Category Archives: the Machine

Mini-Game Explores Meat Production from New Point of View

Alexey Botkov, a game creator who is part of the Frogshark game studio in Auckland, New Zealand, recently participated in a Ludum Dare competition (a “game jam”) in which game designers, working alone, had only 48 hours to create a video game.  The theme: “You are the monster.

Many competitors took a literal view of the theme, creating games wherein the player controls a traditional, Godzilla-like monster.  Botkov took a different tack: “I wanted the theme to carry a self-reflective quality for the player instead of a literal representation in the game.”

In That Cow Game (downloadable for free for Windows and OSX here), the player plays a pixelated cow, who wanders among the whirring, clanking machines of an equally pixelated slaughterhouse.  The difference here is that the cow is the factory foreman, and the infinite line of processed carcasses are all human.

Created in just 48 hours, the game is, by necessity, minimalist: the graphics are simple and blocky, and there isn’t any actual goal.  This arguably makes the game experience even more haunting and thought-provoking.  A reviewer from Popular Science noted, “As the cow (the main character), you’re really only tasked with walking back and forth along the assembly line for as long as it takes you to realize there’s nothing you can do to affect the process. Whether that moment was intentional or not, it left an unsettling feeling hanging in the air. I kept wondering: Was there something I can do? Am I missing something to stop this?”

Image source: nomand

Image source: nomand

The player’s only source of interaction with unfolding events is an ability to headbutt the human corpses as they roll by.  The carcasses are the only “squishy” looking items in the game, created with a deliberate, visually unique feel to separate them from the rest of the space.  They feel out of place in the huge, industrial factory.  “If I was to add anything it would be sound and a variety of voices coming from the humans as you bump into them,” Botkov says.

The game has only minimal, pixelated gore, and it won’t necessarily turn you vegan — Botkov himself is an omnivore — but it invites thought about the nature of our food production processes.

“I eat meat and I am a monster, really,” he says. “More so because I’m aware of the issues, yet I’m still complicit. I guess [with the game] I’m questioning my own relationship with the whole thing and trying to figure out what my values are.”

The Naming of Cats – Cecil the Lion

Cecil (lying down) and Jericho, two named lions in Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe.  Photo: Brent Stapelkamp

Cecil (lying down) and Jericho, two named lions in Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe. Photo: Brent Stapelkamp

My Facebook just pretty much exploded with photographs of Cecil, the GPS-collared male lion who was baited out of Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe this month, shot, skinned, and beheaded so that a dentist from Minnesota could have something pretty on his wall.

Okay, it was terrible, it was stupid, let’s all fantasize about hideous fates befalling the hunter and the horrible guides who helped him do it.  Now, look past that for just a moment.  Approximately 655 lion trophies, perhaps more — each one shot, skinned, and beheaded — are exported from Africa every year.  The same tragedy which befell Cecil happens, on average, nearly twice a day.  Why does only Cecil’s death deserve global attention?

I’m not ripping on anyone supporting justice for Cecil; it’s an honest question, and I feel that answering it could bring us closer to finding out what it is that makes people commit offenses like this one.  Cecil appears to “matter more” than the other lion likely killed elsewhere for the same reason the same day, or the fourteen other lions killed that week, because he has a name.  A beautiful adult male trackable via his collar and identifiable by a distinctive, dark mane, he was photographed often and was familiar with, and to, visitors.  No doubt nameless when young, over time, with familiarity, he became Real, like the Velveteen Rabbit.  The mechanism by which this happens — by which humans bond with an animal sufficiently to imbue it with a perceived personality*, most visibly manifested in a name — is the same mechanism which creates vegetarians, pet owners and animal shelter workers.  I believe that failure of this mechanism is where we get people like the trophy-hunting dentist, who said:

“I had no idea that the lion I took was a known, local favorite, was collared and [was] part of a study until the end of the hunt.”

