This is a story about nine baby lambs. But it’s also a story about a death threat, a million dollars, a tragic car accident, and organic mint jelly.
Let’s start from the beginning.
Ultimately, they were destined to feed students in the nearby dining hall. But as they grazed in their solar panel-adorned meadow and matured into sheep, they also drew the fevered attention of animal rights activists who hoped to save them from slaughter.
On Thursday, school officials told The Daily Beast that they would let go of the sheep for $1 million—but that they would use the money to buy more lambs to butcher for next year’s living laboratory. (For reference, a lamb costs between $50 and $250 to purchase, depending on age and location, and then about $20 per month to sustain until, well, you know.)
The campaign to save the animals began over the summer when Dr. David Nibert, a neighbor of the college and a sociology professor at Wittenberg University, said he felt called to be “an advocate” for the creatures. Despite Nibert’s fervor, his Committee to Save the Antioch Lambs, his phone calls, his letters to the college, his fliers, his collection of 100 scholar signatures, and his Change.org petition, the college has doubled down on its plan.
“Our dining hall serves mostly organic food grown on local farms, including our own working farm on campus,” the university said in a statement. “Vegan and vegetarian options are an important part of every meal served, along with ethically sourced meat from our farm and other local farms because the majority of our students are omnivores.”
But, in Nibert’s view: “It’s a shame that one of the most progressive colleges probably in the history of the United States is also now involved in the raising and killing of animals.”
Others clearly agree, as the petition he started three months ago has received nearly 79,000 signatures.
Then, last month, Nibert’s campaign caught PETA’s attention.
The organization sent a letter to Antioch College President Tom Manley, in which it offered to cover the costs of re-homing the animals and to donate the equivalent amount of food in the form of “healthy vegan meat.”
Killing the animals, the group wrote, “would subject the Dayton area to yet another act of senseless violence.” The letter apparently referred to the mass shooting on Aug. 4, in which 10 people were killed and 27 others were injured in Dayton.
“Antioch College prides itself on being progressive, but this plan is out of touch and flies in the face of efforts to help young people relate to others, stop bullying, object to the burning of the Amazon rainforest for meat production, take personal responsibility for healthy and humane living, and more,” said PETA President Ingrid Newkirk.
“The school is putting its students on a path to insensitivity toward those who are different from them and promoting a filthy meat-eating habit that's linked to heart disease, strokes, high blood pressure, diabetes, and cancer later in life,” she added.
From there things escalated, culminating in a death threat against a member of the college’s staff.
Yellow Springs Police Chief Brian Carlson told The Daily Beast on Thursday that a caller to a receptionist’s private cell number allegedly said: “I just got a message from PETA about the animals that you people want to slaughter. Nine lambs to feed your college students. I should slaughter your fucking family, bitch.”
Another caller left a recorded message on the same woman’s private cellphone, threatening to share her contact information with other activists, said Carlson. Officers collected the cellphone numbers of both callers and are investigating the case as “telephone harassment,” he added.
Yellow Springs police, along with campus security, have also “stepped up patrols” near campus over protests by activists in the past few weeks.
“They were peaceful, they just had signs,” said Carlson.
Amid the intense backlash and harassment, the college maintains that Nibert and his supporters have used a rabid campaign to force the school to bend to the will of outsiders who aren’t even part of the Antioch community.
“It is ironic that our community, which seeks to find better and more sustainable ways of living, has become a target because of our commitment to sourcing ethically and locally raised food,” a college spokesman in a statement.
“Even while Antioch College students are engaged in meaningful work on campus and out in the world—addressing serious issues facing humanity and our planet, including sustainable food production and environmental justice—they are facing online stalking and harassment from people with no knowledge of their work or the college’s programs.”
A couple of weeks ago, Barbara Pearl heard about the sheep. Pearl is a vegan, as was her son Jason Seth Houten, who attended Antioch College before he was struck and killed by a car while walking in a crosswalk in 2002, at the age of 23.
“He would never condone this,” said Pearl. “He would be horrified by this.”
“I don’t know how you can look at them in their face and then exploit them and slit their throats. They have a heartbeat and a mother and a face,” Pearl told The Daily Beast this week. “They also have a will to live. Nothing goes to its death willingly. If you gave these lambs a choice, I’m sure they would choose life.”
