Video of “Free Range” Hens

We have all seen video from inside the terrifying, “industry standard” chicken housing facilities, where hens are caged with 6-8 adult birds on floor space equivalent to a standard piece of typing paper.  This, however, is some of the first video I’ve seen from a “free range” facility, and I thought I would share.  This is still an astonishing number of chickens, but they all appear to have all their feathers, nobody is fighting and they can move, jump, extend their wings, and hunt bugs (if there’s a single bug left in those pastures after 50,000 chickens run through them).

(Recall that the USDA definition of “free range” only actually requires that chickens “have access to the outside”, so not all “free range” chickens live like this — for comparison, here is a video from a “free range” egg farm in Canada, which neither mentions nor shows the birds going outside.)

Didn’t Alfred Hitchcock make a movie about this?

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.


“Microfluidic” Chip Mimics Human Organs So Animals Won’t Have To

I never hold my breath on announcements of new technology, but if this pans out it would be a grand step forward towards removing our reliance on animal testing.

Called Organs-On-Chips, it’s exactly what it sounds like: A microchip embedded with hollow microfluidic tubes that are lined with human cells, through which air, nutrients, blood and infection-causing bacteria could be pumped. These chips get manufactured the same way companies like Intel make the brains of a computer. But instead of moving electrons through silicon, these chips push minute quantities of chemicals past cells from lungs, intestines, livers, kidneys and hearts.

The primary purpose of the chips really appears to be “reduction of use of animals in pharmaceutical testing” (rather than, say, complementing animal testing, or simply making vast sums of cash), and they’ve started a company called Emulate in order to market it.  It’s lovely to see someone deliberately (rather than accidentally, or grudgingly) moving in that direction.

Further reading: Here’s a little more in-depth review from the journal Nature Biotechnology.  Also worthwhile: Emulate’s “publications” section, with journal articles describing the chips’ use as models for various human organs.

Cute Videos Dangerous Without Context

slowlorisbeingtickledMy Facebook feed, like those of most people I know, is filled with videos of animals being cute in various ways, often without context.  I have seen baby chimps feeding baby tigers, the infamous “mama tiger with piglets” photo, and many others.  I try not to forward these videos and images, because the lack of context often conceals terrible things.  Today I saw another example: the “slow loris being tickled” video, excerpted in the gif at right.

Here is a brief summary of why this apparently-very-cute video should not be forwarded.  Basically, the lack of context makes this video appear to show a cuddly pygmy loris engaged in a playful interaction with its owner, and implies that lorises make good pets and enjoy human interaction.  This message is incorrect and spreading it can cause trouble for both lorises and humans.

In fact, the arms-raised posture you see in this video is a defensive one used when a loris is frightened.  This intimidated loris is feeling uncomfortable and is raising its arms for better access to the brachial glands in its armpits.  It can lick these areas to create a “venom” which can damage other lorises and cause a serious reaction in humans.

Lorises do not make good pets.  They, like most wild animals, are not designed to live in human habitations and they do not enjoy being handled.  The (illegal) pet trade (along with the trade in “traditional medicine“) is decimating the populations of wild lorises.  “Pet” lorises often have their teeth forcibly removed to reduce their ability to produce a venomous bite.  They often die of stress even before being sold as pets.  Reposting the above video without context only reinforces the message that lorises make good pets, encouraging more people to buy them, and fueling the trade.

What can you do to help?  Before reposting a cute video of an exotic animal doing something cute, do a simple google search to try to get some context.  Do not repost videos or pictures of exotic animals being treated as pets.  Instead, point out why they do not reflect reality and/or proper treatment of the animals involved.  Don’t just be a link in the reposting chain — break it.

For contrast, here is a video of a domestic kitten genuinely enjoying a playful interaction with a human.  As a domesticated animal, this kitten is descended from generations of animals used to coexisting with humans, and makes a great pet.  Instead of reposting a video like the loris video, consider posting a video like this one.


Ancient Egyptians Factory-Farmed Animals for “Votive Mummies”

Cat mummies.  Source: British Museum.

Cat mummies. Source: British Museum.

A recent article about how only about 1/3 of animal mummies in ancient Egypt actually contained the mummified animal in question (with the remaining mummies divided evenly between “bundle of cloth wrapped around mud and sticks” and “bundle with animal parts such as feathers or fur, but no complete skeleton”) made an apparently offhand comment that caught my eye.