This lion, killed previously by the same man, does not have a name.  Did you hear about this lion on the news?  Source: NY Daily News

This lion, killed previously by the same man, does not have a name. Did you hear about this lion’s death on the news? Source: NY Daily News

He was perfectly happy to “[pursue] an activity I love and practice responsibly and legally” until he found out the lion had a name.  Likewise, most of us were much less interested in him and his hobby until we found out the lion had a name.  Compare the reaction of people to the 19-year-old who posted photos of herself with unnamed trophy animals (including a lion) in 2014 to the backlash coming at Cecil’s killer today.  The 19-year-old blipped across my screen.  The dentist has held top billing for several days.

Serial killers do not relate to their victims as other people; they must “depersonalize” them before committing atrocities upon them.  Scientists do not name their laboratory animals.  (Part of why Jane Goodall’s research was considered so groundbreaking is that she did name the chimps, which was considered scandalously unprofessional at the time.)  Likewise, while dairy cows (who can live with their humans for years) sometimes have names; beef cattle (eaten after 18 months) generally do not.  Factory farmed animals do not have names.  (These animals all get identification numbers, which is a practice we’ve seen elsewhere as well, and for remarkably similar reasons.)  And hunters rarely name their targets (with some notable exceptions, such as “Old Three Toes“).

Looking at it the other way, when did you last see a pet owner whose dogs were named 1, 2, and 3?  Animal shelters name their animals, even if the animals also receive ID numbers.  Show and race horses are named.  Zoo animals (at least the “charismatic megafauna“) are named.  Animals on television are named.  And individual wild animals which are somehow distinctive, like Cecil, can become named.  This makes them Real.

We do not hold the same love for “tigers” that we do for Tigger; we do not hold the same love for “wolves” that we do for the Sawtooth Pack; we do not hold the same love for “lions” that we do for Cecil.  German Shepherds and collies were generic until we met Rin Tin Tin and Lassie.

From Names and Personal Identity, by H. Edward Deluzain:

“[The] bestowal of name and identity is a kind of symbolic contract between the society and the individual. …by giving a name the society confirms the individual’s existence and acknowledges its responsibilities toward that person.”

There is something about becoming Real, being given a name, which changes the animal’s perceived nature, often causing humans to treat it as a member of our extended family, rather than as a fashion statement, furniture, or food.  I am hesitant to call the process making the animal a person, but that is a very close description.  I am very interested in this mechanism, because it lies at the heart of what keeps us from becoming like that Minnesota dentist.

But I tell you, a cat needs a name that’s particular,
A name that’s peculiar, and more dignified,
Else how can he keep up his tail perpendicular,
Or spread out his whiskers, or cherish his pride?

T.S. Eliot

*Please note that all animals have a personality, whether humans can perceive it or not.


This Probably Could Have Been Said Better

In the unlikely event that anyone clicks on any of the links in my articles, you may have noticed that I don’t do a lot of linking to the traditional “animal rights” sites.  While I agree with (much of) their message, I do not always agree with their arguments (or their tactics), and, because their arguments are often badly expressed, I do not usually find them to be valid references.

An example wandered across my Facebook feed today, and I felt compelled to comment.  Understanding that I agree completely with the sentiment expressed by this video…I disagree with how it has chosen to convey its message.

The message is standard: “Dairy farming makes cows sad.  Don’t eat dairy.”  What puzzles me here is — where was this filmed?  The cow and calf pictured are absolutely clean.  The field they’re in is pristine, and, more suspicious, completely empty of other cows.  One polite worker gently herds the calf away, lifts it carefully, and puts it in a clean truck?  This is absolutely nothing like what you’d actually see in a factory farm.  (I’m skipping the terror footage here — let’s look at a (more or less) ideal example.  Here is Fair Oaks Farms, a multi-farm collective which gives public tours of some of its facilities — and which I have actually visited.  Its publicly viewable facilities (video includes shots of normal birthing area, which is separate from Fair Oaks’ heavily advertised “birthing barn“) are a pretty good example of a very clean factory farm.  The cows are in barns or small pens, not outdoor fields.)  Here is a document from Ohio State University about calving, picturing the standard environment for a calving cow: a stall.  Progressive Dairyman, an industry magazine, shows almost exclusively photos of stalled cattle.  Only lucky, pastured cows get to give birth in a quiet field — this is certainly not a factory farm environment.  (Is the point here that all farms are bad?  Are all farms bad?  What about those sanctuary farms where cows are kept in warm barns and not discarded when they get old?  Small family farms?  We’re edging perilously close to the “We must give up everything in order that animals can live free and unfettered” argument.)

