Geared up on the job
Who hasn’t been appalled – and moved – by images of animal cruelty? It’s certainly one of the most powerful ways of learning the truth behind meat- and dairy-production. Every now and then, video documentation by undercover investigators hits the airways and we are (at least temporarily) confronted by the consequences of what the standard American diet does to animals. Just last month, HSUS’s footage of the routine abuse of hens in egg-production facilities in Iowa made headlines and ruffled feathers.
There is a rich history of whistleblowers and investigators in this country. There is a growing breed of dedicated vegan investigators who, at great personal risk, go undercover in factory farms, slaughterhouses, breeding facilities, and small family operations to document the lives and deaths of farmed animals. What they are finding is that in the year 2010 unimaginable abuse is still business as usual.
It is lonely, dangerous, often harrowing work. This was illustrated in last year’s excellent HBO documentary, “Death on a Factory Farm”, the story of one investigator who worked undercover on a sow farm.
Sometimes it’s hard not to look away. Just watching the brief edited versions of their work makes me wince and I find myself wondering about the anonymous investigators who can’t look away. Who are they? What makes them tick? What keeps them going? To answer some of these questions, I reached out to one investigator working in the field – we’ll call him “Mike.” He has investigated an upstate dairy, pig-breeding, and egg-production facilities as well as puppy mills. When asked why he got into this line of work, “Mike” explains, “I wanted to see if things were really that bad. Unfortunately, they are.” Read on to find out what makes “Mike” tick, what keeps him going – and what he listens to when he’s on the job.
SV: What kinds of investigations have you done so far?
UM: In the last few years, I’ve investigated conditions at factory egg farms, sow farms, dairy farms, and puppy mills.
Can you tell us about the most recent one?
I recently worked at a sow farm that uses gestation crates, which were banned last year in California and which activists are working to ban in Ohio right now. For two months, I was part of a small team in charge of 7,000 pregnant pigs, stuffed shoulder-to-shoulder in indoor cages that leave no room to move. I’ve spent a lot of time with sows and hogs at sanctuaries – they are gentle, friendly, and playful animals. The sows in these gestation crates are frantic, hostile, and rife with compulsive behaviors. These places just drive them crazy.
What is the purpose of your work? Do you hope to change legislation, put abusers in jail – both, or something else?
If we document illegal activity, we of course pursue litigation. But with the dearth of laws protecting farm animals, my work is mostly used to encourage new laws, challenge corporate policies, and promote a humane diet. Basically it comes down to keeping people informed. Until a few years ago, everyone still sort of thought that things were like on Old McDonald’s farm. Undercovers have helped change that. The industry’s gone from denying the situation to defending it, which is a start. “First they ignore you, then they fight you…”
What is the most awful or shocking thing you’ve witnessed so far?
Most animal suffering is a result of neglect, but it’s the hands-on abuse – the mutilations, etc. – that really stick in my mind. De-horning, tail-docking, castration, and de-beaking are still standard procedure for most farm animals.
Can you tell us about the people who work alongside you at these places?
Every factory farm employs a handful of sickos who abuse the animals for fun, and it’s generally tolerated by management. It’s a very serious problem and these workers should at the least be prevented from ever working with animals or children.
On the other hand, most workers are actually good people. They work very hard and are grossly underpaid, and a number of them are openly upset about the conditions. So for the most part, it’s not a question of personnel, it’s the way these places are designed that make them so terrible. For example, on an industrial egg farm, a single worker can be responsible for as many as 300,000 birds. How does that work? It doesn’t.
What inspired you to get into this line of work?
Curiosity, maybe even skepticism. I wanted to see if things were really that bad. Unfortunately, they are. I also kind of wanted to get into animal activism, and have a habit of doing things whole-horse.
What keeps you going when you’re nose-deep in an investigation and maybe feeling anxious, lonely or depressed?
I just keep a stiff upper lip. Being bummed out is basically the central tenet of this job. If you’re not anxious, lonely and depressed, you’re doing it wrong.
Do you have a soundtrack while you’re on a job? (Be as specific as you like – during the sow farm job my playlist was… or while driving to a job I rock out to…)
Yeah, exactly – each case tends to develop a soundtrack. Mostly it’s a lot of old favorites, like ’90s punk and hip-hop, which is aural comfort food to me, and predictably some sad bastard indie rock. The Smiths’ “Meat is Murder” has a habit of showing up on every mix.
What are typical meals while you’re on a job?
Undercover investigators are indistinguishable from other employees. We do everything they do, including eating meat and dairy. I’m a vegan in my personal life, so I definitely don’t enjoy this, but it’s a necessary part of my cover.
How do you blow off steam?
I go to the gym, or try to snowboard when that’s an option.
Tell us about your current BFF critter(s).
You mean my “non-human companion”? I’m a dog guy. My pit-mix is the coolest person I know.
What advice do you have for aspiring activists who want to help animals by going undercover?
Think it through. There are a lot of good reasons to not want or be able to do undercover work. If this is your thing, read industry journals, keep doing advocacy work, and if you feel up to it, contact an advocacy group you like. Some even have online applications.
How about activists who can’t go undercover for whatever reasons? How can they help?
Keep doing other activism – it’s all important. Just get in touch with a group. This is a really exciting time to be involved and there’s so much that can be done.
What have you learned about the state of animals in the U.S. during your career?
In private, industry insiders are pretty open about the fact that their operations do not square with public morals. They know that their operations thrive on secrecy, and they know that they’re fighting a losing battle. All they can do is try to delay the inevitable.