Virtual Reality Factory Farm Animals

Perhaps the most remarkable feat of the animal agriculture industry is the distance at which it has kept the public from its massive killing apparatus. Despite the fact that hundreds of millions of animals are slaughtered every single day for their meat in this country, most of us have never witnessed a single instance of this violence.

The non-profit organization Animal Equality aims to change this, with the help of virtual reality. In its new VR documentary film called Factory Farm, which is part of its iAnimal project, the organization’s cofounder Jose Valle leads viewers through the final moments in the lives of several pigs in a factory farm and slaughterhouse in Mexico. The film made its public debut at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, earlier this month.

 

A Sundance attendee watches the iAnimal video, during which they can move around and get a 360° view of a slaughterhouse.

A Sundance attendee watches the “Factory Farm” video, during which they can move around and get a 360° view of a slaughterhouse.

Factory Farm, produced in collaboration with VR technology company Condition One, is not easy to watch. It puts viewers just a few feet from not only the horrific conditions these animals are subject to, but also the stun-and-slaughter process, as they bear witness to what is an extremely common outcome: pigs regaining consciousness just moments after the initial stun, left to writhe and suffer as they bleed out on the slaughterhouse floor.

 

Pigs funnelled to slaughter at a plant in Mexico. Photo courtesy Animal Equality.

Pigs funnelled to slaughter at a plant in Mexico. Photo courtesy Animal Equality.

The film is narrated by Valle, who worked for months building the contacts and relationships to get access to the Mexican facility. (A level of transparency that, it’s worth noting, would never be possible in the US, due to the industry’s colossal, ongoing effort to prevent the public from seeing where its meat comes from.) Valle used a custom rig built with six special cameras to film the footage, which was later stitched together to create an immersive, 360-degree video. The viewer is able to behold their grim surroundings, from floor to ceiling and all around, in full, stereoscopic 3D.

We sat down with Valle and his Animal Equality cofounder Sharon Nunez to talk about their Sundance experience and how virtual reality will shape animal rights activism.

 

What did showing iAnimal at Sundance teach you about the potency of virtual reality?
Sharon: Even though it was a 12-minute video — a very intense video — of a factory farm and a slaughterhouse, most people watched through the whole experience. A lot of people commented about how powerful the footage was, and many commented about eating less meat or even going vegetarian or vegan. It is important to note that this was one of the most talked-about pieces at Sundance. One of the key learnings for us was that when people are immersed in VR, they are ready for something transformative. We give them that through access to all these horrible places where animals are suffering and are slaughtered. And this actually has the potential to not only change their lives, but to change the lives of millions of animals.

Jose: Since this medium is so new, many viewers are exposed to this technology for the first time, and to these kinds of experiences for the first time. During the panel on virtual reality, people commented about our piece because for them it was so strong, people still had those images in their minds — so powerful that one person had nightmares. With virtual reality, what you remember is not merely that, “I watched that piece,” like with conventional videos. It’s more like, “I have been there” or “I have a memory of what it’s like to be inside a slaughterhouse.”

 

Were you surprised by people’s willingness to watch the film at Sundance and their reactions to it?

Jose: Yes, because we told them that it was going to be an intense experience, it contains some very graphic scenes. One of the challenges was, how can you convince or invite people to watch something that is going to be painful, something that is going to be difficult to watch. It’s like asking someone, “Do you want to suffer?” And no one wants to suffer. But people were actually eager to watch it, and virtually everybody who watched it thanked us for producing the piece. Word-of-mouth worked really well, and we found that many people were also bringing their friends, co-workers or even families. They even drove from Salt Lake City to Park City specifically for that video. We filmed many of their reactions, which speak for themselves [in showing] how impacted they were. It’s not a video that you finish watching and you can just move on to the next thing. What we found is that people needed to process what they have just witnessed and they needed to talk about it and they needed answers.

If you look in the other direction, you are still inside that cage, just as the animals are.

 

The life of a pig on a farm. Photo courtesy Animal Equality.

The life of a pig on a farm. Photo courtesy Animal Equality.