Speaking of small family farms, where did Mercy for Animals get access to that cow and calf?  Did they film collaboratively with a dairy farmer (this is obviously not undercover footage) while he separated a calf from its mother (why did they support him doing this?), or did they separate someone’s pet cow and calf temporarily, just for a commercial?  Did they lie to a farmer and say they were filming for something else?  Why did they need to film this anyway?  It’s not like they don’t have already have much more relevant footage.  They have plenty of terrifying shots, from real farms, on their YouTube channel, including this much better example of the same argument, which uses actual dairy farm footage.

This is NOT meant to be an attack on Mercy for Animals, which is just trying to do the best they can, and is actually doing a very good job getting a lot of multilingual (good for them!) videos out there spreading an important message.  This is more a puzzled look at one of my least favorite trends in all pro-animal advertising (and many, many groups have made ads like this, not just MFA) — weird advertisements which trip over their own feet trying to make a point.  All Mercy for Animals had to do was air, say, this footage, with a voiceover: “Is a piece of cheese worth this?”  What’s with the unreal setup and scenery?

It occurs to me that probably this commercial has been “cleaned up” for wider public consumption, to try to reach the people who haven’t already been convinced that factory farming is bad, who don’t want to be convinced they should give up cheese, and who would normally stop watching the minute they see factory farm footage.  What a sad thought on its own — we are being steered away from showing the truth, because people instantly stop listening.  (Why?)

An Unusually Bird-Brained Marketing Strategy

Image source:

Image source:

Burger King has a new promotion going: a live chicken, named “Gloria”, will travel to “select” Burger King locations across the U.S. and, by pecking at one of two food bowls marked “yes” or “no”, will determine whether or not that location will serve “chicken fries“, which are strips of chicken made up to look like french fries.

Since Gloria is a chicken, she has no grasp of the metaphysics of what she is doing: “deciding” whether or not, say, 500 of her fellow chickens will be turned into “fries” rather than chicken sandwiches on that day, based on her (possibly) random actions.  All she knows is that she pecks the bowls, and gets food.  I am not a chicken, and I find the image of a chicken deciding the fates of its fellows obscene.  It’s a little like the happy painted pigs you see on the signs at barbeque restaurants, merrily encouraging guests to eat them and their friends. (What would Burger King do if Gloria pecked “no” at every stop?  Held up a little sign that said “GO VEG”?)

I am also interested in that, as a being with a name, Gloria is Not Food, and is afforded the status due a named chicken: an “expert handler”, a “plush coop” and a “custom decision-making stage” from which to issue her decrees.  Note also that Gloria is very unlike the chicken hoi polloi which are used in the fries: according to her web site, she is a “three-year-old Rhode Island Red chicken”.  She has already lived nearly twenty times longer than the five-to-nine-week-old hybrid, white-feathered “broiler” chickens Burger King (likely) uses in their nuggets and sandwiches.  She is from “Starlight Ranch, in Lake Elsinore, CA”, a facility so small even Google can’t find it.  Why not choose a representative factory farm chicken from one of the big broiler producers?  (Oh, yeah, they’re crippled, have no feathers, and die early of respiratory diseases.  Not a good mascot.)

What message are we supposed to take from this?  “Watch as the random actions of a factory farm chicken’s privileged cousin determine what shape your meat will be”?  I have been led to understand that Burger King is at the forefront of what we must, alas, call the fast food revolution toward eventually, someday, provided it is financially feasible, possibly being slightly nicer to the animals we eat.  I am not certain this advertising campaign fully supports that theory.  (On the other hand, I certainly noticed it, so, in that regard, it worked perfectly.)

