• When exceptions matter
    November 04,2012

    NEW YORK TIMES PHOTO Bill and Lou, oxen who tilled the Green Mountain College's farm for almost a decade, are shown last week in Poultney.

    The debate about the fate of the injured oxen, Lou, and his co-worker, Bill, has now spilled far beyond the campus of Green Mountain College (“Bill and Lou: A parable about food,” Oct. 28). I have followed this heated conversation with interest because it directly engages those issues that I care about most, personally and professionally: sustainability, human-animal relationships, the high levels of cognition and emotion in nonhuman animals, local food and the importance of truly understanding the source of your meat.

    I teach environmental ethics at Middlebury College and I try — in my own human, fallible way — to lead an ethical life. For me, the most ethical choices consist in knowing how to evaluate situations with an eye toward kindness, compassion and a refusal to see the world in black and white. For instance, I generally don’t eat meat, but when I am a guest in someone’s home (especially in a cultural context not my own), I eat what is offered. I believe that being gracious and grateful to others should trump my private, personal preferences.

    As a small-scale shepherd, I also have been on the receiving end of the gifts of kindness. Shelburne Farms, one of the leading environmental education centers in the country, raises sheep for education, wool and the meat that is served in the Inn. Like Green Mountain College, they want their visitors to know where their meat comes from and what a sustainable working farm looks like. But when my spouse and I fell in love with a sheep called Lucky, a Farm Barn lamb who was “headed to the Inn,” the staff treated us (and Lucky) with compassion, not dogmatism.

    In the end, everyone was happy when we brought Lucky home. Just like us, Lucky loves good food, basks in a sunny day and smiles when she is happy. To this day, Shelburne Farms staff and visitors ask after her and are thrilled to know that she is thriving.

    There are many complex answers to the question of what constitutes environmentally responsible living. “What is right” is conditioned by numerous factors, including geography, cultural diversity and economics. As a teacher and scholar, my job is to foster thoughtful, nuanced conversation about all perspectives. In the case of GMC, however, critical thinking and valuable lessons about sustainability, food and resources have already happened through the passionate discussions — on all sides — about the lives of Bill and Lou. Bill and Lou may no longer be able to plow the fields, but no one at GMC needs to eat them in order to learn; nor does anyone economically depend on these oxen as a source of food.

    Because there are many animals already being raised for meat on the campus farm, those in charge (who may be privately reconsidering the decision to slaughter Bill and Lou) can rest assured that the overall mission of the college — in terms of raising and eating meat — will not be undermined by an authentic change of heart. It would be a profound shame to kill Bill and Lou for the sake of sticking to one side of a complex, ongoing conversation about sustainability. I hope the decision-makers at GMC can come to understand the importance of flexibility in ethics, for even Thoreau, Gandhi and Martin Luther King dared to change their minds about things when it mattered.

    I have long admired Green Mountain College and some of my faculty colleagues there are also my friends. In this matter too, ethics are complex. I refuse to defame the college or end my friendships there — even if my friends make a decision to which I strongly object. Nor do I celebrate those among the protesters who purposely inflame the situation. That wouldn’t be right either.

    It is clear to me, however, that because Bill and Lou have been offered a free home to live out their lives, they will no longer be using GMC’s resources. And if VINE is not an option GMC wants to take, there are many other working farms who would welcome Bill and Lou. What harm does it do to the college — its professors, staff and students — to have the courage to make an occasional exception to their “farm to table” meat-eating principle? The teaching has already happened; no one needs to die for it. Of course, sustainability matters; but so too does the sustainability of the heart.

    Rebecca Kneale Gould is an associate professor of religion and environmental studies at Middlebury College. She lives in Monkton.

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