It was early Thursday afternoon on the campus of Valley College in Van Nuys, California, when two employees of the animal rights organization Last Chance for Animals set up a table in the quad. Students of all ages were lounging around and walking to class, and LCA's campaigns director, Nina Jackel, was ready to spread the word of their cause, rocking a grey t-shirt that declared "There's no excuse for animal abuse." Jackel gave passersby a cheery greeting: "We're encouraging people to have a cruelty free holiday this year!"
She and her cohort had brought along a plastic, virtual reality headset, which contained a video showing a 360-degree scene of two industrial farm facilities—chickens and pigs held in miserable-looking cages and pens, doomed for slaughter. With the upcoming holiday season, Jackel and LCA's social media coordinator Karen Smith had come to raise awareness about the cruelty of factory farms.
"Most holiday celebrations are actually centered around death and cruelty," Jackel said. "You have a turkey in the middle of your table, a ham in the middle of your table. So while you're celebrating peace and love and joy and all these wonderful things, you're celebrating around death and torture. It's something that people really don't think about, but it's actually extremely twisted."
Animal rights organizations have been advocating for years against factory farms, but this year the LCA has come up with a high-tech new strategy of its own. Using hidden-camera footage collected on GoPro cameras, the group has put together a two-minute virtual-reality video experience designed to raise awareness about what the group considers the most barbaric practices of our meat eating society. When I strapped on the head-seat at Valley College and looked around, I was brought face-to-face with a giant pig among thousands of others inside a vast compound of Mid Western pork producer Christensen Farms. The hog was marinating in its own filth in a metal cage that looked so small the animal couldn't even turn around.
This isn't the first animal rights group to get in on virtual reality technology. Last year, PETA unveiled a VR simulator called I, Chicken. PETA representatives invited people at various college campuses to strap on wireless goggles and take on the life of a chicken.
Last Chance for Animals, which was founded in 1984 and is based in West Hollywood, got into the virtual-reality game with its website Factory Farm 360. The site shows 360-degree footage of the insides of major enterprises like Christensen Farms, which supplies pork products for huge clients like Walmart. Jackel says their use of VR is meant to help people better empathize with what animals raised for slaughter are going through.
"It actually puts you in the animal's place, and then when you look around you see what the animal sees," Jackel said. "As bad as that is, there are a lot of things you don't see—like the smell of the ammonia, or the disease, the bacteria that's all over the place. As bad as it is here, it's actually ten times worse for these chickens in real life."
Slaughterhouse and factory farm videos produced by animal rights groups can be extremely disturbing, and the videos on Factory Farm 360 are no different. One video from a Christensen Farms facility, collected by undercover investigators, shows clips of piglets being killed in a carbon dioxide chamber, and caged hogs suffering from suppurating pressure sores. It's videos like these that compelled Smith to go vegan in the first place, she said.
But in the two-minute video I saw at Valley College, the factory farms footage was juxtaposed with a vision of a meat-free situation: a clip from a California sanctuary called the Gentle Barn, where rescued pigs, goats, and chickens were cleaned up and roaming free in a quaint red barnyard.
"The virtual reality footage is not as painful to watch," Smith said. "It's raising awareness more than showing the cruelty, you know what I mean?"
Video footage from Christensen Farms, via Last Chance for Animals's YouTube
The question, of course, is whether anybody will actually feel more for these animals by getting a virtual-reality glimpse of their living situations. For a high-tech approach, the setup at Valley College was actually pretty low-budget: a Samsung smartphone hooked up to a virtual reality headset they bought on Amazon. The sound was barely audible and the hustle and bustle of the college campus also made it hard to feel fully immersed in the industrial meat machine.
Jackel said that she and Smith had a lot of success when they recently visited California State University, Northridge. For the hour I spent with them at Valley College, the scene wasn't quite as happening. But a handful of people tried the headset on, a couple fellow animal rights championed voiced their support, and a little crowd formed when a tall kid with a mop of brown hair excitedly walked up to try it on.
"This is cool!" he said, gazing up and down and around with wonder. His friends gathered around as he narrated the experience. "That's fucked up… Oh, what the hell? I don't know, that one that's outside looks OK."
Alas, the overall point of the video seemed lost on him. When the activists tried to ask him about animal cruelty, he just wandered off.
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