Pearl, who lives in Philadelphia and said she teaches mathematics at local community colleges, wrote an open letter last week to Manley on Jason’s behalf.
“I have never been able to find a way to honor his memory,” Pearl wrote in her letter. “I am asking you to stop this practice in honor of my son and as a memorial to him.”
Pearl also contacted the school directly to plead with administrators to save the animals. She told The Daily Beast that she asked Susanne Hashim, vice president for advancement, what it would take to save the lambs.
Hashim allegedly responded: “$1 million.”
“I made arrangements with a sanctuary and am willing to give a donation to the school,” Pearl told The Daily Beast, but she said she wasn’t sure whether she would be able to pull together the money.
When contacted by The Daily Beast about this purported offer, a university spokesperson replied: “The college would willingly sell the sheep for $1 million as this would be a good business decision. Our students might not have the full farm-to-table experience, but a portion of the $1 million would be applied to the cost of purchasing locally-grown humanely and sustainably farmed meat for consumption by our students who are omnivores and towards the purchase of next year’s solar sheep.”
And so, in effect, Pearl’s money would ultimately buy more lambs for the slaughter.
“Antioch College is not planning to alter its farm-to-table and sustainability programs,” said the school’s statement.
A spokesman declined to comment on the date the sheep would meet their maker and so could not say how long Pearl would have to raise the money, if she decided to attempt it.
Pearl said on Thursday that she was “gravely disappointed” by the school’s reaction to her offer, calling the statement an “attempt to extort a million dollars in response to a mother’s plea to memorialize her son.”
“It is heartbreaking,” she said. “My son Jason chose to be a vegan after attending Antioch College, embraced helping others in need, and was proactive against animal exploitation.”
“Banning this program is a call for compassion and an opportunity for the college to demonstrate the progressive values they so strongly advocate in the eyes of the public, which in turn could encourage donations and attract more students to the college,” Pearl added.
When reached on Thursday, Nibert also condemned the school’s response, calling Pearl’s letter to the college “beautiful and poignant.”
“It is shocking and appalling that Antioch has responded to this appeal with the demand of one million dollars, money they say will then be used to buy even more young lambs who similarly will be destined for the slaughterhouse,” said Nibert.
“Unfortunately, Antioch’s reaction thus far to the outpouring of support for the lambs on their campus has been reflexive, insular, mean-spirited, and now extortive. In a world characterized by so much cruelty and violence, many around the country and the world are dismayed to learn that Antioch College is raising and killing animals,” he continued.
But graduates of the school remain divided on the issue, according to screenshots of a private Antioch College alumni Facebook group obtained by The Daily Beast.
“Anyone advocating for PETA to come in and harass Antioch is the enemy of the staff, teachers, students, and administration of the college,” one commenter wrote. “We have reached peak stupidity with this.”
Another wrote: “If Antioch kills these lambs, I will be ashamed to say I went to Antioch.”
In the heat of the back-and-forth, Tex Clark, a public defender based in Portland, Oregon, shared a GoFundMe campaign she created to buy $500 of organic mint jelly for students at the school to use when they finally sit down to eat their locall -raised mutton.
Some in the alumni group found humor in the campaign, which, at press time, had raised $451. Another alum, by contrast, wrote that he found it “remarkably insensitive.”
“It’s very Antioch to raise money through something funny and irreverent that has something serious behind it,” Clark, a 1995 Antioch graduate, told The Daily Beast on Thursday. “But it was mostly to make us feel better.”
“Lamb for dinner is not the principle that is motivating this,” Clark added.
“I think it’s lazy activism to seek attention targeting a small college with a sustainable farming program,” said Clark. “Yellow Springs is surrounded on four sides by big agriculture, factory farms, pig operations, etc. But challenging bad actors is hard and doesn’t make the news.”
Clark also said that she has compassion for Pearl’s personal tragedy, but that, in her mind: “When you ratchet up the stakes like that, it’s a tough way to have a dialogue.”
Others, meanwhile, were just happy to see their alma mater in the news.
“Hey, press for Antioch!” one commenter wrote.