The yoke’s on you, Bill and Lou – or is it? A letter to two oxen slated for slaughter (Opinion)
By Kalypso Arhilohou
You weigh a ton, wield horns as hard as hammers and as sharp as spears, and you could puree a man’s foot with one slightly misplaced step of your mighty hoof. But it’s perfectly safe to kiss you, hug you, and parade you through crowds at college commencements.
This good humor of yours, Bill and Lou, comes about partly because your kind have been bred that way for millennia, and partly because you’re just nice guys.
Apparently you like people. At least you don’t seem to mind hanging out with us, following our lead, and doing our bidding. Maybe you feel that in return we like you too.
The fact is that lots of people like you, and many say they love you. The curious thing, though, is that some of the people who say they love you also say they want to eat you.
You seem to love people, too, in your way, but so far this hasn’t moved you to want to sink your teeth into them. Presumably, to you, loving someone, or even just liking him, means refraining from harming him.
Perhaps in your minds there has been an unwritten contract—one based purely on trust. You must trust the people around you, to lend yourself so wholly to their behest and whim. To trust that much, and to give them your all in labor and docility during your decade in service, you might be expecting the best from them in return.
You’re not alone in that expectation. Many animal-human relationships are based on exactly that same unspoken agreement. Don’t hurt me, and I won’t hurt you. Love me, and I’ll love you back.
And you’re certainly not alone in experiencing a breach of that promise. Happens every day to animals around the globe, whether they’re used for work, like you, or for food, fur, sport, experimentation, or companionship.
That’s nothing new.
What is new is a funny but terribly important word. You might be hearing it bandied about the barn: “sustainable.”
Like many of us, you might be wondering what that means, and why it has anything to do with you.
Here’s some illumination from Merriam-Webster.com about that word. Sustainable: “a) relating to, or being a method of harvesting or using a resource so that the resource is not depleted or permanently damaged; b) of or relating to a lifestyle involving the use of sustainable methods.”
As per a statement by your owners at Vermont’s Green Mountain College, this is how the word applies to you, a pair of middle-aged oxen who they are plotting to kill:
“While many of our students are vegan or vegetarian, many also eat meat, and we strive to meet the dietary preferences of all students. Bill and Lou, when processed for meat, will yield over one ton of beef. If this meat doesn’t come from our animals, it likely will come from a factory farm setting which carries with it a significant amount of ecological impact. For example, the American agricultural system uses approximately 5 million gallons of water to produce the same amount of beef (not to mention greenhouse gas production, soil erosion, and water pollution)…
“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.”
This epistle translates as follows. Your owners believe you are no longer worth the plants it takes to feed you. Of course you used to be, for those ten years when you unquestioningly hauled towering loads of hay or walked in monotonous circles to generate electricity. But now that you, Lou, are injured, and you, Bill, allegedly don’t cotton to working with a different partner (according to your owners) your only remaining worth would be as meat on their plates.
Not only that, but if they were to let you live instead of eating you, you would actually be causing harm, they argue. Your existence would waste valuable goodies and foul the environment. In general you would just be a bother when instead you could be hamburger.
If you could, you might ask your owners at the college for further explanation regarding that terribly important word. For example the question of who else gets eaten.
The Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production, after spending more than two years and $3.4 million examining the aforementioned American agricultural system, found that mass production and processing of animals for food “posed unacceptable risks to public health, the environment and the welfare of the animals themselves.”
In its report “Livestock’s Long Shadow,” the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) determined that intensive animal agriculture produces 18 percent of the world’s deadly greenhouse gases, beating out even the transportation sector as a top-tier polluter and contributor to global warming.
Numerous researchers and physicians such as those cited in The China Study: Startling Implications for Diet, Weight Loss and Long-Term Health, and documentaries like Forks Over Knives assure us that consumption of animal products is in no way necessary or even salubrious for humans. Not only can we easily do without eating animals and all the things that come from them such as dairy and eggs, we’d be better off if we did.
But none of that stops your owners, in between their ruminations on sustainability concepts and principles, from plating up animals. And lots of them.
They say they especially relish the idea of eating you because while they’ve been using you for work, you’ve been treated far better than the animals they usually eat—animals who are bred in quantities of billions only to suffer gruesome lives and deaths as nothing but nameless, faceless, voiceless products on so-called factory farms.
If you could, you might ask your owners why, if those animals on whose carcasses and effluvia they regularly feast are treated so badly, they still want to eat them, thereby supporting the industry that mistreats them.
Apparently your giant size means that for a couple of months your owners will be able to chow down on you instead of on the animals who are treated poorly.
If you could, you might ask them if, after all of your flesh has been butchered and minced and broiled and served and chewed and stuffed through esophagi and sloshed into bellies, after there’s no longer anything left of you for them to nosh, after they’ve reverted to devouring the animals who they say are handled so heinously, will they give those animals another thought?
And what will they do with that funny but terribly important word?
Since that word, “sustainable,” is your death knell, you might ask them if it will ever ring out in a different way, to call for the lives of those nightmarishly abused animals in factory farms, or for the life of the planet—our planet that is being slowly but surely engorged and choked and poisoned on the flesh of arrogance, and the blood of hypocrisy, and the gore of greed?
If you could, you might ask.
But you can’t. You can’t say a thing.
Which is precisely why, if your owners meet their goal, soon you will be carted away to some slaughterhouse—on the sneak since so many others oppose your premature demise—and there you will be expected to behave in the same way as you have behaved all your lives: with gentleness, humility, and trust, expressing your own form of love.
Then, for the sake of a word, everything you are will be taken.
But all the words—the millions of words for and against you that have been and will continue to be said and written and defined and debated—those will remain.
In life, you’ve labored under the yoke of your masters. In death, if it turns out to be the death they envision, you will serve under the same yoke that your masters must also wear, and under which their legacy too will toil long after they have met their own fates.
It will be the yoke of history—a master who is far more discerning, wise, and just than they can ever even dream.
Kalypso Arhilohou’s passions are animals, travel, and writing. She spends much of her time scheming on how to combine the three.
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