Bill and Lou: Who lives, who dies, and why
A Meat and Dairy Industries Article from


Marc Bekoff, Psychology today Animal Emotions
October 2012

[Ed. Note: November 11, 2012: Lou: RIP. For more read An Open Letter to the Students of Green Mountain College and Defending Deathand see Action Alert - An Open Letter to the Students of Green Mountain College]

Cruelty can't stand the spotlight and that is why Bill and Lou, supposed friends of the college, individuals with unique stories, have touched the hearts of people around the world. Killing them is an unacceptable "thank you" for who they are and for all they have done.

These two oxen will be killed and served up as burgers as a reward for hard work.

Bill and Lou are two oxen who have lived and labored in obscurity for the past 10 years on the campus of a small college, Green Mountain College (GMC), in a small town, Poultney, in a small state. Recently, college officials announced that as a reward for their long years of service on the college's working farm, Bill and Lou would be slaughtered and served as oxenburgers to students. They would serve as a lesson in sustainability and tradition.

So, why has the story about their impending slaughter rapidly attracted international attention? It's because Bill and Lou are sentient, feeling individuals, with unique personalities, who are condemned to death because they are too old to work and there is a very simple humane alternative to their slaughter. VINE Sanctuary, a sanctuary near GMC, has offered to have them live there for free.

The case of Bill and Lou is not just of local interest. Our relationships with other animals are extremely challenging and paradoxical. Bill and Lou's story is a perfect example of how nonhuman animals (animals) depend on the goodwill of human animals for their very lives. We are the most powerful force on Earth and every second of every day we're making decisions about who lives and who dies. In Bill and Lou's case people who have chosen to kill them argue that because they're old and because they've been close and inseparable friends for so long when one dies the other would terribly miss their workmate and that would be too much for the survivor to handle. Lou has a recurring injury so some at GMC claim both of them should be killed at the same time. This decision is too convenient, fast, and daft. Would people do this to their companion dogs? Of course not. They would make sure the survivor would have the best life possible. So why do it to oxen?

Some at GMC also argue that sustainability is the main issue but the one-dimensional rhetoric of sustainability, as a colleague puts it, makes for a very weak and impersonal argument. It's estimated Bill and Lou will produce about a ton of beef that otherwise would come from animals living on horrific factory farms also known as concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) that have well known and significant negative ecological impacts including air, water, and land pollution. Why use CAFO meat at all?

Because Bill and Lou will have to eat grass during their retirement years and growing and maintaining grass requires water, some say it's best to kill them for reasons of ecological sustainability. It's unlikely they will live very long even in a sanctuary. However, if they were healthy and could work they also would consume resources. Sure, they would also be helping to produce resources, but at some point all living beings will likely consume more than they produce for a wide variety of reasons. The sustainability argument is ludicrous because we're talking about only two oxen, not a herd of oxen.

Some people argue that the resistance to killing Bill and Lou centers on one's meal plan, be it carnivory, vegetarianism, or veganism, and that keeping them alive is really an argument for getting rid of animals in our diet. This isn't necessarily so and it shifts the attention away from the fact that oxen are highly emotional and sentient beings and this is the unnecessary slaughter of two special animals. And it's not euthanasia, or mercy killing, as some claim, because neither Bill nor Lou is suffering untreatable pain according to my sources.

Bill and Lou are a special case. They've worked selflessly for GMC, they are the best of friends, and they have the opportunity to live out their lives in peace and safety. They deserve to live after GMC decides they're no longer useful. The decision to kill them shows how sentient beings are viewed as things, as mere property, to be used by humans for human ends. The details of their case, including that Bill and Lou are unique individuals, are lost in the muddle of impersonal ecological and philosophical arguments. Bill and Lou should be allowed to live a good life until death do them part, and then the survivor should be given the best life possible. Let the heartfelt compassion be used to do something for them as special friends.

Those who favor killing Bill and Lou also argue there is a strong educational lesson. However, think of how much could be learned by factoring deep compassion and their close friendship with GMC and for one another into the fate of Bill and Lou for whom a special case can easily be made. Showing flexibility would be a most valuable lesson. The world isn't linear or black-and-white. There are many ethical lessons here for those who teach humane and compassionate education.

Cruelty can't stand the spotlight and that is why Bill and Lou, supposed friends of the college, individuals with unique stories, have touched the hearts of people around the world. Killing them is an unacceptable "thank you" for who they are and for all they have done.

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