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Two new studies examine the impact of shocking photos and video on outreach efforts.
A decade later, the photograph still haunts me. I had recently gone vegan and was looking for ways to turn my newfound passion into action when I received an email from Humane Society International about the annual slaughter of seals in Canada. Accompanying the message was a particularly gruesome image that showed the bloody bodies of dozens of freshly skinned seals scattered across the frozen landscape. Near the bottom of the photo, pondering this horrible scene, was a lone seal who had managed to escape the carnage. What must she be thinking? I wondered. Was she looking for her mother? A friend? Some answer to what had happened—and why? A few years later when I addressed in my book and in talks the role upsetting images can play in activist burnout, this was the photo that occupied my consciousness and kept me awake at night.
Not that such images don’t have a place in animal activism; they certainly do. Vivid pictures from factory farms, slaughterhouses, canned hunts, research labs, fur farms, and the like reflect society’s mistreatment of animals. They are important markers in our ignoble history. But as the animal rights movement matures—along with technology and social media—and discusses how best to frame its message to the public, the use of potentially off-putting images has become a hot topic. How and when should we use photos and videos with graphic detail in our quest to change consumer behavior? Evidence shows the repulsive approach is working in the anti-tobacco campaign, for instance, where cigarette cartons carrying images of diseased lungs are more effective at delivering the anti-smoking message than any blithe warning from the Surgeon General ever could.
Photos vs. Video
Last month, the results of two studies on the use of images in vegan outreach—each with apparently conflicting conclusions—were released. One study, conducted with funding assistance from the nonprofit FARM, showed three different photos to survey participants: one with a low level of graphic detail (a dead pig on a muddy slaughterhouse floor), one with a medium level of graphic detail (a dead pig on a bloody slaughterhouse floor), and one with a high degree of graphic detail (a dead pig with his throat slit on a bloody slaughterhouse floor). Each image’s effect on attitudes toward animal rights was measured using the Wuensch animal rights scale: a high score indicates positive attitudes toward animal rights, and a low score indicates negative attitudes toward animal rights. As explained in this FARM blog, “the low graphic detail image was the most effective, the moderate graphic detail image was less effective, and the high graphic detail image was the least effective, although this effect was not statistically significant. What this means is that, though the images affected attitudes towards animal rights to different degrees, there’s about a 15% chance we could have gotten this result even if the images had no effect.”
The second study, conducted by the Humane Research Council (HRC) on behalf of VegFund, asked people between the ages of 15 and 23 to watch vegetarian/vegan outreach videos and then complete a survey. Following the popular pay-per-view outreach model, each participant received $1.00 to watch one of four short videos. The videos were:
- Farm to Fridge (Mercy For Animals): An intensely graphic appeal to ethics/compassion using footage of farmed-animal abuse sourced mostly from undercover investigations.
- Maxine’s Dash for Freedom (Farm Sanctuary): An appeal to ethics/compassion by telling the story of a cow who escaped slaughter and was rescued.
- A Life Connected (Nonviolence United): An appeal for consumers to connect with concerns about the impact of factory farming on animals, the environment, and/or human health.
- Geico Couple (Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine): An appeal to health concerns by telling the story of a couple who adopted a vegan diet and successfully lost weight.
After watching the video, participants were asked questions about what they learned; if they wanted more information about eating vegetarian or vegan; about their current levels of meat, dairy, and egg consumption; and whether they intended to reduce consumption of any animal products. In contrast to the study carried out with partial funding from FARM, the HRC survey found that graphic images had the biggest impact, with the grisly candor of Farm to Fridge resulting in 36 percent of participants saying they were considering a reduction of the animal products they consume—that is an average of 7 percent better than the other, much less graphic, videos, even though viewers on average were only able to endure 78 percent of Mercy For Animals’ video.
There Will Be Blood
Based on these results, it’s tempting to conclude that when it comes to photographs, milder images rule, while shocking depictions of animal abuse are more effective in videos. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple.
“I think the FARM study is a bit flawed in how it was created, the questions asked, and the images selected,” says Mercy For Animals founder Nathan Runkle. The study measured attitudes about animal rights, for example, and didn’t ask if the image changed their perception of animal agriculture or prompted a behavioral change—such as going vegan. “The HRC study did that,” says Nathan. “It looked at behavioral change, which is really what is most important to animal advocates. You will be hard pressed to find anyone who says they want to see graphic images, but those who do see them often show more behavioral change.” Nathan says the controversial use of violent images reminds him of this—and every—presidential election. “Voters claim to be tired of and turned off by negative ads. But politicians continue to use them year after year, because they work.”
