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Bill and Lou are a pair of oxen at Green Mountain College. This is a small school in Vermont which puts a lot of emphasis on sustainable living. The two oxen have lived on the campus for years and are beloved by the community. But now the school is planning to serve them up in the dining hall, which has - as you might imagine - touched off a moral debate.

Nina Keck reports.

NINA KECK, BYLINE: For a decade, Bill and Lou were a daily sight working the campus farm.

BEN DUBE: Come haw, Bill. Haw, haw, haw. Good boy. Ho Haw. Ho Haw. Good boy.

KECK: But earlier this year, Lou stepped in a gopher hole and injured his leg. Ben Dube, a member of the farm staff, squats down in the pasture where Lou and Bill now graze in the afternoon sun.

DUBE: See the swelling there, he's injured on his rear hock which is kind of like the knee but in the back.

KECK: Lou's injury hasn't gotten better. And since oxen work as a team, the 11-year old pair was retired. Bill stretches his head up to be scratched under his chin.

DUBE: He is so beautiful. He is.

KECK: Bill and Lou's big brown eyes, their curving horns and gentle but massive girth, have made them minor celebrities on campus and beyond. Many say that's what makes it so hard to believe that the college wants to slaughter and eat them.

Miriam Jones is co-founder of VINE, an animal sanctuary in Springfield, Vermont.

MIRIAM JONES: These two individuals have become veritable mascots for the school. They are the profile picture on the farm's Facebook page.

KECK: A petition to save Bill and Lou on Facebook has attracted over 30,000 signatures from all over the world. VINE offered to take Bill and Lou to live at the sanctuary for free. VINE's Pattrice Jones says they were stunned when the college said no and cited sustainability as one of their reasons.

PATTRICE JONES: We do not believe that the way to conserve resources is to kill the elderly and disabled, to prevent them from using up resources 'cause they're not useful anymore. We just ethically find that repugnant.

(SOUNDBITE OF COWS AND CHICKENS)

PHILIP ACKERMAN-LEIST: We have been very clear since that this wasn't going to be a petting zoo. It was going to be a sustainable farm operation.

KECK: Philip Ackerman-Leist heads Green Mountain College's Farm and Food project. He says 70 percent of students eat meat. But 12 years ago, when the college began developing its sustainable farm program, vegetarian students specifically asked that livestock be included to confront the realities of eating meat. Ackerman-Leist says this debate goes way beyond Bill and Lou, and faculty and students have spent a lot of time discussing it.

ACKERMAN-LEIST: It's something I think about a lot. I actually have 50 head of cattle at home. You know, most of them have names and I interact with them on a daily basis. It's always a hard decision as a farmer in my view to say it's time for an animal to go to slaughter.

(SOUNDBITE OF COWS)

ANDREA JACQUES: This is Gus.

(LAUGHTER)

JACQUES: He's actually for sale right now. Otherwise, he might be sent off to market as well.

KECK: Andrea Jacques is a junior who plans to study veterinary medicine. She says she agrees with the decision to slaughter Bill and Lou, and says she's been surprised at the backlash from people off campus.

JACQUES: Most of the students here understand why things are they way that they are.

KECK: College officials say meat from the oxen will provide the school with over a months' worth of hamburger. Jacques says it's silly not to use it.

JACQUES: I don't' choose to eat hamburger necessarily. But if I was, this would be the one that I would want to eat because I know they've had a great life, compared to some hamburger that you get which may not have had the best life.

KECK: She says if people think there's something wrong with that, they may want to reconsider their food choices.

For VPR news, I'm Nina Keck in Chittenden, Vermont.

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