As a professor of philosophy and environmental studies at Vermont’s Green Mountain College — and something of an authority on animal ethics — Prof. Steven Fesmire found himself at the epicenter of the recent activist-driven flap over the college’s plans to slaughter and serve the meat from two working oxen that toiled on the college’s on-site farm.
The idea was to align the school’s farming operations with a robust concept of sustainability. The result of what seemed to many as a pragmatic—if somewhat controversial—decision was an outcry ginned up by members of VINE, a local animal activist group that operates a sanctuary its members lobbied for the college to consider as an alternative destination for the pair of aging work animals.
Both Fesmire and William Throop, the college’s provost who also specializes in environmental ethics, were caught up in an aggressive campaign to demonize the college and threaten the owners of a local packing plant where school officials had planned to send the oxen. The plant owner balked after receiving numerous threats, and due to an injury, one of the oxen eventually had to be euthanized.
That was hardly the end of the controversy, however, which continues to reverberate across the rural campus, as students, activists and Green Mountain’s leadership grapple with the fallout of a highly charged, media-driven food fight.
To set the record straight about “Oxengate”, and to discuss the larger issue animal agriculture, Prof. Fesmire spoke with Contributing Editor Dan Murphy.
Q. Let’s start at the obvious place: What happened with the protests against the college’s plans to turn its oxen into meat, and what’s the situation there currently?
Fesmire: It’s become a serious dispute. What we’re dealing with here are vegan abolitionists, the folks who think that animal agriculture itself has to be abolished. The vitriol and the harassment against us on this issue is coming from these people, diehard animal rights abolitionists. From their perspective, any aspect of animal agriculture is analogous to human slavery. Thus, there’s no such thing as a “better master.” From their standpoint, even small-scale animal operations, such as we have at Green Mountain College, are no better than the concentrated feeding operations you find in the industry.
Q. You have gotten some very critical comments directed at you, as I have, despite Green Mountain’s attempts to be even-handed about this issue.