A couple of years ago, I visited Green Mountain College and toured the Vermont college’s post-petroleum farm, which instructs students in ways to conduct agriculture without fossil-fuel inputs. That means that animals do a lot of work on the farm, and the most essential of those animals were a pair of oxen, Lou and Bill. They were magnificent creatures—an embodiment of power, with long horns and formidable muscle under coats the color of creamed coffee.
My tour guides, Dayna Halprin and Laura Wolfgang, and I began talking about the fate of the animals on the farm. They are sent to slaughter or, as Ms. Wolfgang described, sometimes slaughtered by students themselves. As I recall, Ms. Halprin was a vegetarian, and Ms. Wolfgang had been vegetarian in the past. Both had a real compassion for the animals they worked with, but they took a pragmatic view: The animals there had a purpose, one as old as or older than agriculture itself, and they would eventually wind up in the dining hall.
Some students on the campus had objected to the policy, and the college held discussions about whether eating the farm’s animals was ethical. Most students had come to the conclusion that if the dining hall was going to serve meat, it was better to serve meat that had had a good life on the college’s farm.
Now the issue is sizzling once again, but the furor is mostly coming from far-off places, like California, New York, Texas, Sweden, South Africa, and Ukraine, to judge from an online petition with 8,000 signatures. Bruce Friedrich, an animal-rights activist, wrote an essay for The Huffington Post decrying the college’s “false environmentalism,” and he set up the online petition. Specifically, Mr. Friedrich wants to block the college’s plan to send Lou and Bill off to slaughter, scheduled to happen sometime soon.
“Basically, the college is saying that unless they can do something for humans, Bill and Lou’s lives are totally without value,” Mr. Friedrich writes. The controversy has gotten attention from a variety of media outlets.
William Throop, a professor of philosophy and provost at Green Mountain College, says that Lou went lame over the summer, and that the farm crew had wanted to send the team to slaughter then. But he asked them to wait till the school year, when students could have a discussion about it.
In a forum, the students supported the notion of slaughtering the oxen.
“Even if you think it is wrong to eat meat, I think that it is morally permissible to serve meat in a dining hall in 2012,” Mr. Throop says. “Then the question is, Which meat? Here there was a strong convergence of the vegans, vegetarians, and the meat eaters, who said it should be meat from animals that we know have been cared for and that are local.”
The VINE Sanctuary in Vermont, which carries the slogan “Veganism Is the Next Evolution,” has offered to take the animals. Cheryl Wylie, a staff member there, has written an open letter to the college, arguing that “now is not the time to argue about diet or definitions of ‘sustainability.’”
“The only question really should be: What is best for Bill and Lou?,” she continued. “I’m sure that, if they were able to speak for themselves at the meeting, they’d ask to be allowed retire to VINE.”
But Mr. Throop says that’s a bad model for a teaching farm for sustainable agriculture. Meat production is a vital part of many small-scale farms, including the farm at Green Mountain.
He also points out that if the oxen were spared, the dining hall would continue to serve meat—and then who knows where that meat would come from or what kind of life it had.
“If we’re going to eat that meat, isn’t it better that we eat meat from older animals that had really good lives?” Mr. Throop wonders. He notes that the animals will be sent to a slaughterhouse known for “humane” practices, but to avoid trouble, the college is not revealing the day it will happen. Since the petition started, he has gotten thousands of e-mails, some of them threatening. “We are trying to be as careful as we can.”
Students who work on the farm seem put off by the attention from outsiders. Meiko Lunetta, a senior majoring in sustainable agriculture and environmental education, says that she has been a vegetarian for many years and that she strongly opposes how most meat in this country is raised. But seeing the farm at the college made her rethink her position.
“I used to be a lot more condemning of meat eaters,” she says.
“The comments that are being made are coming from people who are not involved with the college at all,” she adds, “and I think that they should spend their energy condemning the larger farms and not our educational farm here.”