While Nathan concedes the images used in the first study are upsetting, he doesn’t believe they necessarily depict cruelty. “All three images showed an animal who was already dead,” he says. “In my opinion, that doesn’t show cruelty in a graphic light, since the animals are already dead and unable to be experiencing pain. So, you can see how in this study what is considered ‘graphic’ is already open to debate.”
Studies aside, animal advocates agree graphic images work. “Doing outreach in person, I like graphic movies in a pay-per-view or classroom setting, if you can get a teacher to show Farm to Fridge,” says Chris Van Breen, who gauges the impact in part by the comments he receives. “I have had complaints such as, ‘You should have warned me. Now I can never eat meat again. If I knew that’s what that video was, I would not have watched it.’” He’s gotten similar responses while distributing graphic leaflets. One recipient told him, “You should not be handing these out. I got that leaflet last week and have not eaten meat since then. It made me sick.” Hmm. Sounds like a winning strategy to me.
“After being a long-time vegetarian, it was ultimately seeing footage of factory farming that made me go vegan,” says Jasmin Singer, co-founder (with Mariann Sullivan) of Our Hen House. “So, yes, I think the graphic imagery works in a lot of cases. I just don’t think it necessarily will always draw people in, which is the catch-22.”
The Middle Way
“I tend to take a middle ground,” writes Doris Lin on her About.com guide on animal rights. “Probably the most graphic image I’ve published is this one of a whale being butchered in Japan. I believe that graphic images can convey a message that no words can, but I am cautious about their use. The whale is dimly lit, and the photo is from a distance, which lessens some of the horror of the scene.” A survey of readers on her page suggests that most people agree graphic imagery—provided it’s used thoughtfully—has its place in the movement.
“I think they both work,” says Jo-Anne McArthur, whose photographs of oppressed and rescued animals can be both haunting and beautiful. “It depends on the viewer. Just as one person will see a graphic image and make a positive change based on the experience of seeing it, another person will turn their eyes from it. We are all affected by different images and therefore different tactics, which is why a variety of tactics is crucial to creating change, as history has shown in all movements.” Graphic images move some people and not others, Jo-Anne observes, but they must be part of the movement, along with softer images and softer messages, academia, sanctuaries, letter writing, public demos, leafleting—all of it. She offers an example: “When I went veg, difficult and graphic images helped me to do so. Tim Pachirat, author of Every Twelve Seconds, was undercover at a slaughterhouse for six months and still didn’t go veg! But when he did, it was after he met a rescued cow at Woodstock sanctuary.”
Jasmin sees the logic in this. “I personally have a difficult time believing that your average meat-eating Joe would click on a graphic image to look for more—but, according to these studies, I am wrong. The thing is, I am actually not wrong—but neither are they. Because posting ‘cute, fuzzy kitten’ photos—or their farmed animal equivalent—also works, right? I think in that instance, the important part would be the messaging, which would obviously need to be incredibly compelling and strategic.” That’s a point Karen Davis, founder of United Poultry Concerns, also stresses. “Right now, there are many images of human-caused animal suffering on the Internet,” she says, “but if they are not matched by a passionate verbal message—not necessarily or always exactly where the images are being shown, but as the overall ethical language and context—it seems likely that most people seeing them will say, ‘Oh, that’s terrible,’ but will not connect what they are looking at with personal responsibility or action. I also think that images of animals suffering and abject need to be in contrast to images of these same animals living in happiness—images that are not just ‘postcard’ pretty, but expressive, evocative, and moving.”
Again, Karen and Jasmin are in agreement here. “Sometimes,” says Jasmin, “it’s the happy stuff that packs more of a punch, because—as in my case—the viewer says, ‘LOOK WHAT WE ARE TAKING AWAY FROM THEM!’ The most heartbreaking thing for me about VINE Sanctuary in Vermont, for example, is that many of the chickens choose to sleep in the trees, even in the winter, even though it’s so hideously cold there.” (This natural environment is in stark contrast to the filthy, industrial conditions billions of chickens are raised and confined in every year for their flesh and eggs.)
