Animal rights activists staged a virtual-reality alien abduction on the University of Pennsylvania’s campus on Friday to encourage people to consider the experiences of lab animals.
A virtual reality headset and headphones immersed in a a first-person perspective centered on a story line in which X-Files-style bug-eyed aliens prodded and experimented on a young couple captured after a flat tire left them stranded in the desert. During the experience, participants sat in a reclining chair in the back of a truck as they observed the close encounter.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals hosted the roughly six-minute virtual experience as part of a tour of colleges, including other Ivy League schools, in recent weeks. The next stop is University of Virginia. The exhibit was not affiliated with the university.
Marnie Chambless, a PETA spokesperson who manned the van at 36th and Walnut Streets with “Abduction” written across the forehead, noted that participants found the experiencing an illuminating metaphor for experience of animals in captivity.
“People are just letting us know the analogy is right on point,” she said.
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PETA is encouraging researchers to shift from animals to computer modeling or human volunteers for their trials. But in the real world, experts say, animal testing serves a valuable purpose.
University of Pennsylvania’s animal research is, “aimed at finding treatments and cures for some of the most challenging diseases of our time, for both humans and animals,” said Ron Ozio, a university spokesperson.
The university’s labs are monitored by the US Department of Agriculture, which makes spot inspections to ensure ventilation, nutrition, and veterinary medical care are all up to federal standards.
Penn’s animal research programs and facilities are also accredited by the Association for Assessment and Accreditation of Laboratory Animal Care, International.
Computer modeling still is not comparable to testing on living animals, according to an explanation on Stanford University’s medical school’s website. The complexity of pulmonary and circulatory systems mean testing on animals is still the best way to understand how effective, or harmful, potential treatments could be.
“Until such a discovery, animals must continue to play a critical role in helping researchers test potential new drugs and medical treatments for effectiveness and safety, and in identifying any undesired or dangerous side effects, such as infertility, birth defects, liver damage, toxicity , or cancer-causing potential,” Stanford’s website states.
Animal testing was a component in developing a COVID-19 vaccine and is commonly used in trials of new therapeutics and drugs.
PETA has reached about 500 people with its touring exhibit since mid-October. People participate for different reasons, said Chambless, the spokesperson for the organization who was on-site in Philadelphia. At a recent visit to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, she said, some visitors seemed more interested in experiencing an alien abduction than wrestling with the deeper meaning.
During the Penn stop on Friday, almost a dozen people had strapped on the virtual reality headset by midday to take a trip aboard the unwelcoming alien craft. The experience put users in a cage with the human couple, both now stripped naked and injured, while the aliens waved a bright light in the user’s face.
“That’s pretty creepy,” said Erin Bailey, 35, a Penn staffer, after her experience, who is highly sensitive to animal rights.
“I’m already vegan so it wasn’t really anything new to me,” she said.
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Joyce Ben, 19, came to University City from Swarthmore to have the experience. “I’ve never been in a VR,” she said. “I was like really horrified.”
The president of that school’s vegan club, she too arrived with strong concerns about animal testing.
“I think maybe it’s not worth it,” she said.
Lissette Patterson, another Penn worker, said she used to be a vegetarian and now eats meat occasionally. She was drawn to the display by curiosity, she said.
“I want to know what they feel,” she said of animals in labs, “what they go through.”