(From the primordial television series of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy)

Making Foie Gras Illegal Sadly Not the Answer

Photo source:, Sgarton.

Photo source:, Sgarton.

In July 2012, foie gras, a paste made of the livers of force-fattened geese and ducks, was banned in California, on the reasonable grounds that pretty much nothing about making it is particularly nice to the birds.  On January 7, 2015, a judge threw out the ban, saying it “attempted to override existing federal law regulating poultry products”.

I am more interested in the reaction of people to the ban: before it went into effect (it was actually passed in 2004 and had a seven-and-a-half-year “grace period”), people had culinary foie gras orgies, putting it on everything.  While it was in effect, some restaurants gave it out for free as a way to get around the law.  And now that the ban is over, foie gras, the “forbidden treat”, is now trendy, with restaurants scrambling to get it back on the menu.  Basically, banning foie gras made it even more popular, rather like banning alcohol during Prohibition.

Clearly, simply making inhumanely produced animal products illegal is not the answer.  What is the answer?  Telling people how it is made doesn’t seem to help, although you’d think it would be primary (that’s certainly what convinced me not to eat it).  I am completely perplexed by people who hear: “This stuff is made by repeatedly holding down a live duck and filling it with fatty food until its liver reaches eight times normal size” and respond with “I want to eat that!” — even when there are alternatives presented.

No answers today.  Just a little “WTF?” as this goes by.

“Zombie Dog” Research Ongoing


Source: kconnors,

Today’s radar ping was a throwaway line in an otherwise unrelated article on a comedy web site, mentioning research involving the creation of “zombie dogs“.  The research, which is entirely real, is being carried out scientists at the Safar Center for Resuscitation Research at the University of Pittsburgh, who want to know if reducing the metabolic state of mammals with traumatic injuries can help increase survival of the treatment for those injuriesThe original article, as well as most of the news about it, is from late 2005.  The media briefly got excited about being able to use the phrase zombie dogs in professional conversation, but, since the science was (theoretically) legitimate and (most of) the reanimated dogs were just fine when brought back to life, eventually everyone put the pitchforks away and forgot about the zombie dogs.

Except, of course, the Safar Center.  They are still doing research on taking animals (and humans) to the brink of death and back — almost ten more years of articles with spine-chilling titles like Intravenous hydrogen sulfide does not induce hypothermia or improve survival from hemorrhagic shock in pigs and Magnetic resonance imaging assessment of regional cerebral blood flow after asphyxial cardiac arrest in immature rats.  Reading down their publication list tells you that, when they can, they are doing relevant experiments on humans, but, since no human capable of informed consent is ever going to volunteer to suffer severe brain injury, when the researchers can’t find human models they use rats, mice, dogs, pigs, and monkeys.

On the one hand, I completely understand wanting to find new ways to fix people who have been severely damaged.  Much of this research is, obviously, going to support our troops, a noble goal, and as you can see in the publication archives, a lot of the research is being done to help children.  I have absolutely nothing against these goals, and the scientific part of me completely understands that, in order to help some people who really need it, sometimes we have to do things which seem impossibly horrible.  On the other hand, every single one of these experiments starts, essentially, by whacking a couple dozen (sedated) rats on the head to induce brain injury, or essentially draining all the blood out of several (also sedated) pigs to induce cardiac arrest.  (If you are looking to cure traumatic injury, Step One in your experimental protocols is to create traumatic injury.)

There is something about this which is, to me, unspeakably twisted, but damned if I know an immediate solution to it.  Using only consenting human subjects as they appear by random chance would set the research back years, and if my child were struck by a car I know I would want all the research going into knowing how to sew my child’s head back on; on the other hand, if I were struck by a car, would I want to know that 2,000 rats died so that they could sew my head back on?  20,000?  Is there a minimum or maximum number of rats(/pigs/dogs/monkeys) that my life is worth?  I know it’s worth a lot of rats to me, but am I the governing authority here?  Cosmically, am I worth more or less than a rat?  Ten rats?  Is my contribution to society worth 2,000 lifetimes spent languishing in a little plastic tub in a research lab?  Would I want to meet those rats?  Explain it to them?  Would I want to explain it to the pigs?  The dogs?