Indeed, in addition to showing animals suffering, it’s essential they are portrayed as individuals so we don’t promote the concept of them as commodities, says lauren Ornelas, founder of Food Empowerment Project. “If we only show them suffering, we’re not showing them enjoying some semblance of a normal life,” she says. “Take ivory, for example. If you only show images of dead elephants with their tusks cut off, it affects people because we’ve all seen images of these animals walking on the savanna. Most people have a better understanding of them in a more normal situation than, say, most people do of animals like chickens.” lauren, who has taken more than her share of upsetting undercover video, believes explicit images play a crucial role in showing people how animals raised for food are treated. “Though I do tend to worry that focusing on what some might view as extreme scenes of abuse—which we know are possibly routine—might detract more than help.” A better approach, she says, are depictions of abuse that cannot be disputed, such as animals in confinement and even the mutilations inflicted on them (beak searing, tail docking, de-horning, etc.).
The last word on images has yet to be uttered—and likely never will. We can count on further discussion and more studies as the movement hones its methods and message. But for the moment, grim depictions, particularly scenes from undercover videos, seem to hold sway. Adds Nathan: “As I said before, no consumer will tell you they want to see graphic images, but the fact remains that they are undoubtedly effective in changing attitudes and behaviors. Graphic images, which are hard to ignore and impossible to forget, create an emotional connection to the issue and raise ethical discussions, and these things impact consumer behavior.”
One of the agribusiness cruelties that has always made me shudder is the practice of killing newborn male chicks, whom egg producers deem as having no monetary value. Each year in the US, 200 million male chicks are killed shortly after hatching, and many of these birds are ground up in large machines called macerators while still alive. Taking these innocent babies, fresh from their eggs and searching for their mothers, and subjecting them to such a callous execution is one of the dirty little secrets of agribiz. The hens, meanwhile, are born into a bleak life of intensive confinement and suffering; they will most likely spend up to 24 months crammed into a battery cage and laying eggs for human consumption until, their bodies depleted, the hens will be yanked out of their wire prisons and slaughtered for dog food or some other low-grade chicken product.
Inspired to help these sensitive beings, activists from Mercy For Animals have been quietly engaged in an undercover operation inside the world’s largest breeder of egg-laying hens. At a press conference in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, today, Mercy For Animals executive director Nathan Runkle released video footage shot covertly inside the Spencer, Iowa, location of Hy-Line International. Taken with a hidden camera by a Mercy For Animals investigator who worked at the hatchery from May 20 to June 6, 2009, the disturbing video depicts newborn chicks being dumped onto a swiftly moving conveyor belt and hanging by their beaks in a de-beaking machine. But it’s the haunting scene of chicks being dropped into a high-pressure macerator that will probably upset viewers most. And rightly so: Each day at this Hy-Line facility, nearly 150,000 male chicks are grabbed by their fragile wings, separated from the females and tossed into chutes that eventually lead them to a machine that will tear their tiny bodies to pieces. Every inch of the way the baby chicks are fully conscious.
Keeping a detailed written record, the Mercy For Animals investigator reported numerous instances of inhumane treatment and animals denied food and water. “I saw a bloody chick on the floor slowly twitching and breathing,” he writes. “I asked a worker if the chick would live, and he told me to throw it away. Like every day, dozens of chicks from broken eggs were left to die in trashcans.”
Nathan says Mercy For Animals selected the Hy-Line hatchery for its investigation because it is the world’s largest and the conditions documented there ― including throwing, mutilating and grinding up live animals ― illustrate the harsh and brutal nature of the entire egg industry, which treats animals as mere egg-producing machines, placing profit over animal welfare. “If egg producers threw, mutilated and ground up puppies or kittens in the manner they do baby chicks, they could be prosecuted for animal cruelty,” he said.
Several animal welfare experts have viewed the video footage and remarked on the cruelty exhibited by Hy-Line workers.
“The video depicts compromised chicks struggling on the floor,” observed Dr. Sara Shields, an animal welfare scientist at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. “Some are undoubtedly still alive after falling through the separation machine…. These animals are in need of immediate attention and should have been euthanized without delay or given care to assist their recovery. It is disconcerting that these animals are simply left on the floor with dead chicks and egg debris.”
Meanwhile, Dr. Karen Davis, founder of United Poultry Concerns, stated that “Based on the most up-to-date scientific knowledge of the neurological and behavioral complexity of birds, including chickens at the time of hatching, … my opinion of the hatchery footage I observed is that the chicks shown in the footage are experiencing extreme mental and physical trauma at the hands of the workers and in the devices of the machinery designed to mutilate them.”
