Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Bill and Lou: Who's for Dinner

Even several years into being vegan, there are conversations I overhear or articles I read that sometimes leave me feeling more than a little weirded out about the people mouthing or writing the words in question. I'm used to walking around in a world where others around me adopt this sort of "out of sight, out of mind" mentality about the animals they call "food" and chomp into their mystery meat of choice without giving it a second thought. I used to be one of them and it still baffles me how clueless I was when it came to connecting the dots and to realizing that the pieces of meat and cheese between my two slices of bread come from someone and not something.

But times have changed and we now have the likes of writers like Jonathan Safran Foer Mark Bittman earning a living off of yammering to the public about so-called conscious eating and the need to acknowledge how an animal who is bred and raised to end up on a human's dinner plate is treated, and to look for ways to reassure yourself that this animal you eat (or whose secretions you eat) hasn't been tortured as much as usual. "But they're starting getting people thinking and starting conversations!" some may insist. What they're doing, though, is getting people thinking about ways to feel better about continuing to use others. We're left with a small growing movement of animal treatment apologists whose penance, it seems, involves enslaving and slaughtering the animals themselves. 

From chickens or rabbits fussed over in the backyard as pets before ending up carcasses in their freezers to handpicking baby goats on "happy, happy" local farms where you can witness the animal's slaughter, from the rise in popularity in urban areas of weekend survivalist hunting expeditions and of butchering classes where eager participants learn how to slice or scrape off every single part of an animal's carcass so that this his or her death may not be deemed "wasteful". We're left with articles glorifying the act of killing others. "What I feared most was the screaming. Desperate cries from a freaked out pig might ruin bacon for me forever," Chicago Tribune's Monica Eng wrote back in 2008 of her visit to a place she visited called Paradise Meat Locker, on a quest inspired by Michael Pollan's Omnivore's Dilemma to justify her continued consumption of others. In the end, Eng kicked it up a notch and involved her kids in her quest and wrapped up her article like a proud mom, quoting her daughter's saying to a slice of prosciutto, "Thank you, pig. I love you pig. Now I'm going to eat you."

Green Mountain College
In the name of knowing where one's "food" comes from, it seems to have become commonplace for people to say the creepiest things about the animals they insist on treating as things while engaging in some sort of pretense of empathy, or worse, of "honour" or "respect". If you have spent any time on any social networking sites over the last few days, you'll already be aware of this great show of warm fuzzies at Green Mountain College in Vermont. The New York Times featured an article on the college this past weekend ("Oxen's Fate Is Embattled as the Abattoir Awaits") and on their farm's oxen, Bill and Lou, who've been used to till the farm's fields and to plow snow for most of the past decade. 

Lou, it seems, injured his leg while working and can no longer till. Bill has been assessed as healthy but "aging" and likely unable to keep working without his sidekick of many years. The options weighed for both were euthanasia (although in Bill's case, this would be a euphemism for obviously needless killing), sanctuary (which leaves me wondering why euthanasia was being considered for Lou in the first place) and slaughtering them both to serve them up in the college's cafeteria for students and staff to devour. "'It makes sense to consume the resources we have on campus,' said [farm director] Mr. Ackerman-Leist."
The decision to slaughter them and feed them to the college's staff and students is merely a continuation of those who've enslaved them viewing them as no more than commodities, squeezing the last bit out of them they can.

The situation which has resulted is confusing at best. Some people -- locals, students, animal rights activists, and others -- are outraged. Others view the decision as merely rightfully reflecting the college's focus on sustainability. The situation is problematic on many levels, some more obvious than others. On one hand, Bill and Lou are no different from any other of the billions slaughtered each year for human consumption, other than that the world has now come to know them as "Bill and Lou". The irony in that their planned slaughter is being protested by non-vegans as well as vegans merely drives home the speciesist acceptance that animals are ours to use, but that how they are used hinges upon how able they are to secure our affection. After all, The New York Times didn't care all that much about Bill and Lou those ten years they were used in lieu of a tractor to till the soil, did it? 