Many people have seen undercover footage, but VR is something new. What makes this kind of sensory experience so life-changing and so vital to the animal liberation movement?
Jose: Virtual reality has the power to bring you into these places where you are not supposed to be. When we learned about this new technology, we understood that. We started experimenting, putting cameras inside cages — so when the viewer sees that [footage], [it’s as though] they are the ones who are trapped inside the cage and everywhere they look, there is no way out, as animals don’t have a way out. If you look in the other direction, you are still inside that cage, just as the animals are. So I would describe it as a very powerful [way] of people being witness to what happens and feel like you are the one subjected to the same treatment as the animals.

Sharon: We feel that VR is an extremely important tool for activism. We think it’s really revolutionizing empathy and the capacity [for] people to empathize with others, human or non-human. When we want to make sure that a person is transformed or we want to maximize the possibilities we have with engaging a person, changing or inspiring that person — VR is our tool. We want to continue developing content for VR inside farms and slaughterhouses and other animal exploitation facilities. And we want as many people as possible to try this out. That is why we are planning to bring this to universities, to festivals, we are to planning to bring it to politicians, to companies. And we think it’s really going to make a case for animals and their suffering.

 

How do you envision making this cutting-edge technology accessible to a large number of people?
Jose: Whenever we have shown this video with virtual headsets to people, we find ourselves surrounded by [other] people who are really interested in [trying it]. So we know that we have that on our side. We are bringing iAnimal to universities all over the U.S., Germany, Italy, England, and Spain. We are launching a website that will allow users to visit, virtually, a farm and go from one of the gestation crates to the slaughterhouse, look around and discover more information. We are also producing an app that will allow anybody, in any part of the world, to download [and watch] those same videos with a virtual headset like Google Cardboard, [which] we’ll be providing. People will be able to see it and show it to their friends and family and coworkers. We will also share it with other animal organizations who can use it as an awareness tool during their activities.

by Evan Shamoon

Images courtesy of Animal Equality.

Animal Agriculture Stockyard Factory Farm Climate Change

At the COP21 Climate Change Conference that took place in Paris from November 30 through December 12, the most prominent objective was to reach “a new international agreement on climate change, applicable to all, to keep global warming below 2°C.” Last year’s report by Chatham House, a London-based independent policy institute, stated that “consumption of meat and dairy produce is a major driver of climate change” and that it would be extremely difficult to keep global warming under 2 degrees Celsius without a dramatic shift in dairy and meat consumption.

The Climate Deal was finally signed on Saturday, yet it contained glaring omissions. While 195 countries pledged to pursue “efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius” and gradually reduce emissions of the heat-trapping gases that are warming the planet, no acknowledgement was made of animal agriculture being responsible for over half of those emissions. The deal called for the preservation of forests, but ignored the fact that over 80 percent of deforestation in the Amazon and about 14 percent of the world’s total annual deforestation is the result of cattle ranching. Search the document‘s 31 pages and you won’t find any presence of words like “meat,” “methane,” “animals” or any mention of human eating habits.

Aerial view of a U.S. factory farm feedlot and waste lagoon. (Mishak Henner)

Aerial view of a U.S. factory farm feedlot and waste lagoon. (Mishak Henner)

Life as we know it depends on the world limiting temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees F). According to reports from the National Research Council and the World Bank, should temperatures exceed those levels, the results could be catastrophic. Potable water would become much more scarce. Many of the world’s plants and animals would be on the brink of extinction. The Arctic would continue melting, losing 30% of its annual average sea ice. Saltwater intrusion from rising seas would make some island nations uninhabitable, with others going underwater entirely.

The omission of animal agriculture at the Paris conference is particularly alarming considering that last April became the first month in recorded history where the global concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere reached 400 parts per million (ppm). “The world is quickening the rate of accumulation of CO2, and has shown no signs of slowing this down. It should be a psychological tripwire for everyone,” said NASA’s global change and energy program manager Dr. Michael Gunson in a statement.

CO2 emissions — a form of greenhouse gas — are the primary accelerator of climate change. A greenhouse gas (or GHG for short) is any gas in the atmosphere which absorbs and re-emits heat, keeping the planet’s atmosphere warmer than it otherwise would be.

