Controversy over lambs intensifies
- Published: October 24, 2019
The fate of nine lambs on the campus of Antioch College — the focus of an animal rights campaign since June — has generated fresh controversy and a threat this past week.
Two Village Council members addressed the issue during last Monday’s Council meeting, with Council President Brian Housh reading aloud a letter condemning the campaign. College and Village staff prepared for a protest adjacent to the Antioch campus organized by local resident David Nibert, but the event did not materialize as planned last Thursday. And on Monday of this week, Antioch College received its fourth death threat over the issue of the lambs.
“It was very serious,” a college spokesperson said of the most recent threat, which targeted an individual on staff. The threat included the insinuation that the person in question was being watched, the spokesperson, who asked not to be identified by name, added.
Nibert has publicly condemned the threats. In response to a question from the News this week, he wrote in an email, “The threats are disturbing and unacceptable.”
These are the latest developments in four months of tension between the college and animal rights activists who oppose Antioch’s planned slaughter of nine lambs for food. That tension has played out largely online and on the letter pages of the News, which have included several dozen letters from local residents and those outside the community on the issue. News outlets in Ohio and beyond have also covered the issue.
In this week’s story, we take a closer look at the controversy, with an emphasis on recent events.
Background on controversy
The controversy began last June, when Nibert, a sociology professor at Wittenberg University who lives near the Antioch campus, learned that the nine lambs that currently crop the grass under the solar panels in the college’s solar field were destined to be slaughtered this fall as part of the college’s farm-to-table program.
A vegan who opposes human consumption of animal products, Nibert has written extensively about the relationship between animal and human oppression and has previously protested animal cruelty. But his response to the lambs was more personal, he said.
“When I came upon the nine lambs, so close to where I live, I could not turn my back on them when I learned Antioch College intended to send them to the slaughterhouse,” Nibert wrote in an email interview with the News.
A note about terminology: while some supportive of Antioch’s farm-to-table program have objected to the use of the term “lambs” by Nibert and his supporters, the designation is technically accurate for sheep under one year of age. Antioch calls the animals “solar sheep,” a term that has been used elsewhere, and includes a “solar sheep” T-shirt in its welcome packet to first-year students.
Antioch College has maintained a flock of lambs each year since 2014 as part of its farm-to-table program. The Antioch Farm also currently includes chickens, ducks and a variety of produce for feeding its students and staff. As described in a recent story on the farm in the News, Antioch has received several national awards for the sustainability of its farming and dining operations.
“We treat our dining program as an educational program, not just an auxiliary service,” a college spokesperson explained this week.
After learning of the lambs’ eventual fate, Nibert sent an email to Antioch College President Tom Manley in early June requesting that the lambs be released to an animal sanctuary rather than killed. From there, Nibert, as head of a group called the Committee to Save the Antioch Lambs, began an online petition on Change.org calling on Manley to release the lambs. As of this week, that petition had been signed by over 82,000 people. An update to the petition from two weeks ago urges supporters to contact Manley directly.
Nibert has also posted videos of the Antioch lambs and other information on social media, as well as taking out advertising in the News. (Local supporters of Antioch Farm also took out a News ad this summer.) Nibert and supporters have additionally written numerous letters to the News.
Antioch College has maintained that it intends to butcher the lambs as planned at an unspecified date this fall. The college discussed the issue internally in June, but no one in the campus community expressed the view that Antioch should change its practices regarding the farm, according to a college spokesperson this week. In late June, Manley sent an email back to Nibert indicating the college’s position.
Over the summer, opposition to the lambs’ slaughter broadened beyond Nibert’s own campaign.
“After so many months of Antioch indicating they will kill the lambs, the issue caught the attention of an opportunistic international organization and millions of people were alerted to the plight of the lambs,” Nibert wrote in an email to the News.
At least two animal rights groups have taken up the cause. On Aug. 29, international animal rights organization People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, or PETA, posted to its website a press release and a letter sent to President Manley urging Antioch to abandon its plan to butcher the animals. And on Oct. 1, a San Rafael, Calif.-based group called In Defense of Animals posted a one-minute video to its YouTube channel that urges Antioch to provide students with what it calls a “brutally honest education.” The video includes footage of lambs being killed at an unidentified slaughterhouse.
In Antioch’s case, the lambs are slaughtered off-campus at a local USDA and halal-compliant operation.
The college intends to continue its plan to harvest the animals for food, college leaders have reiterated in recent weeks.
According to a Sept. 30 report on the news website the Daily Beast, Antioch turned down a request by the mother of a now-deceased former Antiochian to release the lambs in his name.
