When nine sheep disappeared from their pasture in Yellow Springs, Ohio, last month, there were no volunteer-organized search parties. No flashlights waving about in the darkness, no ears cocked to hear a distant bleat, no portraits on milk cartons.
The months-long battle between the impassioned activists who hoped to save the animals, and Antioch College—who planned to slaughter them—will end on Saturday with a three-hour vigil in honor of the lambs. Because the animals are dead. We think.
It all began last spring when the then-baby lambs were let loose in their solar-panel-adorned meadow on the campus of the private liberal arts school. The lambs were part of a “living laboratory” and sustainability program on the Antioch College Farm, and the school said that—once they matured into sheep—they would feed students in the nearby dining hall.
Over the next several months, fevered activists led by Dr. David Nibert, a neighbor of the college and a sociology professor at Wittenberg University, conducted a relentless campaign to save the creatures’ lives. They offered to buy the lambs, found a place willing to re-home them, collected more than 88,000 signatures on a Change.org petition, sent impassioned pleas from over 100 scholars, bought television commercials depicting bloody lambs in slaughterhouses, and peppered the liberal arts college campus with countless protests, fliers, emails, and phone calls.
Nibert’s campaign caught PETA’s attention, which led the animal-rights group to write an open letter to Antioch College President Tom Manley comparing the “senseless violence” of killing the lambs with the mass shooting in Dayton, Ohio, on Aug. 4, in which 10 people were killed and 27 others were injured.
Yellow Springs Police Chief Brian Carlson told The Daily Beast in September that death threats were sent to the school after the PETA letter—and referenced the organization. An unknown caller to an Antioch receptionist’s private cell number allegedly said, “I should slaughter your fucking family, bitch.” Police opened an investigation into the calls to campus, calling it “telephone harassment.”
That same month, Barbara Pearl—a vegan whose son attended Antioch College before he died in a car crash at the age of 23—asked administrators how much it would take to save the animals in honor of her son’s memory. One allegedly replied: $1 million. The school noted, however, that it would use the money to buy more lambs to butcher for the living laboratory.
“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,” said the school’s statement at the time. “Antioch College is not planning to alter its farm-to-table and sustainability programs.”
On social media, heated battles between the town’s former and current residents at one point devolved into a comparison with Lord of the Flies, William Golding’s 1954 dystopian novel, which famously depicts a group of schoolboys marooned on an island in a terrifying portrait of mankind’s inherent savagery.
Amid all that drama, many activists still held out hope while the lambs appeared to remain on campus through most of November.
Then, last week, Nibert sent an email to The Daily Beast.
“The nine Antioch lambs disappeared from campus yesterday,” he wrote on Nov. 25. “I fear the worst, but hold out a bit of hope that they may have been relocated.”
Antioch College has refused to confirm what happened to the lambs to The Daily Beast or to anyone else. In a statement, a spokesman said on Friday, “Even as the Antioch College community endured harassment and death threats, we gained enormous support from people locally and across the country as they learned about our internationally-recognized farm-to-table dining program and sustainable farming practices.”
“We continue to be proud of our educational program where principles of ecological agriculture and self-sufficiency are explored,” he added.
Audrey Hackett, a reporter with The Yellow Springs News, meanwhile, told The Daily Beast last week that the paper has stopped accepting letters about the lambs because the material is no longer relevant “based on the best understanding our paper currently has” about the fate of the lambs.
Hackett said she did not have more specific information about the creatures.
“It is difficult to believe how a college would dismiss a mother’s plea to honor the memory of her only son, Jason,” Barbara Pearl told The Daily Beast on Friday. “It is unthinkable and heartbreaking. I have begged them to please give the lambs to me as a way to honor Jason’s memory.”
“I am heartbroken,” she said.
“I cannot believe the college would be so cruel and heartless to kill them when they have an opportunity to help a mother honor her child,” said Pearl. “I have to believe this is not the case here and that goodness and mercy will surely reign.”
The press release about the vigil on Friday featured Jason’s portrait side-by-side with the departed lambs.
“Antioch College has acted disgracefully to the mother of a former student,” said Marilyn Kroplick, president of international animal protection organization In Defense of Animals, referring to the $1 million offer, and its strings.
Matthew Hamity, campaigns director at In Defense of Animals, claimed on Friday that the school’s refusal to acknowledge the death of the lambs was evidence that it “implicitly recognizes the obvious truth: no amount of transparency can transform killing into kindness.”
Nibert will hold his vigil on Saturday at noon at the corner of Xenia Avenue and Corry Street, in Yellow Springs, in honor of the lambs and Barbara’s son, Jason Seth Houten’s, memory. Local activists, he told The Daily Beast, will gather to “console one another in the face of the unnecessary and violent deaths of our nine friends.”
“The nine lambs were gentle, curious, and affectionate and could have enjoyed life for many years, living together at a sanctuary with friends and people to care for them,” Nibert added. “Their exploitation and brutal deaths should not go unnoticed or denounced.”
“In a world characterized by so much violence and ecological destruction, this was an opportunity for Antioch College to take a leading role in promoting a truly just and sustainable world,” Nibert said. “That opportunity for Antioch may well have died with the killing of the nine innocent lambs.”
After the vigil, the school will be finally able to take a breath after several months of angry letters, phone calls, and harassment. But that solace may well be short-lived, since a new class of baby lambs is expected to return to the school in the spring.
And, as Hamity said on Friday, In Defense of Animals plans to “remain active in our efforts to ensure that this never happens again.”