Green Mountain College in Vermont has, in the name of “sustainable agriculture,” chosen to kill its two working oxen — Bill and Lou — rather than allow them to retire in peace at Vine Sanctuary.
The attempt to defend the pro-execution point of view has now spread to the Post-Carbon Institute, which has posted an article by Philip Ackerman-Leist, “Bill and Lou: A parable for saving our broken food system.” The basic thesis of this article is a long-winded way of saying, “if we own it, we can kill it,” though he puts it a bit more elegantly:
Given the pressures exerted from outside interest groups that know neither the facts nor the animals nearly as well as our students do, it is beginning to feel more like an issue of food sovereignty.
On Facebook, some students at Green Mountain College (GMC) have been even less subtle; they show dead animals and glee at killing (see comments). What is the essential difference between this sort of crude delight in violence, and the article’s contention that the owners of the animals should have the say in determining their outcome?
There are areas of protection for animals in every culture. Wilderness areas, protection of endangered species, and domestic pets are all examples in our culture. Animals outside of this circle are “fair game”: mostly, domestic livestock, where torture, mutilation, and early death are typical. But if Michael Vick does the same thing to some dogs, this arouses outrage, because he went after animals which (for Americans) occupy this sacred space. Even livestock can enter this circle; many owners of backyard chickens treat them as pets.
The basic problem that Green Mountain College has is that they gave Bill and Lou their names. There is every indication that naming the animals was not an accident, that many of the students were attached to them. This is an admission that Bill and Lou became individuals in the sphere of human concern.
But now GMC wants to transfer them back out of this realm, claiming property rights. That is what is arousing indignation. Bill and Lou don’t belong to GMC any more than those dogs who were tortured belonged to Michael Vick.
If the extensiveness of that relationship is the rationale for not slaughtering an animal, then the logical conclusion is that relationships with any animals used for food should not be fostered. Run with that argument far enough, and you end up smack-dab in the middle of a “concentrated animal feeding operation,” otherwise known as a CAFO.
No, that’s not the logical conclusion. This is sophistry in the service of brutality. The logical and common-sense conclusion is that you don’t slaughter an animal you care about. Ackerman-Leist wants to “care” for animals and “kill” them as well, by juggling words and redefining terms. Factory farm operators often say that they “care” about their animals, too. It is similar to the logic of the Inquisition: we care about your soul, that’s why we’re burning you at the stake.
This is not a debate about veganism. It is a debate about common decency. Imagine that GMC students, imbued with the passion for sustainability, decide to round up some dogs who would otherwise be euthanized and kill them and serve them up as food to the student body. Dead dogs, after all, represent an important potential source of nutrients, which would otherwise go to waste. (This is a thought experiment, because serving dog meat to the public is probably illegal in Vermont, but let’s suppose it was legal.) There would be disgust, and rightly so, because in this country we regard dogs as sacred.
It’s no different with Bill and Lou. Killing such animals violates our sense of human integrity. Killing Bill and Lou is not about trying to teach sustainability. It is about teaching students that it’s all right to be cruel in the name of some pre-determined ideology.
And while what they are doing to Bill and Lou is wrong, what they are doing to the students is even more vicious, because the violence they are teaching to their students will be replicated many thousands of times over during their lives and their children’s lives. This is indeed a parable for saving our broken food system, but not the one which Ackerman-Leist wants to make.