Animal Rights Groups Have a New Tool: Virtual Reality

Members of Direct Action Everywhere, an animal welfare group, removing injured piglets from Circle Four Farms in Milford, Utah. CreditDirect Action Everywhere

For years, animal-rights advocates trying to expose bad practices in the meat industry have surreptitiously shot grainy photographs and hand-held video. Now they have a more sophisticated weapon in their arsenal: the virtual-reality camera.

Animal Equality, an animal rights group with branches in eight countries, was the first to use virtual-reality video technology last year to highlight the treatment of farm animals. That video has been viewed by more than 63 million people around the world, according to the group, and other animal advocacy groups are exploring the technology.

On Thursday, Animal Equality released its third iAnimal, as it calls its 3D films, a virtual-reality tour of conditions in dairy farms in Mexico, Germany and Britain. The VR technology allows viewers to “stand” in a barn and look all around, not just at the spot an advocate wishes to highlight.

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

Wayne Hsiung, a founder of Direct Action Everywhere, which also fights for animal welfare, called the technology “a game changer for animal advocates.”

In one sign of how quickly the technology is being adopted among animal advocacy groups, Direct Action also released a virtual-reality video on Thursday. It takes viewers into barns at Circle Four Farms in Milford, Utah, one of the largest pig production operations in the United States. The film shows 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.

In a portion of the film Mr. Hsiung narrates, dead piglets are piled up behind a sow who is wedged into a crate so tightly that she cannot move away from the mess. But a viewer can turn away from her to see, and hear, sows in similar straits all around her.

Circle Four is owned by Smithfield Foods, which was bought in 2013 by Shuanghui International, one of China’s largest meat processors. Keira Lombardo, a Smithfield spokeswoman, said the video had “blatant inaccuracies,” such as its assertions that the animals shown in it are being starved.

“This video, which appears to be highly edited and even staged, is an attempt to leverage a new technology to manufacture an animal care issue where one does not exist,” she wrote in an email on Wednesday.


Using a virtual-reality camera, investigators from Animal Equality chronicled the living conditions of a calf in England. CreditAnimal Equality

She said that after Smithfield was contacted last week by The New York Times, the company had outside auditors — Barry N. Pittman, Utah’s state veterinarian, and Jennifer Woods, a veterinarian and livestock handling expert — conduct an investigation at Circle Four, which found no “animal mistreatment.” Rather, she said, “the video’s creators, who claim to be animal care advocates, risked the life of the animal they stole and the lives of the animals living on our farms.” (In fact, Direct Action took two piglets from the farm, to rescue them, and Smithfield says it will alert the authorities in Utah on Thursday about trespassing on its property and other alleged infractions by Direct Action.)

Other animal rights organizations are moving to adopt virtual-reality technology. At its Animal Care Expo in May, the Humane Society of the United States introduced its first 3D video showing conditions at a dog-meat plant in South Korea. “It’s powerful, more powerful than conventional video,” said Paul Shapiro, the society’s vice president for policy.

It is not easy, however, to sneak the bulky equipment needed to make a high-quality VR video into an industrial barn or meat plant. Animal Equality had to stitch its first iAnimal video together using film shot on several cameras.

But the bigger challenge is distribution. The technology needed to watch the videos is not widespread, so when Animal Equality started an outreach program on American college campuses last year, it had to supply headsets.

So far, the videos have made it to 117 campuses, including Oxford, Yale and the University of California at Berkeley. Animal Equality is working to develop a mobile app that will deliver as close to a virtual-reality experience as possible.

Mr. Valle noted that The Times had distributed more than one million cardboard virtual-reality headsets and said that he expected the technology to continue to spread. “Sure, this is a new technology,” he said, “but it’s being used more and more.”

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