Nathan also used the press conference to announce that Mercy For Animals will be sending letters to the 50 largest grocery chains in the US asking them to voluntarily require that all eggs sold in their stores bear a label that reads “Warning: Male chicks are ground-up alive by the egg industry.” These egg retailers include Wal-Mart, Kroger, Safeway, Costco, Albertson’s, Whole Foods Market, Trader Joe’s and Meijer.
“To the shock of most compassionate consumers,” Nathan said, “each year egg producers kill hundreds of millions of male egg-laying breed chicks at hatcheries because they will not lay eggs and do not grow large or fast enough to be raised profitably for meat. This is another violent and cruel side of the industry that consumers have a right to know about so that they can make informed and compassionate purchasing decisions.”
What You Can Do:
- If you’re still eating eggs ― even “cage free” or “free range” eggs ― please go vegan. You’ll be amazed how easy it is to enjoy a delicious, nutritious plant-based diet. I bake all the time, for example, and never need to use eggs, thanks to the many alternatives now available. And who needs more cholesterol? For some great advice on going vegan, visit ChooseVeg.com.
- Share this information. Most people ― even many ethical vegetarians ― are unaware of the cruelties behind egg production. The abusive practices at Hy-Line are common throughout the industry and, in the case of grinding up live male chicks, considered standard. Let family and friends know what’s happening by sharing this story with them.
- Support the work of Mercy For Animals. This is an outstanding organization that relies on the generosity of compassionate people to help fund investigations like the one announced today.
It seems more people than ever are talking about chickens, and I love it. From California’s Proposition 2 ― which will, among other things, ban the use of battery cages for egg production in the state ― to undercover investigations inside factory farms, there’s never been a larger spotlight focused on the US poultry industry. And trust me, they hate it.
Much of the credit for this, I think, goes to Karen Davis, who founded an advocacy group for chickens and turkeys, United Poultry Concerns (UPC), in 1990. Few people have done as much as Karen to raise awareness about the plight of birds people want to eat. She is one of those tireless activists many of us wish we could be like: a consistent, well-informed, dedicated voice who never seems to miss an opportunity to speak up for animals. Take International Respect for Chickens Day, for example. Karen launched this annual event four years ago to celebrate chickens throughout the world and protest the bleakness of their lives in farming operations. (Click here for details about the next International Respect for Chickens Day, coming up on May 4.)
A considerable amount of her activist time is engaged in writing, and Karen’s latest effort is a complete revision of her book Prisoned Chickens, Poisoned Eggs (Book Publishing Co.), first published 13 years ago. This is without a doubt one of the most important books an animal advocate can read. Not only is it critical for activists to be up to date on issues involving animal cruelty, but chickens are by far the most abused beings in animal agribusiness ― indeed, Karen describes them as “creatures of the earth who no longer live on the land” ― making it even more essential that we’re able to speak from a place of knowledge in order to defend them.
The statistics regarding humanity’s abuse of chickens are staggering, as Karen observes in the book’s preface:
“While much has happened since Prisoned Chickens, Poisoned Eggs first appeared in 1996, little has changed for the chickens themselves, except that their lives have become, as a global phenomenon, even more miserable. Instead of 7.5 billion chickens being slaughtered in the mid-1990s in the United States, nearly 10 billion chickens are now being slaughtered, with parallel rises in other countries reflecting the expansion of chicken consumption and industrialized production into Latin America, China, India, Africa, Russia, Mexico, and elsewhere. Throughout the world, over 40 billion chickens are now being slaughtered for meat each year, and over 5 billion hens are in battery cages, many of them in egg-production complexes holding up to a million or more birds.”
Covering the history, lives, and deaths of chickens, Karen explains how poultry farming grew from a relatively small endeavor (in 1830, the average US farm had only 23 chickens) into a global, mass-production enterprise that has invented such miseries as “debeaking” (cutting two-thirds of the beak from an egg-laying hen’s face without pain relief); cramming hens into battery cages so they can barely move; bleeding out birds who are still conscious; forced molting, during which a hen is starved for up to two weeks; a host of infectious diseases, routinely combated with heavy doses of antibiotics; transporting birds, many of them now missing wings or legs, long distances without food or water; and the callous extermination of hundreds of millions of male chicks in the egg industry each year, to name but a few.