“The campus community is aware of calls from some to make changes to campus practices. We will not be making changes to these programs at this time,” reads a statement regarding Antioch Farm posted to the Antioch College website and updated Oct. 7.
Communications and recent threats
Antioch has received thousands of calls and emails related to the lamb issue since June, according to college spokespeople this week. (Two college spokespeople were interviewed for this story, and both asked not to be identified by name due to security concerns.) Most communications have come into the president’s office and communications department, but staff members all over campus, and some students, also have been contacted.
“Some days you could spend your whole day going through emails and calls,” one college spokesperson said.
Not all those contacting Antioch have a clear understanding of the college’s program or the situation of the lambs, in the view of another college spokesperson.
“Most of it is complete misperception and misunderstanding,” the spokesperson said.
Many callers and email writers in recent weeks appear to be mobilized by PETA or other groups, the spokesperson added.
In addition to that volume of communications, including some that college staff perceive to be threatening, Antioch has received four death threats targeted to individual staff in recent weeks, according to the college.
Death threats prior to this Monday culminated in Antioch College trespassing Nibert from college property, including Glen Helen, on Oct. 4. That trespass is permanent, though the college has in the past lifted a trespass ban in some cases.
As explained in the trespass letter, Antioch views Nibert’s presence on campus, including his filming of the Antioch lambs for subsequent posting online, as creating an atmosphere that “makes our faculty, students, and staff feel unsafe while they are working and learning.” The letter also highlights the impact of Nibert’s online campaign on college staff.
“When you post a new video or photo of our sheep on social media or update online petitions, the College receives a new wave of harassment,” the letter reads in part.
Nibert also previously received a “cease and desist” order from the college over the summer, largely in response to his posting fliers on campus.
For his part, Nibert expressed dismay this week over what he perceives as Antioch’s unwillingness to engage his viewpoint.
“I have been surprised and very disappointed by the reactionary way in which Antioch College has responded to the call for sanctuary for the lambs,” he wrote in an email to the News.
Nibert added that he considered the college’s position a departure from its previous openness to animal rights, as evidenced by a 1995 conference at Antioch highlighting the overlap between feminism and “species-ism,” or the assumption of human superiority over nonhuman animals.
Nibert previously taught at the college in 1994, and participated in Nonstop Antioch, he said.
Regarding the death threats received by the college, while Nibert condemned them as “deplorable,” he also contended that the college “has used the threats to misrepresent the entire campaign to save the lambs, and to vilify me personally.”
The debate has played out on local social media, including the Yellow Springs Open Discussion Facebook page, and on the Antioch College Alumni and Community Public Group Facebook page. The majority of commentators appear to side with the college, with some sharply critical of Nibert’s campaign.
In response to a posting this week on Open Discussion by Nibert of a video regarding the emotional and social capacities of sheep, one local commentator this week responded in part, “You have been told that every time you post things about this threats are increased to employees at Antioch. You own those threats personally by not caring about your actions increasing them. How do you sleep at night?”
A few letters to the News have expressed sympathy for Nibert’s position on the lambs, however.
“I have observed over the last several weeks that statements made by Professor Nibert and others have been fiercely attacked. … It appears to me that, actually, there has been a great deal of negative overreaction by some of those who wish to continue eating meat,” a News letter writer observed on July 25.
Background on planned protest
Last week’s protest planned for Thursday, Oct. 10, offered a possible opportunity for two groups who have clashed online to meet face to face. But the protest didn’t happen.
Nibert contacted Yellow Springs Police Chief Brian Carlson the prior week about a planned protest on President Street at the edge of the Antioch campus that could have included a “large portable screen,” an email to Carlson shows. That protest was planned for Tuesday, Oct. 8, and would have involved members of In Defense of Animals, the group that has created the video geared to Antioch that incorporates footage of lambs being slaughtered.
Nibert was told he needed to apply for a Village permit for the event, according to Carlson, and his subsequent permit application, dated Monday, Oct. 7, asks for permission to hold a “tabling and literature distribution event” on Oct. 10, from noon to 2 p.m., involving “one table and 3–4 chairs.” No screen is mentioned. On the form, Nibert asked the Village to waive its insurance requirement for the event.
According to Nibert in an email to the News, he didn’t receive permission to hold the event until after he had already canceled it, based on his understanding from the Village manager that the insurance requirement was unlikely to be waived. An email to Nibert from Village Manager Josue Salmeron, sent around 6 p.m. on Oct. 7, shows that the permit was approved later the same day of its submission, with the request that any materials to be distributed at the event be shared with the Village manager.