The United States has the highest meat consumption per capita in the world. The effect of billions of animals used in farming on producing greenhouse gasses exceeds all emissions from transportation, including airplanes. Cattle production, for example, requires a great deal of land, which leads to the destruction of forests. The trees that are burned to clear the land release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The cows produce methane, a potent greenhouse gas that causes warming. Enormous amounts of fossil fuel are used in animal agriculture, generated by everything from the production of feeds, to the transport of animals to slaughter, then processing them into meat products and transporting those by land, sea and air. Livestock is responsible for 65% of all human-related emissions of nitrous oxide.  Taxpayers unwittingly fund this destruction. The US government collects $38 billion annually in taxpayer money to subsidize the meat and dairy industries. (By contrast, fruits and vegetables get only $17 million).

Animal Agriculture Climate Change

A cow looks out from a transport truck in New Jersey en route to slaughter. (Mike Hrinewski/LAIKA)

The evidence against animal agriculture has been piling up. In 2009, the Worldwatch Institute reported that a staggering 51 percent of GHG emissions are caused by animal agriculture. Then in 2010, United Nations Environment Programme’s (UNEP) international panel of sustainable resource management declared that a worldwide move towards a vegan diet is essential in preventing the most devastating impacts of climate change. And in its 2014 report Livestock – Climate Change’s Forgotten Sector, Chatham House implored that “shifting global demand for meat and dairy produce is central to achieving climate goals.”

A 2013 report by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) showed that beef production generates 13 times the emissions of vegetable protein such as lentils and tofu, and that 20% of of the meat that is produced gets thrown away — massive amounts of carbon dioxide are generated for nothing. Furthermore, the Climactic Change journal detailed in its 2014 study that high meat eaters are responsible for over 16 pounds of carbon dioxide pollution per day, in comparison with only 6.5 pounds in vegans.

Yet, vegan meals were hard to come by at the Le Bourget Centre, where the Paris conference took place. This, in spite of the secretary general of the conference Pierre-Henri Guignard vowing to keep the conference’s carbon footprint at a minimum (estimates put it at 21,000 tons of carbon dioxide equivalent, or CO2e) and the summit’s site featuring an extensive array of emission-reducing measures — none of them involving earth-friendly dining options.

Animal Agriculture Climate Change

Five month-old pigs, nearing “market weight” (age when slaughtered) at Lehmann Brothers Farms in Illinois. (Daniel Acker/Getty)

The situation is dire — as the world’s population and purchasing power has grown, so has its meat consumption. According to the World Resources Institute, it is projected to rise dramatically in the next fifty years, particularly among the growing middle class in Asia. If humankind’s consumption of animals is not confronted head on, it will become our downfall. A study by the Glasgow University Media Group and Chatham House released a week before the Paris conference stressed that “unless strong demand growth for meat is curtailed, livestock sector emissions will increase to the point where dangerous climate change is unavoidable.”

This year, California experienced its worst drought on record. What has the largest water footprint of all the food produced in that state? Animal feed. In the US, half of all water usage goes towards producing 41 million tons of plant protein that is then fed to animals who are then killed to produce only 7 million tons of meat. Newly-released NASA satellite data showed that the world’s largest underground aquifers – a source of fresh water for hundreds of millions of people — are being depleted at alarming rates.

California’s Gov. Jerry Brown, who was in attendance at the Paris climate summit along with a large delegation, focused on the potential for climate catastrophe and made sweeping recommendations for how to address the problem. He left out any mention of the devastating impact of meat on climate change.

Chickens awaiting slaughter (Mike Hrinewski/ LAIKA).

Chickens awaiting slaughter (Mike Hrinewski/ LAIKA).

Among the few public voices to cut through the hypocrisy was director (and vegan) James Cameron, who in an op-ed piece published by Newsweek during the conference wrote, “Simply by making a conscious, ethical decision about what we put on our plates, we could quite possibly change the world.”

