Steven Fesmire, a professor at Green Mountain College, has posted a thoughtful response on the controversy over killing Bill and Lou. For those of you hiding under a rock for the past few weeks, Bill and Lou are two working oxen slated to be killed at the end of the month, even though a place for them has been guaranteed by Vine Sanctuary.
Fesmire, although a “default” vegetarian himself, defends the decision of the community and is dismayed by the vitriolic attacks on Green Mountain College (GMC). GMC is a progressive liberal-minded institution; they teach Peter Singer and Tom Regan, and many of the students are vegans. The attacks on GMC are the work of opportunistic vegan abolitionists. Why should GMC be tarred by vegan abolitionists for not adhering to a totally pure position, when the GMC approach to agriculture — flawed though it may be — is light years ahead of standard agricultural practices?
Well, here’s the problem. GMC doesn’t understand what’s at work here. The outrage is not coming from a vegan abolitionist point of view at all; it is coming from a sense of cultural betrayal.
You can’t assume just from the decibel level that it’s “abolitionist” or “welfarist”: “a robin redbreast in a cage, sets all heaven in a rage.” If we define an abolitionist approach as one which seeks to dismantle existing institutions, and a welfarist approach as one which seeks to work within institutions, then the objections to Bill and Lou’s execution are basically welfarist.
Why? Because Bill and Lou have names. Even though technically and legally they fall in the category of property, for practical and social purposes they have been treated as pets. Even though they are bovines, they share more with cats and dogs than they do with their relatives on factory farms.
The closest analogy to the Bill and Lou case is the case of Michael Vick’s dogs. While the way Vick treated his dogs was horrible, from an abolitionist point of view what Vick did was fairly minor in comparison to factory farms. Animals on factory farms are mutilated, tortured, and killed just like Vick’s dogs, and they are killed by the thousands every minute.
Why should we even bother protesting what Michael Vick did when it is dwarfed by what happened in the past minute to factory farmed animals? Because Vick’s dogs could be defended. Americans love dogs; they exist in a culturally defined “sacred space,” like the sacred cows in India. If animals in this “safe zone” can’t be defended, how can any animal anywhere be safe? The animal activist response in Vick’s case was essentially “welfarist.” It sought to strengthen existing cultural understanding, which in this case was fairly easy: just enforce the law.
Instructively, the true abolitionists (like Gary Francione) yawned at the Michael Vick case. This is what Francione said in 2007:
There is something positively bizarre about condemning Michael Vick for using dogs in a hideous form of entertainment when 99% of us also use animals that are every bit as sentient as dogs in another hideous form of entertainment that is no more justifiable than fighting dogs: eating animals and animal products.
Bill and Lou are different from Michael Vick’s dogs in a single critical way: while there is a cultural expectation that animals like Bill and Lou will continue to be treated like pets, there is no legal expectation. That is what makes this case explosive.
The outrage is not being driven by an abolitionist perspective. It is being driven by the sense that Bill and Lou have been betrayed. You rescued them, you treated them well, you gave them a job, you gave them names, your students loved them and petted them, and now you’re going to kill them deliberately. What we need to do is strengthen the cultural expectation that animals which are given names and treated as individuals should be, well, treated as individuals. Bill and Lou are culturally in the same category as cats and dogs. That is your problem, not some imaginary cabal of vegan abolitionists.
GMC has been caught off guard. They’re don’t understand the cultural forces at work which have now greatly weakened GMC’s image, and will continue to weaken it no matter how many times they discuss Peter Singer. They have been fatally slow in understanding the public relations angle of this case. They are also getting a quick lesson on cultural expectations regarding animals.
In defense of GMC, even most animal activists don’t understand this dynamic either. They don’t know why they’re protesting Bill and Lou when there are thousands of animals heartlessly killed each minute. All they know is that they don’t like it and that they’re really angry about it. In the meantime, GMC’s integrity is being challenged, and while I don’t like all of the vitriol that comes out of the animal rights community, I can’t say that they’re wrong.
In our culture, to kill a couple of oxen is nothing. But to kill two distinct individuals, Bill and Lou, is a simple act of brutality.