This is a well-documented indictment of the poultry industry and what can only be called its contempt for the very birds it relies on to make a profit. I don’t know what other word to use to describe a business that would let a laying hen whose egg production has declined starve in the last days of her life just to save the farmer a few pennies in feed. That’s some thanks to a sentient animal who has endured 17 to 24 months crammed into a battery cage and denied nearly every natural instinct. As Karen notes, factory farmers have become adept at defending themselves, even to the point of being ridiculous. “The egg industry thinks nothing of claiming that a mutilated hen in a cage is ‘happy,’ ‘content,’ and ‘singing,’” she writes, “yet will turn around and try to intimidate you with accusations of ‘anthropomorphism’ if you logically insist that the hen is miserable.”
One of the characteristics of Karen’s books I’ve always appreciated is her considerable talent as a writer. It can be challenging to transform a vast amount of research and information into a readable narrative, and Karen does it with such style that her books never read like dull, academic texts. Moreover, it is clear that she regards fowl as very special creatures. Karen has devoted her life to them, and, in addition to her outreach efforts, she provides a home to many chickens, turkeys, and other birds rescued from avian concentration camps. This book is obviously a labor of love.
Chickens have been labeled cowardly and “bird-brained,” but Karen debunks these myths with examples demonstrating their courage and intelligence. For instance, she writes that “Far from being ‘chicken,’ roosters and hens are legendary for bravery…. Our tiny Bantam rooster, Bantu, would flash out of the bushes and repeatedly attack our legs, his body tense, his eyes riveted on our shins, lest we should threaten his beloved hens.”
Though Karen encourages readers to visit factory farms and see what goes on behind closed doors, the reality is few of us will ever have the opportunity to venture inside the houses of horror in which “broiler” chickens are raised for meat or hens are confined to produce eggs. Fortunately, she is able to guide us through these animal factories, explaining in great detail precisely what goes on inside, and that knowledge not only solidifies our commitment to protecting animals, but it aids our ability to effectively communicate, making our activism much more powerful.
With the world alert to the threat of a pandemic flu virus, as well as concerns about food safety, global warming, genetic engineering, and the growing taste for “healthier” animal flesh, there’s never been a better time to pick up a copy of Prisoned Chickens, Poisoned Eggs.
Whenever I speak to animal activists about burnout, I always recommend they spend some time at a sanctuary for farmed animals. Heck, even if you’re not worried about getting burned out, spending time with animals is a good thing. Whether you take a tour or volunteer each month, sanctuaries help reconnect you with the very reasons you’re active in the first place. Plus, they are great places to learn and meet like-minded animal advocates.
With Thanksgiving coming up in the U.S., a number of sanctuaries will be offering special events in celebration of the animal Ben Franklin suggested as the official bird of the United States.
“Turkeys are a misunderstood species,” says Kim Sturla, executive director of Animal Place, which will be hosting its first-annual ThanksLiving event on November 22. “Often thought of as stupid, turkeys are actually quite intelligent and form incredibly strong social bonds with other turkeys, sometimes other species! Animal Place wants the public to celebrate these birds, not eat them.”
If you live in the San Francisco Bay Area, sign up for this great event at Animal Place. Yours truly will be speaking there, along with long-time activist lauren Ornelas.
Meanwhile, that same day, in Southern California, Animal Acres will hold its Celebration for Turkeys.
If you call Colorado home, you likely already know about Peaceful Prairie. Their Living at Thanksgiving! event will take place on Sunday, November 23.
In Maryland, the Poplar Springs sanctuary, home to eight lovable turkeys, will celebrate Thanksgiving with the Turkeys on November 22.
I don’t know anyone who has done more to help people appreciate turkeys than Karen Davis. Her organization, United Poultry Concerns, in Virginia, will host its 18th-annual Thanksgiving Feast on November 29.
Residents of New York State have two celebrations to choose from. Farm Sanctuary’s Celebration for the Turkeys will take place on November 22, and Woodstock Farm Animal Sanctuary will have its ThanksLiving gala on November 23 (though I understand that event is already sold out).
This is just a partial list of the sanctuaries offering special events this Thanksgiving season. Check the Website of your local sanctuary to see if they have something planned. Even if they don’t, do yourself a favor and pay them a visit!