to McWilliams at the “righteousness” of animal rights activists, even while mounting his own self-righteous defense of Green Mountain’s civilizing mission.Fesmire’s strategy is simply to dodge the ethical issues at the core of the controversy. He does not bother to explain why it is morally acceptable to kill these two animals. Instead, he settles for defending the process by which his community arrived at its decision. He argues, first, that because the decision to kill the animals was arrived at democratically, the decision must be just. Second, he suggests that because that decision (or the deliberative process–it isn’t clear which) was just, no one outside the community has the right to question or to criticize it. Third, he implies that morality is relative to local cultural practice. The rest of the letter is mostly ad hominem.Let us consider Fesmire’s first claim, that the decision of the GMC community is just because everyone had a say in it. No serious ethicist would buy such nonsense. The fact that the GMC community voted to kill the oxen tells us nothing whatsoever about whether that community’s decision was a just or fair one. As a professor of philosophy, Fesmire will have no difficulty, I hope, recalling the trial of Socrates, who was unjustly sentenced to death on the basis of a scrupulously democratic process by his fellow Athenians. In that instance, Socrates of course chose to abide by the court’s judgment, in order not to subvert Athenian institutions of law. Yet neither he nor his followers made the mistake at the time of believing that the verdict was just, solely because a majority of free Athenian men voted to kill him. (Few commentators in the 2,500 year interval since have found the verdict just, either.) So we must first of all separate out the question of rational or transparent procedural democracy from the question of justice: while the two may overlap, they are not the same thing. Democratic process is surely an admirable value, but it is not the only value, nor even the most important value. What could be more valuable than democracy? Truth, for one thing. Justice, for another. Perhaps saving the life of an innocent, for another.Fesmire might reply that, whether or not the GMC decision was just “as such,” the oxen should nonetheless heed Socrates’s example and go meekly to their deaths, out of bovine respect for due process of law (or at least college proceduralism). By the same token, Bill and Lou’s thousands of sympathetic advocates ought to shut up, too, for daring to question the community’s “verdict.” If this analogy to the trial of Socrates seems far-fetched, consider Fesmire’s contention that among the “voices” included in GMC’s “inclusive deliberation” were those of the victims themselves. Just as Socrates, a prominent member of Athens, was allowed to speak his mind at his trial before being sentenced to death, Bill and Lou, we are told, were allowed to be “heard.” As Fesmire writes: “We strive to be a community that listens to, responds to, and thoughtfully incorporates different voices. Yes, Bill and Lou’s voices too….” Here, though, the analogy begins to fail, since Socrates was a full citizen of Athens, whereas the GMC oxen have the status of dependent slaves, mere property. Nonetheless, in both cases we have what is essentially a communal show trial ending in the forgone conclusion of a death sentence. Whereas the Athenians believed Socrates had to be killed for raising too many uncomfortable questions about the hypocrisies of Athenian society, however, the GMC-ers seem to believe that Bill and Lou should be killed so as not to further blur the boundaries between companion animals and workable commodities. Those boundaries must be maintained at all costs. For to allow the oxen to live would be to compromise the college’s mission as a place where unjust killing of defenseless beings is the norm, not the exception. The college will not show any mercy or compassion for these animals because it cannot. To do so would be to carve out a dangerous exception, one that would implicitly call into question the moral justification for GNC’s whole animal operation.When I first glanced through Fesmire’s letter and saw his language of “voices” in reference to Bill and Lou, I thought he was at least granting them a degree of subjectivity of will and interest. But I was mistaken. Fesmire is merely speaking figuratively. He does not mean the community literally tried to listen to what Bill and Lou had to say. He did not mean, for example, that members of the community tried to attend phenomenologically to Bill and Lou’s embodied practices and states of being as eating, cuddling with one another, responding to the affection of their keepers, expressing curiosity, and so on, to glean a sense of their relative affirmation of life. (Perhaps, had the oxen been present at their own hearing, their living, breathing bodies would have constituted eloquent enough proof of their desire not to die.) What, then, does Fesmire mean when he says that the GMC community tried to listen and to respond to Bill and Lou’s voices too? We explains: we should listen to their voices “so long as we acknowledge that their interests are not obviously best represented in this instance by those distant from the thicket of actual, on-the-ground considerations.”What Fesmire means is that anyone who lies outside the insular, self-confirming community of GMC is by definition too “distant” from the “actual, on-the-ground considerations” to have the right to an opinion about the animals’ fate. It is true that hundreds of Vermonters, including some local residents in the small town of Poultney, where the college is based, have expressed their desire to see the oxen spared the indignity of being bled to death to make hamburger