On the other hand, their plight brings to light the whole mucked up "conscious consumer" trend and the notion that as long as we convinced ourselves that an animal has had a "happy" life that it's OK for us to take that life away from him or her.
“Our choice is either to eat the animals that we know have been cared for and lived good lives or serve the bodies of nameless animals we do not know,” said William Throop, the college’s provost, who specializes in environmental ethics. 

Andrew Kohler, a senior, took a course in which he learned how to drive the oxen team. [...] “They start listening to you, and they become your friend,” Mr. Kohler said. “I feel honored to eat them.” 
The quote above reflects another thing that's problematic about the whole situation. Whatever lives they may or may not have lived, it's clear that they're no longer seen as having any use to Green Mountain College for the purpose in which they've been used up until now. It also echoes that whole idea that it's somehow more ethical to take another's life if you are express thankfulness and humility at your having been able to do have done so.

As a vegan, I also couldn't help but notice that the either/or presented concerning what we (or the staff and students at the college) eat is 1) happy, happy Bill and Lou or 2) others like them who've not been singled out by the public as individuals. Where's the option to not eat animals? 
On campus, support for their consumption is strong, even among the 30 percent of students who are vegan or vegetarian.
“It’s about sustainability, and I’ve been a vegetarian for three years, but I’m excited to eat Bill and Lou,” said Lisa Wilson, a senior. “I eat meat when I know where it comes from.”
Basically, the message communicated loud and clear is that killing and eating Bill and Lou is so very much the right thing to do that even people who don't usually eat other animals are clamouring to dig in. (Not that I see the word "vegetarian" as being ethically relevant in terms of what we owe other animals, but I'm guessing it helps to better contextualize why Wilson would make such a dumb contradictory statement -- which incidentally smells like third-rate spin -- when you keep in mind that she appears to be one of only two students sitting on the Green Mountain College Sustainability Council.)
Slaughtering them isn't a necessity; it's an option, and one easily passed over. According to the college's official public statement posted on its Facebook page, it was somehow deemed that sending them to a sanctuary would be unethical since they would continue to consume resources (adding that the two will have to be killed at some point anyway):
Those who know Lou and Bill best—our farm staff and students—are uncomfortable with the potential ramifications of sending the animals to a sanctuary. Bill and Lou are large animals, weighing over a ton. A transition to a new setting will be difficult for them, and only postpones the fact that someone else, in the not-too-distant future, will need to decide that it is kinder to kill them than to have them continue in increasing discomfort. If sent to a sanctuary, Bill and Lou would continue to consume resources at a significant rate. As a sustainable farm, we can’t just consider the responsible stewardship of the resources within our boundaries, but of all the earth's resources.
So the fact that Bill and Lou eat -- gobble up resources -- was factored into killing them?  At a college where the feeding of animal flesh to over 70% of its resource-hungry student population is the norm, this sounds a little ironic, no? Then again, the college presented killing the oxen for food as its apparently only really viable option to feed its non-vegan students as it "striv[es] to meet their dietary preferences". So dietary preferences trump concerns of the regular gobbling up of resources, and the simply not eating of animals or of animal products gets swept off the table altogether. Bill and Lou? They're just convenient to take the edge off. 
According to one of the more recent comments left on the college's Facebook page in response to it's announcement of their decision concerning the oxen, Bill and Lou were, in fact, killed yesterday. If this is true, the public will find out soon enough and then most of those involved will go back to eating maybe not oxen with names, but any of the billions of cows, chickens, pigs, fishes and so on (or their secretions) that will continue to be slaughtered, not worthy of the attention of New York Times readers. It seems that even even being recognized as individuals by others, whether or not those others are confused about what it is that we owe non-human animals, isn't enough to save your life when you're someone else's property.


Marty said...

Sometimes I am just baffled by our justifications.

If all of us commit, on this World Vegan Day, to in the next year make just 1 more person a vegan, we will be encroaching on the 10% mark. And that becomes significant. Just one. Surely we can all do it.

Thanks for the post.


Unknown said...

"I'm excited to eat Bill and Lou!" Wow. Can they hear themselves when they speak? I'm sure these beautiful sentient animals were just thrilled with all the publicity and celebrity before they were so respectfully slaughtered and eaten. I listened to my friends talk about people who hunt for all their meat and live like native americans and use every part and learn from the animals they kill. It's Ok to kill if you thank the victim...