A vegan lifestyle has now been proven as one of the most powerfully effective solutions to curtailing climate change. With the world’s leaders failing to address the crisis of animal agriculture, it is our personal responsibility to educate and empower ourselves, disseminate information to our communities and inform people about the consequences of their eating habits. Politicians deliberately hiding the truth from the public for fear of backlash will not make the problem go away. The time for change is now.

By Julie Gueraseva

Recommended viewing: Cowspiracy, Racing Extinction, Earthlings, Virunga. For an in-depth coverage of vegan living, read or subscribe to LAIKA, printed in limited runs on recycled paper with vegetable-based inks and available in digital format.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Why Laika the Space Dog is All Animals

Laika the Soviet Space dog 1957On November 3, 1957, Laika became the first living being to orbit the Earth. She was launched on Sputnik 2 as part of the Soviet space exploration program, with the USSR locked in a heated race against the United States to conquer space.

A stray mutt from the streets of Moscow, Laika was described as being calm and quiet, complying obediently with her training. It included standing still for long periods of time, wearing space suits, being placed in simulators that acted like a rocket during launch, riding in centrifuges that simulated the high acceleration of a rocket launch and being kept in progressively smaller cages to prepare her for the confines of the space module. Oblivious to the plans set in place for her, Laika unequivocally trusted her caretakers, who ended up betraying her. The space shuttle was designed to not be retrievable.

Laika in the midst of her training.

Laika in the midst of her training.

She died within hours of the launch from extreme stress and overheating. Her heart was beating at triple its normal rate, and she was subjected to temperatures topping 100 degrees Fahrenheit as the capsule’s cooling system proved to be ineffective. Sputnik 2 continued to orbit the Earth for five months with her remains, disintegrating upon reentry into the atmosphere.

Altogether, the USSR sent 48 dogs into space. Three years after Laika’s launch, Oleg Gazenko, a senior Soviet scientist involved in the project, adopted a dog from another space mission – Krasavka. She lived out the rest of her life with his family for 14 years. Gazenko carried the guilt of sending Laika to her death for decades. “The more time passes, the more I’m sorry about it. We shouldn’t have done it. We did not learn enough from this mission to justify the death of the dog,” he stated during a Moscow press conference in 1998. “When you understand that you can’t bring back Laika, that she perishes out there, and that no one can bring her back…that is a very heavy feeling. After I returned to Moscow from the launch, I left town. I wanted to isolate myself,” he told a Russian reporter.

Laika Space dog

Laika in her capsule, in preparation for her launch.

During many years of Soviet state propaganda, Laika’s launch into space was deemed an act of heroism, as though she had given her consent to participate. Her likeness was used to sell everything from cigarette cartons to children’s toys, and monuments were erected in her honor.

Various Soviet-era Laika paraphernalia.

Various Soviet-era Laika paraphernalia. The plate reads, “Laika – the first traveler in space.” Image: ©Fuel Publishing

Each year, over 50 billion farm animals are killed around the world – nearly eight times the human population. These numbers do not include the billions used for fashion, sport and entertainment. Their suffering is as profound as Laika’s, but they are not lauded as heroes. Just like Laika, they are commodities, used to sell products – themselves turned into products, their needs disregarded and their status as sentient beings erased.

Chained elephants in Nepal, awaiting to be used for elephant rides.

Chained elephants in Nepal, awaiting to be used for elephant rides.

Pig gestation crates

Pigs kept in gestation crates in the United States, unable to turn around or stand up.

Laika’s story represents not only the continued needless exploitation of animals at the hands of humans, but our paradoxical and arrogant relationship with them. In their innocence and vulnerability, they look to us for mercy and protection. But we betray them. And with this, we chip away at our conscience. There is no gain in exploiting other living beings, there is only loss — the loss of our humanity.

LAIKA magazine is a tribute to Laika the space dog and to all animals treated unjustly. It is a message of hope that we can repair and rebuild our relationship with our fellow earthlings. In the pages of LAIKA lies the proof that it is entirely possible to live a life free of harming others. This life is possible for each one of us, thanks to our innate sense of compassion and our ability to discern between right and wrong. Veganism simply means allowing compassion and justice to transcend the boundaries between species.

by Julie Gueraseva