meat for the school cafeteria. But such facts are seen as irrelevant by Fesmire, Throop, and others. By “distant,” let us be clear, Fesmire refers to an impassable moral, rather than geographical, distance. But if even local animal advocates are too “distant” to qualify to know what is in the best interests of Lou and Bill, who then is “close enough”? If the animals’ voices are not to be heard literally, who will “translate” their speech for us? Who will tell us whether they want to live, or whether they would prefer to die?We come now to the sick essence of the thing. According to Fesmire, the human beings best situated to speak for Bill and Lou are the very same overseers who have exploited Bill and Lou all these years, who have goaded them and coerced their labor. Yes, it is “the teamsters who have worked with Bill and Lou for a decade” who “are obviously the best-positioned proxies to speak for the oxen’s interests.” By the same Orwellian logic, the best advocate and “proxy” for the interests of illegally held prisoners at Guantánamo Bay is the US military: the human rights lawyers with Center for Constitutional Rights are by contrast too “distant” from the on-the-ground “actualities” of Guantánamo to defend the interests of the souls incarcerated there. All morality, in other words, is local.Now, as an ethicist himself, Fesmire surely knows how perilously close he is to making an argument from moral relativism here. The relativist of course believes that whatever a group of people happens to believe is morally right is morally right. And Fesmire does seem to be staking out relativistic ground when he chides GMC’s critics for lacking “fine-tuned awareness, rich responsibility, and cross-cultural understanding.” (One wonders what “awareness,” exactly, the abolitionists are lacking in. In what sense have the abolitionists not “understood” GMC’s position? Do they mistake the facts of the matter?) He also writes, “our Farm offers a culturally realistic, workable option….” That is both true and beside the point, at least from a normative ethical standpoint, unless Fesmire really is a relativist. For while a farm that kills animals for commercial sale and for human consumption is indeed engaged in “culturally realistic” practices, all that means is that it is enacting normative behaviors that are sanctioned by the dominant majority. Fesmire seems to be implying that what makes such practices on the farm morally legitimate is the fact that they coincide with the prejudices of the existing culture.But history has no shortage of cautionary lessons about mistaking the common sense views of a dominant majority for certain moral truth. Consider the logic used to “rebut” the abolitionists of an earlier era–those “intemperate” activists who condemned human slavery as an abomination that should be eliminated. Apologists for slavery made virtually the same arguments as the ones issuing today from the GMC community: the slaves are “pampered” and well-treated; the slave drivers and owners have the slaves best interests at heart, and are in the best position to serve as their “proxies,” since the slaves themselves are too incompetent to state their own preferences; the “workable” and “culturally realistic” solution to the slave controversy is not “inflammatory” denunications of slavery as such, but the reform of slavery as an institution, in line with well-recognized “humane” guidelines; outsiders (Northerners) are too “distant” from the facts on the ground, and ought to shut up about it. Fesmire’s apologia for the GMC decision is little different in form from these earlier attempts to redeem slavery. The existing norms must be just and appropriate, because those who participate in the system or profit from it believe it to be so.Sensing perhaps the weakness of his own reasoning, Fesmire goes beyond dismissing animal rights critics as outsiders who have no standing to speak out to attack them ad hominem. Borrowing a page from Michael Pollan, Barbara Kingsolver, and countless other apologists for the meat industry and for the killing of animals for commercial and aesthetic reasons, Fesmire attacks thoughtful critics like James McWilliams, Karen Davis, and dozens of others who have disagreed with the GMC decision by implying that they are uninformed, naive dolts. It is by now a tedious staple of this “literature” that anyone who advocates for the interests of nonhuman beings must be either a simpleton who fails to grasp the “complexities” of the situation or else a close-minded ideologue (or, sometimes, and paradoxically, both). Fesmire implies as much when he writes that “the abolitionists suppose, wrongly, that there’s a single right way (theirs) to reason about this vexing ethical matter.” Is he saying that the abolitionist side is wrong simply for believing that they are right? If so, since when is it objectionable for someone who takes side in a political or ethical debate to identify themselves with a clear position, or to defend that position passionately? Is Fesmire suggesting that it is wrong to have strong opinions about moral controversies? Or that moral problems always, or often, admit of multiple, equally valid conclusions? If the latter, then we are back in the mire of relativism.In fact, none of GMC’s critics have claimed “that there’s a single right way (theirs) to reason about” the issue, only that the conclusion Green Mountain has reached through its reasoning is erroneous. Nor have critics of the GMC plan to kill Bill and Lou denied that the pro-killing position is, in Fesmire’s words, “a plausible expression of an ethical worldview.” They have only said that it is wrong. The larger point is this: it simply doesn’t matter that, as Fesmire writes, “On complex ethical matters, thoughtful and well-informed