Bill and Lou: Oxen for Lunch

A few days ago, NPR's food blog The Salt shared a fascinating story, "Despite Protest, College Plans To Slaughter, Serve Farm's Beloved Oxen." It told the tale of two oxen, Bill and Lou, who have worked at Green Mountain College, on the campus's Cerridwen Farm, for the last ten years. But now, because Lou has an injured leg, the two oxen are to be retired (Bill will retire too, because oxen work as a team).

 Although a nearby animal sanctuary, Vine, has offered to take the oxen and let them live for free in the sanctuary space, Green Mountain College has declined the offer and plans to slaughter the oxen and serve their meat in the form of hamburgers in the college cafeteria.

Because so many of Green Mountain's students love Bill and Lou, and consider them to be campus mascots, there has been a significant outcry from those who believe it cruel and unnecessary for the college to kill these gentle animals.

But the Cerridwen Farm workers who advocate the slaughter think that it's important to see the animals as part of a sustainable farm venture, and not just as pets. They do not want to deny the cycle of life and death, and believe eating these animals will preclude having to support consumption of meat that most likely would come from factory farms. (See the bottom of my post for the full response from the Farm staff).

I think this is a particularly interesting case study that highlights the complexity of meat-eating in our modern world (to read previous posts on this topic, see: On the Complexity of Meat Substitutes and A Simple Argument for (Quasi-)Vegetarianism).

Reading the comments on the original Salt post is especially fascinating, because it pits vegans and animal rights activists against environmentalists and the major representatives of today's "real food movement". In some ways, it seems like all of these groups would have some fundamental goals in common. But when it comes to actual conversations about animals' lives, little agreement can be found.

What do you all think? Should Bill and Lou be served as hamburger meat? On the broader issue, how do we balance animal ethics with environmental ethics?

"At Cerridwen Farm, Green Mountain College’s working farm operation, we seek to teach and model small-scale farm production that is ecologically, economically and socially sustainable. We work to maintain high ethical standards for treatment of the land, people and animals. We have draft animals on the farm because they do important work which would otherwise be performed by equipment that consumes diesel fuel. We are currently engaged in many promising projects to demonstrate how small family farms, managed sustainably, can survive and thrive in an agricultural landscape dominated by industrial farms.

Bill and Lou came to us nearly ten years ago as malnourished and neglected animals. At GMC they received considerate and humane care.

This was a decision many months in the making, with members of our community carefully weighing alternatives. On complex ethical matters, thoughtful and well-informed people may reasonably disagree. Here is a bit of background on the complexities and the decision-making process:

  • This past year, Lou sustained a recurring injury to his left rear hock that made it difficult for him to work. After attempting several remedies and giving him a prolonged rest without any improvement, it was the professional opinion of the farm staff and consulting veterinarians that he was no longer capable of working. Farm staff searched for a replacement animal to pair with Bill, but single oxen are difficult to find and it is uncertain that Bill would accept a new teammate.
  • Our Farm Crew works with the farm managers to implement plans for overall livestock management, including sale and slaughter decisions. In particularly complex situations, College faculty experts in philosophy, policy, ethics and animal husbandry are consulted, and students from a variety of disciplines are often involved in these discussions. Many of the decisions about livestock on the college farm are rooted in classroom and campus-wide dialogue, representing a variety of perspectives.
  • Our process was open and transparent. We delayed making any decision over the summer and held an open community forum on October 4 to discuss the ethics of sending draft animals to slaughter, and Bill and Lou’s case specifically. Our commitment to providing these challenging discussions within the college community is all too rare in higher education.
  • While many of our students are vegan or vegetarian, many also eat meat, and we strive to meet the dietary preferences of all students. Bill and Lou, when processed for meat, will yield over one ton of beef. If this meat doesn’t come from our animals, it likely will come from a factory farm setting which carries with it a significant amount of ecological impact. For example, the American agricultural system uses approximately 5 million gallons of water to produce the same amount of beef (not to mention greenhouse gas production, soil erosion, and water pollution).
Those who know Lou and Bill best—our farm staff and students—are uncomfortable with the potential ramifications of sending the animals to a sanctuary. Bill and Lou are large animals, weighing over a ton. A transition to a new setting will be difficult for them, and only postpones the fact that someone else, in the not-too-distant future, will need to decide that it is kinder to kill them than to have them continue in increasing discomfort. If sent to a sanctuary, Bill and Lou would continue to consume resources at a significant rate. As a sustainable farm, we can’t just consider the responsible stewardship of the resources within our boundaries, but of all the earth's resources"


  1. It is interesting that there are people at GMC who are uncomfortable about the ramifications of making the compassionate choice to send Bill and Lou to a sanctuary, and not uncomfortable about sending two animals, that have helped to make their college farm sustainable for ten long years, to their death! Sustainability is an admirable goal, but not if it is sustainability without a heart; then they are simply sustaining a world lacking kindness and mercy which, let's face it, is why our world is as troubled as it is. Bill and Lou have earned their lives, made more contribution to sustainability than anyone else at their college. If they choose to kill Bill and Lou, this will reflect poorly on the college and the "ramifications" will certainly not be to their liking, with many likely to withdraw their support for their college.I have always been a huge advocate of sustainability, but not at the cost of our humanity and compassion.

    1. Thanks for your thoughtful comment, S.D. I think you're right that we have to figure out the balance between sustainability and compassion/kindness. But I think it is difficult to figure out where the tipping point of that balance actually is. This case does raise many interesting issues around animal ethics. Of course, we don't usually consider sustainability when thinking of human life (especially end-of-life situations). That would be seen as callous. But in the animal case, that concern is much less present. [although, there are people considering sustainability when choosing whether to have children, for example. Or whether to prolong life, as with my friend Christine's forthcoming book, "Dying Green: An Ecological Perspective of End-of-Life Medical Care in the U.S."


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