Having Bill and Lou for Dinner

For years, I have treasured the title of an article my brother John called to my attention.  I haven’t actually read the article; I just liked the title.  It is “Carrying Capacity is a Rural Truth; Bambi is an Urban Lie.”  In the process of tucking in the last few loose ends so I can write this post, I have run onto a difficulty or two.  John never heard of the article.  He agrees with me that it is a wonderful title.  I can’t find a record of such an article anywhere.  My memory of how I reacted to it the day I was told about it is extraordinarily vivid, but I am now considering the possibility that it never happened at all.

In any case, I will point out that when you put “Bambi” in a sentence that goes on to bambiconsider what happens to deer when their numbers outrun the resource base, you get a truly unsettling sentence.  Bambi is cute; hordes of starving deer are not cute.  What to do?

Here is an interesting story from Vermont.  It isn’t about deer, but I can see the “carrying capacity element” in this story and the “Bambi element” as well.  I’m betting you can see them too.


Here’s the New York Times account in full, and below, a small excerpt.

 Just past the village here is the farm at Green Mountain College, where chickens roam free and solar panels heat a greenhouse. The idea of sustainability runs so deep that instead of machines fueled by diesel, a pair of working oxen [Bill and Lou]  have tilled the fields for the better part of a decade, a rare evocation of a New England agricultural tradition.

Their names are Bill and Lou, and by the end of the month, they are to be slaughtered and turned into hamburger meat for the dining hall.

If you take seriously the idea that this is a “farm,” everything fits nicely.  Lou’s health is no longer good, so the farmers and deciding how best to use him next.  Pot roast, possibly.  “This is the logical time, said Baylee Drown, the assistant manager of the farm, “to use him for another purpose.”  The farm’s manager, Philip Ackerman-Leist agrees.  It is the farm’s purpose to produce food in a humane and sustainable way, not to shelter animals and concludes, “We have to think about the farm system as a whole.”

William Throop, the provost of Green Mountain College says, I’m imagining that I can hear the exasperation in his voice, “Bill and Lou are not pets.  They’re part of an intimate biotic community of the farm, in food webs and relationships of care and respect.”

You might expect to get a little pushback from the students.  Andrew Kohler, for example, took a course in how to drive a team of oxen and Bill and Lou were the team.  “They start listening to you and they become your friend,” says Kohler.  “I feel honored to eat them.”

Those are the “carrying capacity” voices, as I see it, but they are not at all the only voices.  Pattrice Jones, is one of several founders of an animal sanctuary in Springfield, Vermont.  He offered to take Bill and Lou into retirement and he might as well.  The name of the sanctuary is “Veganism Is the Next Evolution.”  Jones said the college’s idea of what is appropriate for the aging oxen “shocks the conscience of anybody who believes in kindness to animals.”

Animal rights groups have been incensed as well, and have amassed thousands of signatures of people opposed to this use of Bill and Lou and went on the college’s Facebook page to call for “a reprieve.”  As ideas go, it seems to me that “reprieve” is over on the far side of retirement and I would guess that the next step would be a “pardon.”

At this point, Throop’s “Bill and Lou are not pets” runs smack into Jones’s “kindness to animals.”  I suppose there is no way to say, in general, that one is better than another, but there is no question which better fits the college’s notion of what “sustainability” means on a small farm.


About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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