In the end, the event didn’t happen.
However, college and Village leaders geared up for its occurrence. At Monday evening’s Council meeting, Council President Housh read a letter he wrote and subsequently sent to PETA, In Defense of Animals, Change.org and Wittenberg University, Nibert’s academic institution.
“As Council President for the Village of Yellow Springs, I strongly condemn the bullying tactics and disinformation campaign currently being conducted by Dr. David Nibert against Antioch College,” the letter opens. The letter references the planned protest, encouraging villagers to avoid the event.
Antioch President Manley also spoke at last Monday’s Council meeting, highlighting the college’s “core commitment” to sustainability in all aspects of its operations.
“[Students] actually learn to be grateful for food and how it’s produced. Every meal prepared and served at Antioch is an education,” he said.
Just before noon last Thursday, all was quiet on the northern edge of Antioch campus, where President Street ends on campus grounds. Village of Yellow Springs barriers blocked President at Whiteman Street, and two banners hung from trees on campus. “Support Sustainability. Support the Antioch Farm,” they read. A handful of Antioch students and staff, including two security personnel, gathered at the edge of the campus. As the minutes stretched into two hours, it became apparent that the planned protest was not materializing.
Antioch’s head of security was in contact with Police Chief Carlson several times during the protest interval, and three plainclothes police officers were assigned to the area, according to Carlson. Village Manager Salmeron also stopped by the protest site around 1 p.m.
And between noon and 2 p.m., at least 15 Antioch students and a couple of staff members spent time at the protest spot. A majority spoke with the News, universally indicating they were strongly supportive of Antioch College’s farm-to-table program. Several students noted that the program was the reason they’d opted to attend Antioch.
Lisa Pennington, a first-year student, said Antioch College’s environmental ethos was the “main reason” she’d enrolled at the college. She personally doesn’t eat meat because it “makes me sad” to do so, she said. But she strongly endorsed Antioch’s farming and dining practices.
“Our farm-to-table program is so fantastic. It’s ridiculous, it’s wild, that it’s being criticized,” she said.
That sense of disbelief and outrage was echoed by most students.
“It was a shock. … Choosing this to criticize was so absurd,” fifth-year senior Chris Welter said, referencing Antioch’s farm-to-table program.
Welter added that the farm and dining component of Antioch “is the one thing the college got right” when it relaunched, in his opinion.
The Antioch student body is unusually united around the issue, according to third-year student Sarah Mills.
“Antioch can be not super-united. This is refreshing,” she said. “The student body is collective in this. It’s kind of beautiful,” she added.
Mills, like other students, also voiced frustration that the college was being “attacked” by those who didn’t understand the larger picture of Antioch’s commitment to sustainability.
“We make paintbrushes out of the sheep’s hair. Everything is sustainable and resourceful,” she said.
Fourth-year student Truth Garrett put his reason for standing with Antioch this way.
“This is an issue that’s actually us,” he said. “The whole situation is misguided. Antioch students are the ones protesting climate change and doing sustainable practices.”
But Nibert sees it differently.
Asked by the News for his response to widespread local criticism that he is unfairly targeting Antioch’s practices, he disagreed that his criticism was misapplied.
“The Committee to Save the Antioch Lambs is not campaigning against Antioch’s dining program,” he wrote in an email to the News.
“We believe Antioch College should not be raising and killing other animals and teaching students the practice is necessary, sustainable, ethical, and one they should emulate,” he continued.
In his view, Nibert’s campaign is in line with Antioch values, not opposed to them.
“The consequent campaign to save the lambs has been conducted as if it were one designed by Antioch College of yesteryear,” he wrote.
Nibert added that he is not singling out Antioch, as he also challenges injustice at his own place of work and elsewhere.
While some students last week expressed satisfaction that the protest had been averted and the event had turned into a show of strength for Antioch, at least a couple voiced regret that an opportunity to meet and talk with protesters had been missed.
“Maybe we could have had a conversation,” Welter said.
Nibert stated to the News by email this week that he may reapply for an event permit from the Village.
At the end of the protest period last Thursday, Welter said the controversy had spurred him to reflect in new ways about killing and eating animals for food. But he ultimately believes that Antioch’s approach to animal agriculture, as distinct from factory farming, is respectful and humane.
“It’s a gut feeling,” he said.
Other students agreed.
“I just really know we’re right on this,” Sarah Mills said. The day before, she had interviewed for a co-op position on the Antioch Farm. Motivated in part by the controversy over the farm, she was hoping to work there.