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John Grindrod: Bill and Lou, caught on the horns of the dilemma

November 14, 2012

The headline in the Burlington Free Press instantly grabbed my attention as I ate breakfast last month in Stowe, Vt., before heading out to get the gondola lift up Mount Mansfield. Across the top of Section B1 of its Oct. 10 edition, it read, “College’s oxen soon to be on the menu.”



My first inclination was to say to myself, “Well, why wouldn’t they be if this was an ag college that raised its own food?”



However, as I read on, I soon discovered it was a whole lot more complicated than that.



While reading the story, I really began to ponder the difficulties that sometimes arise when it comes to the relationships human beings sometimes develop with animals.



The story involved Bill and Lou, two oxen that, for more than a decade, worked as a team in the fields of Green Mountain College in Poultney, Vt. During that time, as working cattle, the two became mainstays of the school’s research and education program in draft animal farming. On any given day, it was a common sight to see the two hardworking oxen hauling loaders and mowing decks and putting in their honest day’s labor in exchange for their bedding and of course the hundred pounds of hay and grain a day combined needed to maintain their working weight of, between them, a total of 3,500 pounds.



During their decade-long service, the oxen began to be seen by the students at the four-year liberal arts school that emphasizes environmental sustainability more as mascots than simply brutes that toiled in the fields surrounding the campus. Bill’s and Lou’s photos even were incorporated into the school’s Facebook page, and the two also have made an appearance in a video on the college’s website.



However, that was in far better times for the two. In the past year, Lou’s left rear hock was injured and didn’t heal properly, rendering him unable to work. And, given the symbiotic relationship that animals often develop that work together, Bill was unwilling to work with another partner, because Lou was the only animal with which he’d ever teamed.



This past summer, a replacement team was brought into the program, and the officials made the decision to slaughter Bill and Lou and harvest the meat for the school dining hall by the end of October. The monthly cost of continuing to feed and board them and keep them, sort of as how they were seen by many of the school’s students, as twin school mascots, at $300 a month, was deemed unjustifiable.



Now, if it were all that simple, the decision to slaughter wouldn’t have been all that difficult. After all, cost often dictates decisions in all our lives. And, when it comes to farming, despite what is occasionally seem in movies or stories of the feelings of affection 4-H’ers develop for the animals they prepare to show at county fairs, the fact is, hamburger and roasts will generally trump sentimentality every time, especially when there are upkeep costs involved.



However, VINE (an acronym meaning Veganism in the Next Evolution) Sanctuary, an organization that has been taking in animals who have escaped or been rescued from what its animal rights activists deem abusive circumstances, offered to take the animals at no cost to the school and pay for their upkeep for the rest of their lives.



And, when the story gained traction and an online petition collected some 3,000 signatures, some from the United States and some from as far away as overseas, it appeared the animals might be saved.



But, school officials failed to see any real dilemma that others so plainly saw and declined the offer. It appears they adopted a rather rigid stance.



School Provost William Throop said of the decision to process the animals for meat, “We run a model sustainable farm that integrates animals and vegetable production for the dining hall and community supported agriculture.”



Thropp went to say that the model of sustainability has ecological, economic and social dimensions that are only served when the school’s farm animals are consumed after a well-cared-for, good life.



He finished by saying that while he respects animal rights activists’ views, he hoped they would respect his.



Somehow, I don’t think animal lovers will at all agree, given the passions that erupt when it comes to animals in those who are entrenched in the belief that humans and animals are equal partners in life.



While I’m pretty ambivalent as far as animals and their fates when it comes to where such matters are relative to people’s fates, I do think, given the iconic stature the school apparently promoted when it came to Bill and Lou, that a better option would have been to allow the sanctuary to take them.



At this point Bill’s and Lou’s fates have been sealed. And, according to officials who spoke so definitively on a controversy they failed to acknowledge, to modify a line from Tom Hanks’ character in the movie “A League of Their Own,” it appears their stance was, indeed, there’s no crying in farming.






John Grindrod