people may reasonably disagree.” Disagreement is the basis of moral and political life, an ineradicable feature of the human condition. So while I agree that, as he puts it, “Democracy requires a keen ear to other voices,” democracy does not require me to accept as true, or just, whatever it is those other voices happen to be saying. “Thoughtful and well-informed people” also disagreed over slavery, the rights of women, Jim Crow, the Vietnam War, and the invasion of Iraq, to name just a few issues. That did not keep anti-war activists from oppoing wars or civil rights protesters from getting arrested to defend the interests of the vulnerable against other “thoughtful and well-informed people” who nonetheless proved to be on the wrong side of history.Ending his epistle on a final note of outrage and indignation, Fesmire writes: “Perhaps you think meat is murder, or at least that it’s transparently clear to anyone with any moral sensibility that you cannot simultaneously care and slaughter. It’s the pristine clarity that’s worrisome in a warring, polarized world with such an array of competing certainties. Perhaps try to live in another country, ideally in circumstances that will repeatedly place you in the position of an honored guest at the banquet table. Meet a wider range of farmers.” So much for liberal tolerance. Fesmire first tramples another straw man–the notion that GMC’s critics believe it to be “transparently clear to anyone with any moral sensibility that you cannot simultaneously care and slaughter” other sensitive beings. Obviously, though, if advocates for nonhuman beings believed such a thing, then their work would already be done. In reality, their task–our task–is rather to educate our fellow human beings that, yes, it is hypocritical and contradictory, not to mention pathological, for us to profess to “care” for other sentient beings while at the same time or in the very next instance to ruthlessly exploit or brutally kill them. To take such a position is not to lay claim to a “transparently clear” set of beliefs, but to make a judgment call about the value of nonhuman beings, about the scope of our duties toward them as moral subjects, and ultimately too about the purposes of human life. Fesmire is of course under no obligation to be swayed by the abolitionist critique. But it seems to me that he and others at GNC should have the decency to acknowledge it as an intellectually serious position, one that is well-grounded in several philosophical and theoretical literatures. Moreover, it is unmannerly of him, not to mention out of keeping with his liberal outlook, to tell vegans to go “live in another country” so that they can better appreciate “cultural diversity.”With a final angry thrust, Fesmire would have done with GMC’s critics by accusing them of (of all things) moral lucidity. What Fesmire ultimately seems to find threatening is not veganism or abolitionism at all, but the very possibility that someone–anyone–might have a strong feeling about a social or ethical issue. If “pristine clarity” of moral perspective is indeed the reason why we live in a “warring, polarized world,” as Fesmire suggests, and not, say, poverty and injustice, the ecological disaster, capitalism, male violence against women, racism, or–yes–speciesism, then presumably the cure is to exchange our moral “clarity” for the brand of muddy thinking and moral relativism being bottled at Green Mountain College. But I for one find moral clarity to be a bracing tonic. For one thing, it is a useful remedy for the sort of mealy-mouthed and equivocal moral declarations that have been coming over the PR transom at GMC these past few weeks.In the final analysis, the attempt by Fesmire and others to swaddle the GMC’s community’s moral blunder in the garb of Yankee independence and grassroots democracy will only convince those already trapped in the fold. Only they will see GMC as a courageous bastion of liberality, diversity, and democracy under siege from without by illiberal, close-minded, democracy-hating barbarians. The rest of the world will on the contrary will see a close-knit, and close-minded, community that has become so attached to its own ideological shibboleths that it would fain kill two of its “beloved” members to prove a point.Far from being a “vexing” moral problem of great “complexity,” as Fesmire and others suggest, the case of Bill and Lou is in fact remarkably uncomplicated. There is simply no morally compelling reason, none, why they should be put to death, particularly when there is an offer on the table from a sanctuary to care for them. What is so “vexing” for Green Mountain College community is only the fact that the college has become embroiled in a public controversy over the animals’ fate. That is the real source of the campus’s generalized indignation. And while indignation in the face of an ethical challenge to one’s actions is not always the sign of a bad conscience, it often is. So it is in this case. Year after year, Bill and Lou, lovely, gentle, intelligent, feeling beings, were coerced by their human overseers to labor for the college. They plowed its rain-laden fields and pulled its heavy machinery, in inclement weather and in virtually all seasons. The college has now decided to “repay” this debt by cutting their throats and dismembering their bodies, so that in this way they might be exploited one last time, in death too. And it is finally this grotesque and unfeeling utilitarian logic, I suspect, that accounts for the cheapness of the “rationales” being offered by Throop, Fesmire, and others at GMC. Because deep down, even they must know that they are participating in injustice, by lending intellectual legitimacy to what can only be described as a vicious act of communal violence and betrayal.

