Dear President Fonteyn,
Some days ago, I wrote to you to express my hope that Green Mountain College's oxen, Bill and Lou, would not be sent to slaughter.
The oxen have been much on my mind today, so I thought I would write again. I learned of their prospects through the website all-creatures.org, so I am sharing my note with them, with VINE Sanctuary, whose staff have offered a place for the oxen to live, and with Green Mountain Animal Defenders, who I understand have offered to help with transportation and veterinary care for both animals.
Though not a farmer myself, I am the granddaughter of a displaced dairy farmer, one of several hundred family farmers whose land, community, and way of life were taken from them, in the name of national defense, for the construction of a munitions plant prior to this country's entrance into World War II.
When I spoke with my mother, a vegetarian now in her late 80's, about the decision to slaughter Bill and Lou, and the reasons that have been given in support of this decision, she told me that on her family's farm, a draft animal would not ever have been killed and used for food. Nor could she even imagine that anyone would kill both members of a working team, if one of them became injured or incapacitated.
Instead, my mother shared with me that her elders made their pasture land available to neighbors who wanted a place to turn out their aged animals, so they could pass their last days in peace, cared for along with her family's animals.
The farmers she remembered chose to care with compassion for livestock that were no longer of any usefulness to them. In the time-honored phrase, they "put them out to pasture," and this was done in an ethnically-diverse community of modest means that was organic, self-sufficient, and sustainable many years before those terms became popular.
But at Green Mountain College, the argument has been made that it is irresponsible to allow working animals that can no longer pay their way, by offsetting their consumption of resources with the value of their labor, to continue to live -- and this argument has been made in the name of "sustainability."
The decision to slaughter Bill and Lou, and to turn down an offer of care from people who would gladly provide for them, has been rationalized, perhaps, to the satisfaction of the college community. I read that a philosophical discussion was held on campus, and that participants reached the conclusion that it is ethical, and in the best interests of the oxen themselves, to kill and eat them both.
Such a decision does not and cannot, in my view, flow from an earth-centered, life-honoring philosophy, or from an ethic of authentic, traditional sustainability.
If you have resolved on slaughter, and you are certain that your community is in full agreement, reason may be powerless to change your mind. But I thought I would reach out to you with some words from a philosopher of the classic era, Plutarch of Chaeronea, in the hope that your heart, if not your mind, might perhaps be touched.
In writing of the cruelty of Cato the Elder in selling off his slaves when they became too old or infirm to work -- a practice that merited censure even by the callous standards of antiquity -- Plutarch used the example of a plow ox to make the point that kindness is more becoming than the petty-minded thriftiness Cato displayed.
(The entire essay, in John Dryden's translation, is online in the MIT Classics Archive; emphasis in the following passage is added.) Plutarch says:
. . . law and justice we cannot, in the nature of things, employ on others than men; but we may extend our goodness and charity even to irrational creatures; and such acts flow from a gentle nature, as water from an abundant spring. It is doubtless the part of a kind-natured man to keep even worn-out horses and dogs, and not only take care of them when they are foals and whelps, but also when they are grown old . . . Nor are we to use living creatures like old shoes or dishes and throw them away when they are worn out or broken with service; but if it were for nothing else, but by way of study and practice in humanity, a man ought always to prehabituate himself in these things to be of a kind and sweet disposition. As to myself, I would not so much as sell my draught ox on the account of his age," [--or, one might say, have him slaughtered to provide a few weeks' worth of meat--] "much less for a small piece of money sell a poor old man, and so chase him, as it were, from his own country, by turning him not only out of the place where he has lived a long while, but also out of the manner of living he has been accustomed to, and that more especially when he would be as useless to the buyer as to the seller.
It doesn't take much imagination to see that if cannibalism had not been unacceptable, a man like Cato might have thought it a cost-effective management practice to kill and eat his elderly slaves, rather than sell them off, when no more work could have been forced from them.
Philosophers can, no doubt, disagree about premises and even about methods of reaching valid conclusions. But a true Lover of Wisdom would recognize the opportunity that has been given to you and to your college, to model the teaching of which Plutarch speaks, a lesson that is far more meaningful than anything in the technical agricultural curriculum.
A "sustainable" world that is devoid of compassion and loving kindness for the companions of one's daily labors in the field would be a cold and sterile place indeed, an alien unfeeling world where I, for one, would not ever wish to live.
To BIll and Lou, could I be beside them tonight, I would say . . . how profoundly sorry I am about what seems to lie ahead for you. I wish you could know how many people hold you in their hearts, how many have spoken on your behalf, how many hope you may yet have a better fate than the way by which your owners have resolved to dispose of you.
Bill and Lou, may you have grace to bear quietly your experience of the ultimate in betrayal -- should it come to that -- your deaths at the hands of those for whom you have worked so hard and borne so much for so long.
And if, as French poet Francis Jammes believed, there is a heaven for the donkeys, where those gentlest and most abused of animal workers will enjoy the Creator's compassion and blissful love, I can pray to go to heaven with the oxen, where, Bill and Lou, you have surely earned a place.
President Fonteyn, please don't send Bill and Lou to the slaughterer. Please grant them both the mercy of sanctuary, that they may live until each of them is called from this Earth by their true Owner, the Giver both of their lives and of ours.
Wishing you and all on your campus well,