“Experiencing” animal suffering through virtual reality
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Though it is obvious that virtual reality could never truly recreate the experiences of an animal subjected to such cruelty as exists on farms today, a study at Stanford University has perhaps come a little closer than before.
According an article in Scientific American, researchers carried out an experiment meant to give students an impression of what it might feel like to be a cow in a slaughterhouse:
They donned a virtual reality helmet and walked on hands and feet while in a virtual mirror they saw themselves as bovine. As the animal was jabbed with an electrical prod, a lab worker poked a volunteer’s side with a sticklike device. The ground shook to simulate the prod’s vibrations. The cow at the end was led toward a slaughterhouse. (link)
The experiment was not meant to turn people into vegetarians (though it would be nice if that was an unintended effect!) but to learn whether “virtual reality could alter behaviors that tax the environment and contribute to climate change.” Why in the world that required them to feel like a cow I honestly don’t know. (Learn more about animal agriculture and climate change.)
“Once I got used to it I began to feel like I was the cow,” one person wrote. “I truly felt like I was going to the slaughter house towards the end and I felt sad that I (as a cow) was going to die. That last prod felt really sad.”
On that note, the Vegan Feminist Network has written a very thought-provoking response to the idea of a virtual reality program and “feeling like” a cow:
Let’s parallel this. That’s like saying, in order to “feel” what it’s like to be an oppressed person of color, let’s all willingly sit in a prison (considering there are more people of color in prison than any other population because of racism) for an amount of time that you arbitrarily choose in hopes that you, a privileged person, will be able to relate, just so that you can care.
There’s still a very arrogant element involved here. In order for you to care about something, you have to literally be in its position to give a shit. That’s pretty terrible.
That’s why I think it’s important that we don’t conflate empathizing, and then becoming an oppressed being. Those are two completely different projects.
Also, in trying to become an oppressed being, as privileged people, we will inevitably mis-characterize the oppressed being’s position. (Why becoming a virtual cow won’t help you care about the cows)
Anyway, we can’t all take part in this particular experiment, but there are a couple of interesting little gadgets available online from Animal Visuals. If possible you should turn your speakers on–perhaps even loudly.
First, a pig trapped in a gestation crate:
Learn more about pigs and gestation crates in Canada.
Animal Visuals also has a virtual battery cage. Again, speakers are recommended:
Learn more about battery-caged chickens in Canada.
Again, such programs as these cannot really come close to recreating the experience of life on a farm, but perhaps they can give us the barest glimpse of it.