No solutions here, alas — just a note to the world that this stuff is still happening.  No idea how to make it right, but, somewhere, this stuff went seriously wrong.

Second Livestock: The Virtual “Good Life” For Farmed Chickens

Yes, it’s a joke — at this point.  The nonexistent virtual reality “Second Livestock“, designed by ISU assistant professor Austin Stewart, brings up the idea of providing a virtual natural environment for conventionally farmed animals.  Rather than devote money, time, and space to actually giving the animals what they deserve, we can give them a virtual image of what they deserve.  They’ll believe they are running around and interacting with conspecifics, while in reality we can make their enclosures even smaller, since they won’t know they’re using them….

Knowing that it’s not real(yet), it’s actually funny, especially the little chicken headsets.  But take a moment, and imagine what might happen if this became economically feasible, especially compared to actually providing a natural environment for farm animals.  (While that’s honestly unlikely, Stewart has said further development for actual implementation was an option he would consider.)  Picture dairy cows grazing on a virtual pasture, giving birth to virtual “calves” that could hang around for a bit before being “naturally weaned”, while in reality the calves are taken away at birth (and fitted with a headset and given a virtual “mother”).

Would it be ethical?  If the animal truly believed it had a wonderful — or at least a quasi-natural) life, is there a functional difference from it actually having a wonderful life?  Is this a viable replacement for real space, conspecifics, and interaction?  What if every animal had an amazing virtual life, filled with its species’ own version of wine, women, and song?  (Either way, I’m not sure that either option is adequate “payment” for being consumed as food in the end.)  The authors make a point (arguably, the whole point of the site) that some humans are already partially living in an environment like this one…is that a good thing?  A bad thing?  Just a thing?

No answers here, although my gut instinct tends to the “Are you kidding?” side of things.  I just thought this was funny-becoming-interesting and kind of chewy food for thought.

Ambient Temperature Shown to Affect Results of Cancer Research on Mice

Photo by gracey at

Photo by gracey at

Scientists have finally “asked” lab mice their preferred ambient temperature.  They discovered the mice prefer warmer temperatures than have been traditionally provided, and that, furthermore, their bodies behave differently at their preferred, warmer, temperatures.  (Here’s the original article, by Kathleen M. Kokolus et. al., published in Proceedings of the Natural Academy of Sciences.)

I think the scariest thing about this paper is that it mentions that it has already been shown that mice prefer warmer temperatures than currently mandated, and that the colder temperatures in which they are currently kept induce “cold stress” and accompanying biological changes (references 3-7 in original article, dated from 2009-2012).  Has anyone been fighting to raise the standard ambient temperature for laboratory mice since 2009?  It seems to be taking the threat of these issues affecting the results of research to make scientists care whether or not the mice are in temperatures they’d prefer.

Beyond that — for how many years have we been doing research on mice at these recommended temperatures?  How much research has already been done with populations of mice affected by chronic cold stress?  Would we have gotten the same results in labs kept at 86 degrees Fahrenheit?  What results which we currently take for granted might be wrong?

What other variables might be sub-par for our research animals, and what effect might those things have on their responses to, say, cancer-causing chemicals?

Tigers Being Bred for Trade in China

So tiger parts sell for more money than you’ve ever seen, but it’s hard to find them in the wild any more for some reason.  What’s an enterprising businessman to do?  Why, build a tiger farm, of course.  Grab a few tigers, start a “conservation” operation or a “zoo”, and once you get 500 animals you can get a permit to sell your surplus to make “tiger bone” wine:

[Alas, this excellent article on the Asian tiger trade will not embed here.  Please visit it in person (it’s free to view).]

Wildlife traffickers don’t even have to actually breed tigers.  They can just set up a location where it looks like they are captive-breeding tigers, then poach tigers from the wild and sell the parts as though they were from captive bred animals.  This apparently works for any species, not just tigers.

