In Vermont, Outcry Over Oxen

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A Facebook petition asking Green Mountain College to spare the school’s beloved oxen team from slaughter has racked up more than 30,000 signatures from all over the world. But school officials say they won’t change their mind.  They say using the oxen to feed students has generated a powerful dialog about meat, where it comes from and how it’s raised.

For years, Bill and Lou were a near daily sight out in the fields at Green Mountain College.  But earlier this year, Lou stepped in a gopher hole and injured his leg. 

Ben Dube, a member of the farm staff, walks across the  pasture where Lou and Bill now graze in the afternoon sun.  He squats down in front of Lou, "See the swelling there," he asks? "He’s injured on his rear hock, which is kind of like the knee but in the back."

Lou’s injury hasn’t gotten better.  And since oxen work as a team, the college retired the eleven-year old pair.

Bill stretches his head up so Ben can scratch under his chin. "He is so beautiful," says Dube, "he is."

Bill and Lou’s big brown eyes, their curving horns and gentle, but massive girth have made them minor celebrities on campus and beyond.  Many say that’s what makes it so hard to believe that the college wants to slaughter and eat them.  Miriam Jones is co-founder of VINE, an animal sanctuary in Springfield.

"These two individuals have become veritable mascots for the school," she says.  "They are the profile picture on the farm’s Facebook page.  They are known by name."  She says,  "this is why the outcry has been so significant all over."

VINE offered to transport Bill and Lou for free to their farm to live with other rescued animals.

VINE’s Pattrice Jones, says they were stunned when the college said no and cited sustainability as one of its reasons. "We do not believe that the way to conserve resources is to kill the elderly and disabled," she says; "to prevent them from using up resources because they’re not useful anymore.  We just find that ethically repugnant."

"We have been very clear from the beginning that this is not a petting zoo, says Phillip Ackerman-Leist. "It was going to be a sustainable farm operation."

Ackerman-Leist heads Green Mountain College’s Farm and Food project.  He says 70 percent of students at the school eat meat.  Twelve years ago, when the college began developing its sustainable farm program, vegetarian students specifically asked that livestock be included to confront the realities of eating meat. 

He says this debate goes way beyond Bill and Lou to explore how most meat is currently being raised for consumption.  He says faculty and students have spent a lot of time discussing it.  "It’s something I think about a lot," he says.  "I actually have 50 head of cattle at home, most of them have names and I interact with them on a daily basis.   It’s never an easy decision for a farmer to say it’s time for an animal to go to slaughter."

Andrea Jacques laughs as a young brown cow reaches through a fence to nuzzle her. "This is Gus," she says smiling.   "He’s actually for sale right now. Otherwise, he might be sent off to market as well."

Jacques is a junior who plans to study veterinary medicine.  She says she agrees with the decision to slaughter Bill and Lou and says she’s been surprised at the backlash from people off campus. "Most of the students here understand why things are the way that they are."

Campus officials say meat from the oxen will provide the college with more than a months’ worth of hamburger. 

Jacque says it’s silly not to use it. "I don’t choose to eat hamburger necessarily but if I was, this would be the one that I’d choose to eat, because I know they’ve had a great life compared to some hamburger that you get which may not have had the best life."

She says if people think there’s something wrong with that, they may want to reconsider their food choices.

VIDEO: Lou & Bill, Green Mountain College’s Resident Oxen

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