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Virtual Trauma

Updated: Aug 1, 2021

Imagine being transformed into a baby chick, piglet or dairy calf for four minutes.

The reality hits instantly; surrounded by hundreds of the same individuals.

Image by Ben Hunt

The noise, the calls from you and your fellow prisoners is all-encompassing. There is no where to go. It’s not Old Macdonald’s. You quickly grow, the space gets smaller, some are laid dead from disease, others resort to cannibalizing the wasted bodies. Soon this will all be over, but not before the final act. A convener belt of hard metal, pistons, blades and blood. There’s no escape. You were born to die. The virtual reality headset is slipped off and your back as a human, you’re safe. You’re asked ‘What now?’ by the smiling vegan who enticed you in with the promise of a free cupcake - god do you need it now. The promise is fulfilled, but not before the virtual experience is dissected.

iAnimal is a virtual reality experience as part of Animal Equality’s outreach campaign. Passers-by are invited to experience the perspective from birth to death of a farm animal, in 360 degrees. The choice of which video (chicken, pig or cow) is usually guided by how they answer:

Which animal (or animal product) do you consume the most?

While volunteering for Animal Equality UK, I saw first hand the impact these brief experiences had on the participants. Some came out from the virtual reality in floods of tears, speechless and shook. Others were defiant and defensive. Both reactions exposed a clear confrontation. There was no denying that it was a negative experience. Does that negative experience shift an individual toward acting on the issue? Does being part of that traumatic experience translate to the participant?

Image by Ben Hunt

From the rate of sign ups to Animal Equality’s plant-based diet support initiative (the Love-Veg Pledge), the answer is a resounding yes. Those who were defensive in favor of eating animals and what they produce retreated to points on nutrition, unrealistic thought experiments (perfect world and desert island), and taste - which are regularly debunked by the volunteers in conversation. Elizabeth Cherry writes about bridging the gap between the human and non-human animal, going one step further than the common activists saying 'If slaughterhouses had glass walls, we’d all be vegetarian.’ She states erasing the gap as main goal for the contemporary movement:

The central goal of animal rights activists is to dismantle the human-animal boundary, a process scholars have called ‘‘boundary shifting’’ (Wimmer, 2008a). Here, activists encourage the‘‘lumping’’ (Zerubavel, 1996) together of humans and animals, or of companion and farm animals, as fellow sentient beings rather than ‘‘splitting’’ them apart because of species barriers. (Cherry, E., 2010)

The visually immersive experience the human participant has in iAnimal follows this line; 'walking in another animal’s shoes’ - even if for a brief moment. Even though it was only one sense being immersed, in such short time frame, it seems to be enough to provoke conversations, and sometimes desires for change. Other senses of smell, touch and taste weren’t featured - what would happen if they were?

Image by Ben Hunt

Leaping into such an immersive experience isn’t to be taken lightly, the use of incentives as a reward for those four minutes is used regularly. Vegan activists from the educational group Vegan Night School offer a free vegan cupcake for everyone who watches the virtual reality video. These events are held in controlled locations, mainly universities. The cupcake is more than a lure, it’s an anchor for comfort and safety. Would we witness and experience virtual trauma if we didn’t feel supported in some way. A cupcake is familiar, it’s a treat - it (sugar) can perk you up when feeling down or lethargic.

Judging by the high number of participants for iAnimal, we have a curiosity and willingness for being immersed by negative images, if we feel safe and supported. The knowledge that the experience is temporary and you are supported by volunteers, and the reward of a sweet treat, is the foundation of facilitating a personal (and horrifying) experience. Volunteers hope by facilitating the experience in this way, it will bring about individual lifestyle change - which in turn, will effect supply and demand in the plant-based/vegan market, ultimately bringing the end of animal use that bit closer to reality.

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