Bleeding animal carcasses, piglets torn from their mothers, and the harrowing squeals of pigs being led to slaughter could be coming to a university campus or high street near you.
Well, kind of. A new virtual reality factory farm tour is traveling the UK to test the meat-eating resolve of anyone willing to strap on the goggles.
The "unique immersive experience" known as iANIMAL has been developed by animal welfare group (and Morrissey mayoral bid-backers) Animal Equality. Executive director Toni Shephard says that the experience is being especially targeted at young people because they are far more open to adopting new eating habits when faced with the brutal reality of the meat industry.
"Ultimately, our aim is to change as many people's diet as possible, as this is the best way to help farmed animals," she says.
It is apparently already working, with an invitation for a preview last week saying that during a trial of iANIMAL in Brighton "people queued for ages to try it—many cried—and already this technology is creating vegetarians."
I went to the preview with some trepidation because I, like millions of others, am the sort of hypocrite who considers myself an animal lover while devouring flesh on a daily basis. How I can justify getting annoyed at people who don't walk their dog regularly, or upset at tourists in Thailand flocking to watch abused elephants riding bikes, while my consumption fuels industrial-scale mistreatment, is a question I have long wrestled with.
Of course, the simple answer is down to our tendency to detach ourselves from the process that ends in meat on our plates. But I always told myself that given the chance, I would go to a slaughterhouse to see if I could handle seeing an animal killed. With abattoirs generally not known for their open-door policy, iANIMAL seemed like a good alternative.
The seven-minute tour takes you through the life of a factory-farmed pig, including piglets being tail-docked and castrated without pain relief, sows suckling their young in pens so small they can't stand, and males being fattened in such confinement that they turn on each other or succumb to disease.
While the tour can be taken online, it is incomparable to the disorientating and morbidly riveting virtual reality experience. Listening to the sound of squealing pigs below the narration of actor-turned-animal-rights-activist Peter Egan, the only thing really missing is the smell.
"People queued for ages to try it—many cried—and already this technology is creating vegetarians."
"You'll never once take a single breath of fresh air. Never taste fresh water. Never even see the sun," says Egan in a methodical, uncompromising voice.
Some of the footage was taken in the UK, while the rest was compiled elsewhere in the European Union, which Shephard explains is "directly relevant to meat consumers in the UK," given that more than half of the bacon, sausages, and ham sold in the country is imported from Europe.
The tour ends in the only place it can: the death chamber of a slaughterhouse. Seven pigs are seen packed into a tiny pen as an eighth is stunned with a giant pair of electric tongs and winched up by a back leg to join two more already hanging up.
The pigs thrash and twitch as their throats are slit, with one flailing so much it crashes to the floor, before being dragged away through pooled blood while a worker gives the camera a beaming smile. As the pigs are systematically picked off, it is hard to take your eye off the last one and wonder what it must feel like to see your fate coming but be so helpless to stop it.
It's a genuinely upsetting experience that Egan hopes young people will be "courageous" enough to submit themselves to. He says news last year that 400 million less animals were slaughtered in the United States between 2007 and 2014 gives him hope for the future. The trend has been attributed by many to a rise in veganism, vegetarianism, and lower-meat diets.
"There is great passion for animal welfare in so many countries now and it is driven by young people," Egan adds.
The overriding message coming from those I spoke to involved in iANIMAL is that if you can't contemplate giving up meat altogether, eating more humanely reared animals less often is a good start. According to Shephard, the only way to ensure an animal had any quality of life is to buy Soil Association-endorsed organic meat
"Every meat-free meal people eat makes a difference," she says. "Of course, you must remember that even these animals had a violent and terrifying death—in the same slaughterhouses as all other farmed animals."
As for me, I haven't eaten meat in the three days since I took the tour. And while I can't say I've turned my back on it forever, I am certain I will be adopting a more conscientious approach to any future consumption.