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  • Patrice

    Wow. Amazing letter from John S. I haven’t read every single comment and letter supporting this effort to save Bill And Lou, I came late the cause.
    Have we tried buying them from GMC? I would certainly chip in toward that end.

    I am so very grateful to everyone working to save these two gentle souls. x

  • bravebird

    “Animal Activist”

    So glad to know you support sending Bill and Lou to a different sanctuary. Please see our next post and be sure to tell the college President that this is how you feel.

    For the record, we did not ask to be allowed to voice our opinion at the Forum, just to answer questions about VINE and its ability to care for large animals, which were matters of fact that nobody at the college could answer. We also urged–I actually begged–the moderator of the forum to have an independent veterinarian examine Bill and Lou and then be on hand to answer student questions about Lou’s condition. You tell me: Did that happen, or did you have to trust “information” about Lou’s condition coming from people who supported his slaughter?

  • I am a fairly well-known author of twenty seven books of fiction. I’m also a recent vegan.

    I understand a billion animals are slaughtered every year for our culinary “enjoyment.” But slaughter our pets? And then EAT them? DOesn’t sound very American to me.

    Lou and Bill didn’t have such a great life to begin with. As soon as they reached adulthood they were castrated—without anesthetic. Then,m when they became “mascots” of Green Valley College, they were kept in stalls,frequently yoked, and forced to drag around heavy loads, apparently for the entertainment of the students. Now, old and tired and probably too old to work anymore, they are apparently marked for slaughter, mainly by the president of this august institution, Paul J. Fonteyn.

    Why? Because after they are slaughtered, they will be SERVED AS HAMBURGER to the students who had enjoyed their display as Green Mountain mascots.

    Several animal sanctuaries have offered to take care of them for the rest of their lives. Many have offered to BUY them. But President Paul J. Fonteyn—and by the way, the main job of a college president is to raise money for that institution and NOT to educate—just will not HEAR of it! The slaughterhouse he dealt with refused to kill Lou and Bill because of the terrible reputation it would bring to them and to the school, but Fonteyn still refuses to save their lives and allow them, at long last, the decency of their golden years.

    Why, Mr. Fonteyn? Are you actually fearful that your “power of authority” will be threatened by allowing two animals that were loved for years by your students to be slaughtered, and that no one would respect you any more? Are you just bone-deep cruel but now too old to torture cats and pull the wings off flies? Or are you not quite intelligent enough to know that most hamburgers eaten by Americans every day are from YOUNG cows and steers, because the older they get, the tougher, more sinewy and more gamey their meat gets?

    Now you’re famous, though, aren’t you, sir? And you’ll be a tiny bit more famous if you read the blog on my website. (It’ll pretty much be this letter, with additions and adjustments.) Not a smidgen of mercy for Lou and Bill, eh? Even the President of the United States each year “pardons” from execution a Thanksgiving turkey. But I guess the US President and his “power of authority” isn’t quite as important as the president of a small college nobody has ever heard of.

