Over one month ago, the Vassar Farm and Ecological Preserve (VFEP) alerted all Vassar students to the college’s second culling of white-tailed deer on the VFEP’s land, scheduled to take place during winter break. Beginning their email to the students with the assertion that they have “a commitment as good stewards to protect and preserve the biological diversity of the land,” the VFEP has hidden behind this rather subjective notion of environmental sustainability in order to avoid and downplay the ethical implications involved in unnecessarily killing a substantial chunk of the deer living on the farm—I say “unnecessarily” because Macrae Marran in his two previous columns, as well as general logic and science, has proven the effectiveness of immunocontraception in regulating the deer population.
In the words of James McWilliams, animal rights proponent and published scholar on the subject of sustainable agriculture, Vassar “isn’t the only liberal arts institution using eco-rhetoric to mask the unwarranted killing of animals.” McWilliams here refers to Green Mountain College (GMC), a four-year liberal arts college in Poultney, Vt. whose mission statement contains a dedication to environmental responsibility. GMC also functions as a working farm and employs many animals to work the land, including, until recently, two oxen named Bill and Lou. Early in October, Lou sustained a leg injury and thus could not plow the fields anymore, while Bill refused to work without his companion beside him. Realizing the inevitability of Bill and Lou’s slaughter, VINE Sanctuary, a nearby sanctuary dedicated to rescuing animals from the abuses of factory farming, generously offered to take the two oxen off of GMC’s hands free of charge and provide them with an ideal environment in which to live out the remainder of their natural lives. This solution seemed ideal; Bill and Lou would live, GMC would not lose any money, and all parties involved could continue on their merry ways.
However—and this is where the façade of responsible environmentalism comes in—GMC announced in late October their decision to reject VINE Sanctuary’s offer and to instead slaughter Bill and Lou “in the name of sustainability,” as expressed by GMC’s Vice President for Academic Affairs, Bill Throop. In a public statement, GMC’s Director of Communications Kevin Coburn attempted to justify the killing of Bill and Lou by asserting that alive, the oxen would continue to “consume resources at a significant rate,” while in death, they would provide hamburger meat for the GMC cafeteria. His later avowal that GMC’s decision to slaughter the oxen proved the college’s role as a “responsible steward for all the earth’s resources” eerily parallels the language implemented by the VFEP.
Both Vassar and GMC insist upon slaughtering innocent animals when there exist viable alternatives to the colleges’ inhumane solutions for maintaining their roles as environmental “stewards”—immunocontraception for Vassar, or sending Bill and Lou to VINE Sanctuary for GMC. Should the lofty principle of sustainability, the meaning of which remains quite vague, earn precedent over the clearly defined notion of compassion for all beings? Given the irremediable nature of killing, shouldn’t one err on the side of caution and refrain from doing so if there remain doubts about its absolute necessity? In the cases of both Vassar and GMC, academic institutions are subordinating lives to an abstract ideal of environmentalism, sacrificing said lives unnecessarily to uphold some sort of coherence with previously stated philosophical positions.
As I mentioned previously, GMC further defends the killing of Bill and Lou by insisting that doing so would yield a valuable edible resource for its students, though I quite doubt that this well-endowed college suffers from a lack of food and would benefit substantially from the flesh of the oxen. Nonetheless, this justification draws another comparison between GMC and Vassar in that the latter intends to donate the deer meat accumulated post-cull to local food pantries. While Vassar undoubtedly views this act as highly philanthropic, it actually poses serious health threats to those who will potentially consume the donated meat. Consider the method by which the deer will be killed: lead bullets will enter their bodies, often exploding rather than remaining intact and easily removable. Consider the plants on which the deer feed: Poughkeepsie residents who live next to the VFEP often treat their lawns with pesticides. Finally, consider the absence of an inspection to ensure the safety of the deer meat: the USDA is not required to inspect any meat that comes from game animals. Taking into account the possibility for food poisoning, due to potential lead and pesticide contamination of the meat and increased by a lack of examination in determining the meat’s safety, feeding the byproducts of the deer cull to elderly and impoverished citizens (read: those with already compromised immune systems) proves much less benevolent than Vassar originally thought.
As if GMC and Vassar have not already engaged in an inexcusable amount of secrecy under the shadow of eco-rhetoric, GMC’s mysterious claim to have euthanized Lou in secret adds yet another layer of corruption to the nightmarish story of the two oxen. Since the pain medication Lou took due to his leg injury rendered him unfit for human consumption, and thus useless in the eyes of the college, GMC allegedly had the ox put down on November 11 and buried him in an undisclosed location, yet they have still not provided a veterinarian’s certificate for the euthanasia. As for Bill, his life still hangs in the balance.
In their faultily considered conclusions as to how to best promote environmental sustainability, whatever that ambiguous ideal may be, both Vassar and GMC have overlooked serious ethical concerns. Given that a liberal arts education aims primarily to provide students with a set of intellectual tools that will allow them to assume an active role in civic life, I would urge both of the colleges to rethink the examples they have provided for their students that relegate ethics to a place of diminutive importance. Indeed, the colleges’ courses of action endanger not only lives of numerous animals, both human and otherwise, but also their own reputations as progressive institutions.
—Alessandra Seiter ’16 is an active VARC member and prospective English major.