Although it does certainly appear that people are breeding captive tigers to sell for parts (in what way does this significantly differ from modern cattle operations?), I have been unable to verify whether or not the farms are also, specifically, starving tigers to death to satisfy nebulous legal issues requiring that the animal have died of “natural causes” for its parts to be sold, as in the following image I found floating around today.  The image appears to be a scan of this news article, sourced from this blog entry from the TigerTime web site, which appears to reference a paper called the Straits-Times but was written by a TigerTime employee with no readily apparent source.


This image was what originally made me look into this subject.  It just seems too awful to be completely true, and it isn’t.  The report quoted above does not mention any requirement in Chinese law stating that animals which have died naturally are specifically legal (it just requires that the parts be “legally obtained”), and research suggests that the starving tigers are a different, though quasi-related, event: the tigers in question appear to have been starved (actually, fed “cheap cuts of chicken”, leading to malnourishment) when the facilities handling them “went into financial difficulties”.  Not that it’s much of a relief, especially to the tigers, but it does not look like they were starved specifically so their parts could be sold legally (although I suspect the facility owners did not object to the “happy” appearance of an “extra” carcass or two).  It just looks like that’s a “normal byproduct” of their “farming” operation.  (Why does that distinction matter to me?  Is “inconceivably terrible husbandry practices” better in some way than “deliberately starving animals to death”?  Is it even different?)

Just another place where minor curiosity (“Hmmm, that headline looks a mite sensationalistic”) leads to a major facepalm moment: even “wildlife” is being factory farmedEverything is being factory farmed, somewhere — and factory farming is never pretty.  (Check out that National Geographic photo gallery for a picture of what it looks like when humans “captive breed” snakes for the pet trade, if you’re interested.)

Sometimes I Know Too Much

Today, on my Facebook feed, amongst the photos of kittens with yarn and puppies adorably chewing their own feet, this photo of a pile of euthanized dogs wandered past:

source unknown

source unknown

It was accompanied by a bland but well-meaning glurge poem in which a dog wonders why it had to die despite solvable behavior problems.  Now, I completely agree that solvable behavior problems are no reason to drop your dog off at the shelter (I believe firmly in Not Shooting The Dog), but the poem, alas, misses the point: the horror of this photo does not lie solely in that there are dead dogs in it.  It lies at least partly in how they died: these poor things are in a gas chamber, and have just been gassed to death, likely with CO2.  This is the view the shelter technician saw upon opening the door afterwards.  (When this image is fed into Google image search, it turns up dozens of articles on gas chambers, and how horrible they are.)

That animals are euthanized at all, because people still view them as property, as a commodity, as something to be “dumped” when they become obnoxious or ill or old or inconvenient, is a terrible thing.  That animals are still “euthanized” by CO2 is an even more terrible thing.  The people spreading this photo are missing a huge opportunity to note that not only did these dogs die because people are occasionally irresponsible morons, they died in a terrible, awful, unbelievably frightening and ugly way.  (Click on that link, which contains video, at your peril.)  They were twice the victims of human carelessness: the first time by the actions of those who landed them in the shelter, and the second by the actions of those who thought “lowest cost” was the primary requirement when choosing a method of humane euthanasia.

This is one of those sad points where I have to give up and flail helplessly at the screen.  The words all mush together into one big AUGH.  I applaud the people trying to spread the word about what we are doing to our companion animals, and can’t fault them for their choice of photo.  I wish that the Machine wasn’t so huge that thinking about one part of it (“convenience dumping” of “excess” animals) didn’t lead to the discovery of another, equally awful part (“euthanasia” of dogs by CO2).  I think what is scaring me the most, right now, though, is that I know enough about the world to glance at this photo and immediately recognize it as a gas chamber rather than a freezer.  I’m glad I know about it — I’d rather know than not — but sometimes I miss the quiet-in-the-head of not knowing this is happening.  It was rather peaceful.