  • Jill Borden

    Thanks to everyone who has spoken up for animal rights and animal dignity. Bill and Lou are beautiful, gentle, sentient beings. Their predicament is symbolic of the plight of millions upon millions of domestic and wild animals; that is, they are viewed by those making this hideous and unnecessary decision to kill them as having worth only as their lives (and deaths) serve human animals. But this is not TRUE. Their lives have intrinsic worth, completely independent of how or whether they serve humans. As it is, they have served human animals for their entire lives to date. By way of thanks for their service and as an offering of simple compassion, the humanly responsible thing can only be to allow them to live out the rest of their natural lives in the company and care of people who know their intrinsic worth, and who value them.

  • Wen

    I am blown away by the thoughtfulness of the letter by Jill Borden. “Intrinsic worth”. I have pondered the situation of Bill and Lou from many angles (legal, etc) but this is what it really comes down to.
    Intrinsic worth.

  • Thank you, Jill Borden. I’m with you all the way. As for “President” Paul J. Fonteyn of Green Mountain College, I have about as much respect for him as I do for a boil on the butt!
    Keep fightin for Lou and Bill—and all the other savagely butchered animals (more than ONE BILLION lives a year in our country), too.

  • Steve

    I have been trying to avoid saying Four Legs Good, Two Legs bad but it is becoming difficult.

    The Davis Educational Foundation gave GMC grant “to fund a project that will assess sustainability skills and knowledge students acquire in the College’s award-winning Environmental Liberal Arts Program (ELA).”

    Is this what the Davis Foundation had in mind?

    http://www.greenmtn.edu/news_events/new_releases/davis-foundation-grant.aspx

  • nita m moccia

    I for one, cannot sleep at night since hearing of this act of unkindness and downright disregard for for these two beautiful animals….An institution such as GMC should be “reaching out” for prospective students…..but instead , they refuse to answer any of the 1000 calls coming in concerned about the welfare of Bill and Lou………………I believe he is hiding something not very nice about what REALLY goes on in the farm program…of course this is just speculation on my part, but i am one to “read into silence” of others. it appears he is on a mission to KILL KILL KILL to make his point….He appears to be a sad man, and yet the PRESIDENT and CEO of an educational institution…The world knows of this..and yet he will proceed with the murder, because it is no longer a slaughter for food for students….its almost like he wants them dead to shut us all up…however,little does he know of the repercussions of such acts…. which could actually destroy this college reputation for a long time….or perhaps he does know…but how will anyone really know when he won’t even pick up the phone, talk with sanctuary’s, or the press…..not one soul knows what is going on in this mans mind….not even himself……he could change all of this by giving clemency to these two oxen that have educated students,broke ground with heaving out of date yokes around their necks to create gardens of fresh vegetables for the students to eat….and their reward is death. Lou i hear has a hurt foot from stepping into a ground hog hole….why did not the farm manager “walk the field” before releasing them into pasture is beyond me….that in its self seems like Sloppy farm practices…..Return calls sir answer emails we just want to HEAR what YOU have to really say on this

  • I am very proud to be a latecoming part of the people who have written bravely here.

  • pattrice

    Folks, perhaps due to the extremely high traffic we’ve been receiving lately, blog comments have begun acting very strangely. People on both sides write to say they cannot see long comments they they know they posted, and I also see a backlog of comments for approval–some from trusted email addresses that ought to have been automatically approved. I hope to get this all sorted out by the end of the weekend, but I’ve got a couple of more urgent tasks to which I must attend before I turn to what looks like will be an hours-long exercise in frustration.

    Thanks to all who have voiced support. To those who have posted challenging comments in the spirit of true dialogue, I promise a response as soon as humanely possible, given our workload over here. To those posting insults or rants, I make no promises.

    And, again, as per this memo, we are imploring GMC to seize the opportunity to allow Bill and Lou to retire to Farm Sanctuary. So, rants against me or VINE are beside the point anyway.

  • nita m moccia

    Pattrice….insults and rants are out of pure frustration for a lot of us whose hands are “yoked” with this issue……Most of us mean NO direct harm to anyone or any one person……Have you never Ranted on Women’s rights issues animal welfare issues, etc.?? We are here in numbers in support, not to see you shot down…..sometimes it takes a revolution to get a point across………..We as a mass on behalf of these two beautiful creatures mean no harm…………we just want what is best for them….and some of us RANT. I believe we have learned to RANT because voices never seemed to be heard in this country where a Government lies to the people that elected them…..keep up the good work and i hope the “tick” in communications resolves

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