Meat of the Matter: Reality As Virtually Experienced

Animal Equality, an animal activist group with affiliates in eight countries, was the first group to use virtual-reality (VR) video technology to portray what its spokespeople claim is sordid mistreatment of farm animals. According to a report in The New York Times, the group boasts that its VR video collection has been seen by more than 63 million people worldwide.

Earlier this month, Animal Equality released its third iAnimal video, as its 3-D videos are titled. The film is a virtual-reality tour of conditions on dairy farms, although the footage was shot in Mexico, Germany and Great Britain. The VR technology allows viewers to “stand” inside a room (or barn) and view a 360-degree perspective.

“I had always wished I could bring people into the [livestock] facilities with me, so they could see the [animals] with their own eyes,” Jose Valle, a founder of the group, told The Times. “The experience is just not the same with traditional video.”

I’ll bet it’s not.

And let’s not proceed too far before we roll out the clichés. Wayne Hsiung, of the activist group Direct Action Everywhere, called VR “a game changer for animal advocates.”

Yeah, in many ways it is a game to animal rights activists: a game of “Gotcha!”

Top of the Haters’ Hit Parade

In its VR video, Direct Action captured footage of the hog barns at Circle Four Farms in Milford, Utah, which has developed into one of the largest pork production operations in the United States.

A bit of background: Milford is — literally — in the middle of nowhere, and I don’t mean that in a disparaging way; just that the tiny town is many miles from anything resembling urban America. When Circle Four first set up shop, activists descended on that isolated rural area like a swarm of locusts. There were protests, legal actions and media investigations about water pollution, noise and odor problems.

Some of that is understandable. If a factory, a shopping center or a big box retailer moves into a remote, lightly populated area, the additional traffic and congestion almost always provoke complaints from the locals.

But according to the newspaper, Direct Action’s 3-D video showed “sows with bloody and mangled teats; pregnant sows gnawing on the bars of the narrow stalls they live in until they give birth; and piglets clambering over and nibbling dead siblings.”

Circle Four is owned by Smithfield Foods, which was acquired in 2013 by the Chinese conglomerate Shuanghui International, neither of which are on any activists’ Christmas card lists. In addition, there are serious issues with the validity of the video, whether it’s VR or not, including scenes that Keira Lombardo, a Smithfield spokeswoman, described as “blatant inaccuracies.”

Not only that, but the Direct Action people admitted that they stole two piglets from the Circle Four facility, which gives some credence to Lombardo’s assertion that the video appeared to be “highly edited and even staged.”

Part of the problem with public perceptions of how livestock are handled is the unfamiliarity people have with farming, especially animal agriculture. It seems so harsh to laypeople because they’re sensitive to imagery that appears to show cruel or insensitive treatment of animals they perceive as pets.

Only those same standards don’t seem to apply elsewhere. For example: Here are three other areas of “professional practice” that can be characterized as seriously brutal and/or destructive:

·         A surgical theater. There’s a reason most patients are put to sleep during major surgery. To witness a human being getting sliced open, and in the case of open-heart surgery, to watch a surgeon saw right through the breastbone, attach a big metal retractor that pulls apart the patient’s rib cage, then (literally) pull their heart out of their chest, lay it onto a table and start cutting it up would be totally traumatic. With the exception of the couch ghouls who watch live operations on the TLC channel strictly for the prurient interest it generates, nobody would disagree that even in its finest hour, medicine can be awfully gory and bloody.

·         A logging site. Until you’ve spent months (and years) working on a timber harvest unit, to employ a euphemism for a “clear-cut,” you can’t remotely imagine the deafening noise of the yarders, the loaders, the bulldozers and the endless stream of logging trucks, along with the dust, dirt, mud, grease and oil that saturate the entire area 10 hours a day — not to mention the incredibly destructive sight of giant fir and pine trees, many of them over 100 feet tall, crashing to the ground in an explosion of branches, rocks and slash. It’s a scene that’s not for soft-hearted Nature-lovers, I can assure you.

·         A fruit and vegetable cannery. Many of us experienced the “character-building” impact of working our way through college in an “entry-level position,” to roll out another euphemism, this one for grunt work. Mine was six years working the graveyard shift, seven days a week, July through November, at a cannery — now long since razed — in Eugene, Ore., as a member of the plant’s sanitation crew. People don’t think about the production process when they open a can of green beans, sliced carrots or (God forbid) creamed corn, but that factory was as slimy, stinky, and stomach-turning as it gets. I couldn’t begin to articulate what it feels and smells like to stand under a 150-degree peeler shoveling beet slime four hours a night, or the nausea induced by having to clean — without benefit of a gas mask — week-old wax beans fermenting inside a slicing machine … so I won’t even try.

The point of mentioning these examples is to note that in each scenario, much good comes from what is unquestionably a nasty, highly unpleasant activity. My life was saved, thanks to open-heart surgery, and although some of the emailers who respond to these columns might wish otherwise, I’m grateful for that.

Likewise, virtually all of us live in houses constructed with lumber milled from the timber taken out of a forest somewhere, and sleeping under a roof, at least in winter, beats sleeping under the stars by a long shot.

And although I wouldn’t recommend canned anything as one’s preferred dietary sustenance, those products, along with the frozen fruits and vegetables that long-ago cannery shipped out, provided valuable nutrition to millions of people across the country and around the world.

Much the same analysis applies to the system of meat and poultry production, especially the part involving butchering and packaging. It doesn’t take a virtual reality camera to capture scenes that aren’t rated PG. However, like many other commercial and industrial processes, the value to society is immense.

With the exception of children’s storybooks and Disney movies, it’s foolish to pretend that it’s possible, or plausible, to fully soften and sanitize our production and manufacturing systems — which by the way, are what’s responsible for creating the modern lifestyles we totally take for granted.

Editor’s Note: The opinions in this commentary are those of Dan Murphy, a veteran journalist and commentator.