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I won’t use virtual reality in my animal advocacy

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Recently, New York Times explored the advancement of virtual reality technology and it’s role as a “sophisticated weapon” for animal welfare groups. I feel strongly opposed to this in it’s representation of abhorrent animal treatment as more important or more understandable to the average person than animal use.

In their examination, they delve into the videos being produced and shared by Animal Equality, with their most recent film focusing on exposing animal treatment on dairy farms in Mexico, Germany, and Britain. With a headset, viewers are transported into the factory farms and slaughterhouses that vigilante activism heralds as bearing witness. What’s next, 3D blood splatter?

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

Traditional videos might be seen when masked protestors flip open laptops in subway tunnels or on busy street corners, and traditionally offer the guts and gore that people expect to be met with gasps, tears, and instant animal appreciation. Many argue that only after seeing the destitute nature of animals raised for use can a lifelong will for change emerge; that simply hearing about the tail docking, castration, debeaking, and bolt guns to the head can’t truly affect someone like the high definition second hand experience of the violence. We’ve explored the topic of graphic imagery before, and it remains a point of contention for me.

Wayne Hsiung, a founder of Direct Action Everywhere, also calls VR “a game changer for animal advocates.” The group recently put out their own big screen tour of a pig farm in Utah. Even the Humane Society has taken the opportunity to pick up a video camera, but when they claim it’s more powerful than a conventional film, they’re likely referring to the power to get donations from the guilt ridden. Still, it is often overestimated how devastating these videos can be to a highly desensitized audience. And whether VR or standard, both risk losing the opportunity for education and discussion when sensitive viewers turn away.

The farmers who become unwilling participants of these films are quick to call them inaccurate, staged, or highly edited. And their arguments bring to light the true failing of all undercover farm footage; it focuses only on the treatment of animals and not the morality of their use. No farmer argues that they don’t kill or commodify their animals, and that’s what we need to focus on in our advocacy.

So it’s unlikely that Animal Equality, DxE, or the Humane Society would ever do a tour of a farm where an animal is seen as comfortable or kept in good care until the day it’s sent to slaughter. The sensationalism of their presentation focuses on the more shocking situations in an effort to seperate some use as being worse than others. It’s how these same groups can participate in the promotion of bigger cages or more humane practices, and the resulting “victories” they achieve, instead of the eradication of all of it. They focus on ending one injustice, or another, in a bid for the attention of people against those individuals actions but who are otherwise comfortable remaining non-vegan. It’s how many of the big groups generate money for their organizations without imparting real change, and why the donate buttons remain larger than the ‘go vegan’ ones on their websites. Still, our individual actions remain more powerful than those of the corporations using animals or those fighting them.

Even without the physical torture that becomes the main attraction of these videos, all animal use strips the fundamental rights of another sentient being. Shifting the paradigm away from speciesism and use doesn’t require any of the gimmicks of technology, it requires education. We don’t need virtual reality goggles to know all degrees of racism or sexism are wrong, we use our own two eyes to see that there aren’t “lesser” ways to do the wrong thing. If we want to help animals, it cannot be about knocking off one single issue or another in a bid to take baby steps, it must be the complete abolition of their status as our property.

In reality, or virtual reality, we won’t see change until we can move away from advocating for “humane” treatment and towards a future without animal use.

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