Would You Stop Eating Animals If They Could Talk To You?

PETA’s latest plan to get you to care about animals is to make you relate to them–though VR or old-fashioned animatronics.

Bernard the animatronic black bear is about four feet tall on all fours. But when he wants to make a point, he rears up, looks you in the eyes, and talks like a recognizable Hollywood actor. “Please remember my story and tell everyone you know never to go to roadside zoos,” he says in one prerecorded message. “If you don’t go, they’ll have to let the bears retire to wonderful sanctuaries like mine.”


Bernard was built by PETA and voiced by Casey Affleck. He’s on tour this summer in towns with roadside zoos and bear pits, warning tourists they may be inadvertently supporting the mistreatment of animals in captivity. For a group perhaps best known for shocking videos and naked celebrity campaigns, this represents a new tactic: inspiring empathy. “What we are ultimately trying to do is really adjust or broaden one’s moral reasoning,” says James Rogers, who heads the innovations team. “What we started noticing was there was all this sort of emerging tech and it seemed like there were some very interesting ways to use that to get the voice of the animal out there.”


Over the last couple years, PETA has launched a pack of new tactics trying the same thing in different ways. Ellie the animatronic elephant rallies against traveling circuses. Their vaguely tortoise-shaped Human Ethics Rescue Operation Robot (HERObot) uses an artificial intelligence interface to respond directly to food- and animal-related questions complete with changing facial expressions. (“Simulating emotions makes him very affable, which is very good because his intelligence is very sassy,” Rogers says.) Then there are the group’s two virtual reality experiences, which allow users to reimagine themselves as a chicken trapped in the sad slog from field to slaughterhouse, or as an orca snatched from the ocean and imprisoned in a solitary theme park.

Most of that whimsical work was supported by the late Sam Simon, who cocreated The Simpsons and died from colon cancer last year. Simon, who was vegan, joined PETA about 15 years ago. Once his cancer was diagnosed as terminal, he vowed to give away his entire fortune–estimated at $100 million–to various charities to speed more immediate change. That includes $2 million toward these inventions and probably much more to other projects. While PETA won’t disclose numbers, their new Norfolk, Virginia-based headquarters was christened the Sam Simon Center. The group’s website credits Simon for rescuing and relocating an Indian elephant, numerous chimpanzees and chinchillas, a camel, and a bull.

When Rogers started PETA’s innovations team in 2013, one of his first projects involved using drones to monitor hunters for bad behavior. After learning about a Stanford experiment that showed how some people who went through a VR simulation of being an industrially raised cow might want to eat less meat afterward, his group switched focus to develop “I, Chicken,” a VR experience that combined a headset with infrared cameras to let people move around while seeing their reflection as a feathery avatar. Your arm, for instance, would still move the same but look like a chicken wing. (A scaled-down version has since been launched for Google Cardboard.)

“I, Chicken” was aimed at college students. Rogers estimates that 20% of those who try it commit to changing their diet. Those who don’t might still think differently about how their eating habits affect the world around them.

That success inspired a whale version, “I, Orca,” and the animatronic models, which Rogers says have the same imagination-sparking “magical quality” but are a far less controversial way to reach younger kids than VR. In fact, it’s really the first time PETA has figured kid-friendly activism. Since launching in 2015, Ellie has visited 120 schools and camps before a circus is scheduled to come to town, reaching 25,000 youngsters. Ringling Bros, one of the group’s main targets, recently announced they’d stop touring with elephants by 2018.


Bernard may have a similar affect. As a robot, he embodies what Rogers says is PETA’s formula for change: respect plus understanding plus perspective-taking equals empathy and kindness.

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[All Photos: courtesy PETA]


About the author

Ben Paynter is a senior writer at Fast Company covering social impact, the future of philanthropy, and innovative food companies. His work has appeared in Wired, Bloomberg Businessweek, and the New York Times, among other places.