While explaining the program — in which researchers from the Manchester Museum and the University of Manchester have CT scanned more than 800 animal mummies — Dr Campbell Price, curator of Egypt and Sudan at Manchester Museum, said:

“Animal mummies were votive gifts. Today you’d have a candle in a cathedral; in Egyptian times you would have an animal mummy.  You would go to a special site, [and] buy an animal mummy, using a system of barter. You’d then give it to a priest, who would collect a group of animal mummies and bury them.

…The scale of animal mummification between about 800 BC and into the Roman period was huge.  In terms of how many animals were reared and killed, it would have been on an industrial scale. The animals were young and killed when they were quite small. To achieve those numbers you had to have a very specific breeding programme.”

X-ray of kitten mummy inside votive cat figure.

X-ray of kitten mummy inside votive cat figure.  Image source: Richard Barnes, National Geographic.

This had honestly never occurred to me, and I was alarmed to discover it was not just a throwaway comment; it was quite true.  Though Egyptians had long applied the practice of mummifying pet animals, including dogs (warning: photo of mummified dog face) and cats, as well as sacred animals, such the Apis bulls, sometime during the Late Period in Egyptian history (around 715 BC to 322 BC), the practice of offering mummified, “votive” animals to the god one most wished to intervene in one’s affairs became increasingly popular.  In order to satisfy the demand for animal mummies, of which researchers estimate there were more than 70 million, ancient Egyptians actually eventually turned to factory-farmingvotive animalsdeliberately bred for mummification.  The ancient Egyptians may have raised puppies and kittens specifically for slaughter, in special areas next to the temples.

I completely missed that when my middle school social studies class covered ancient Egypt.  Interesting that in more than three thousand years we still have not resolved the dichotomy between “pet” animals, whom we love, and “farmed” animals, whom we use….

(Incidentally, we’ve known about the existence of fake, or empty, animal mummies for decades; this recent mass CT scanning has just brought the scale of it to light.  It is still not known whether the fake mummies were deliberate scams, a practical effort to deal with the increasing scarcity of some of the rarer species, or simply evidence of differing approaches wherein the entire animal was not always required to make an offering.)

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?)

Consider the Lobster During Shipping

Photo source: Chris Rose/WCSH

Photo source: Chris Rose/WCSH

A Consumerist article mentioning the overturning of a truck full of lobsters in a snowy area seemingly accidentally has captured a little irony in its headline:

Truck Carrying 30,000 Pounds Of Lobsters Overturns, All Survive To Become Dinner

I am just interested in the slightly-less-than-journalistic tone of the article, which seems to have been written by someone who can also see the irony of every single lobster on that truck surviving the crash only to be repackaged, put on another truck, and killed to be served for dinner.  (An alternative headline: “Doomed Lobsters Receive Brief Reprieve”.)

Compare that to the neutral headline of the original article:

Tractor Trailer Carrying 30,000 Lbs. of Lobster Overturns on I-95

Bonus math segment:

Using Wikipedia’s general estimate for size of an average adult lobster to guess each lobster weighs about three pounds, that’s about twenty thousand lobsters on that one truck.

Those boxes appear to be stacked about five high and five wide; guessing at their size using the men lifting the box as a guide, they’re about three feet long.  A tractor trailer is about 48′ long, so there are approximately (25x (48/3))=400 crates in the trailer, with…fifty approximately 9″ long lobsters in each one.  No wonder that’s a two person lift — each crate would be holding about 150 pounds of lobster.

Upon further research, my guess for the truck’s population might be a little high, likely because some of the lobsters weigh more than three pounds, and the crates are a little smaller than they look.  Here’s a photo of one of the crates saying it is designed to hold “only” about 90 pounds of lobster.  That’s still approximately thirty 9″ lobsters crammed nose-to-tail in a 32″ x 20″ x 15″ crate.  Yikes.

This Is Going to Appear In the Most Terrible Google Searches

Cock rings made out of “natural goat eyes”.  Not a unique listing — this is apparently A Thing(tm).  No, it’s exactly what you’re picturing.  From all appearances, the goats were just as surprised as I was.  I’ll just file this one under “cultural differences”, because if I found a man with one of these around his bits I’d assume he was Jeff Goldblum at the beginning of “The Fly”.

That first link includes more photos, as well as close-ups.  “That what enchants women is hair circle,” indeed.

On the bright side, they’re using every part of the animal.  Nothing going to waste here.

Who originally thought of this?  What were they doing at the time?

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)