Interview with an Undercover Investigator Who Risks Arrest Under New “Ag Gag” Laws

by Will Potter on April 11, 2012

in Activism & Activists' Response

Iowa pig farm undercover investigation.

Multiple states have considered “Ag Gag” bills that criminalize investigators who document animal welfare abuses on factory farms. Iowa and Utah are the latest to approve them. These bills, lobbied for by Big Ag groups, are part of a long line of attempts to blame activists for exposing abuses, rather than hold corporations accountable.

I sat down with an undercover investigator to talk about what it is like doing this work as powerful industries focus their money and political will on putting investigators in prison, and as the FBI says undercover investigators are “terrorists.”

We also discussed what being an investigator has taught her about fear, activist burnout, and connecting social justice issues. Because of her ongoing work, she requested anonymity. We’ll call her “Jane.”

How did you become an undercover investigator? (Did you seek this out? Had you been doing other activism?)

JANE: Since I became vegan I’ve been an activist for animals in different forms. I spent time working and living at animal sanctuaries, helping with national campaigns, and starting an underground vegan pop-up restaurant in my city to bring more people into the fold. I’ve always been interested in investigations but I felt like I wasn’t ready. I can’t really express what changed for me emotionally or psychologically, but the more I thought about it, the more I started realizing that if I had to, I think I could handle the difficulty of the work.

Around that time, I attended the Let Live animal rights conference in Portland, where I met the Director of Investigations with Mercy For Animals. He gave a really in depth talk about investigations and when I approached him later, he told me that he was always hiring for new investigators. Something about that really stuck with me. It occurred to me that I could really do this. I am at a flexible time in my life, no mortgage, no kids, I have the luxury of being able-bodied and energetic. I realized that if this was my window, I had better take it.

How many investigations have you done, and what types?

JANE: Although I can’t divulge specific details, I have completed numerous investigations for various organizations in multiple states and have investigated a wide variety of facilities from industrial sow farms to egg farms, turkey farms and chicken slaughter facilities.

Can you walk us through a typical day when you’re working an investigation?

JANE: Most farm work begins before dawn, which means that I typically have to be up at least an hour before my coworkers to get my equipment ready and drive the distance to work which is usually significant. For my last job, I was waking up at 3:00am every day to be at work by 4:30am. Another job I worked standing on a concrete floor in a windowless warehouse from 6:30am-6:30pm, 6 days a week. While no two jobs are the same, what remains true of every position is that the work is boring and repetitive, tedious and grueling. No matter what job you are doing, you will perform the same tasks every single day, over and over, dozens, hundreds, thousands of times without reprieve. The jobs I’ve had have included shoveling manure, removing dead animals from enclosures, administering vaccines, collecting eggs, picking up placenta, and assisting with artificial insemination.

After a full day at work, I come home and begin my second job — logging my footage and photographs into a spreadsheet and meticulously detailing each event as it appears on film. This can, and often does take hours. Then, with the little time I have left in the day, I’ll take a shower in the hottest water I can stand, call my boss to check in, make some dinner (did you know you can make quinoa in the microwave?), and set up my equipment for the following day. I try to get as much sleep as possible, but the most I’m usually able
to get is around 4 or 5 hours a night. Being an investigator is essentially a 24 hour a day job.

What is the hardest part of your job?

JANE: Easily, one of the hardest part of being an investigator, for me, is knowing that I will likely never be able to save the specific animals I am seeing and touching when I go into work every day, nor will I save the ones who will replace them or even those who replace them. The double-edged sword of investigations is that the work we do affects the industrial agriculture complex on such a large scale that the day-to-day effects on a particular farm are not often immediate.

Butterball undercover investigation

One of the most validating days of my career was when North Carolina authorities decided to raid a facility I had worked in based on the evidence we had provided to them. Unfortunately, several animals they found were so badly injured and neglected that they were beyond medical help and needed to be humanely euthanized. I was deeply saddened that euthanasia was required, but I almost cried knowing that their suffering was finally over. I was also fulfilled knowing that justice for these animals was being carried out swiftly and tangibly. That’s the most I could ever ask for.

As difficult as it can be to go into work every day and resist the urge to grab armfuls of animals and run, ultimately I know that undercover investigations are altering the landscape of animal agriculture in a way that is so much larger than that which could be accomplished with individual acts of liberation alone. Until recently, investigations also had the benefit of being legal in most states, which is a protection that drew me to the profession, and also why lawmakers and industry officials are working so swiftly to criminalize our behavior.

Are you concerned for your personal safety on the job? (For example, if it is found out that you’re an activist.)

JANE: There is always a certain level of risk involved when we enter a facility, and each of us works hard to mitigate those risks and keep ourselves as protected as possible.

In terms of physical health, factory farms are filthy, dangerous places. I’ve always bragged about how strong my immune system is, but since I’ve become an investigator, I’ve gotten sick immediately in every job I’ve worked, sometimes for weeks on end. I also get sick much easier now and stay sick longer, even when I’m not in a facility. Injuries are commonplace. Some investigators have required trips to the emergency room and have incurred long-term health problems associated with the conditions in their facilities or the nature of the work they were assigned.

The safety risk of being discovered undercover is a constant concern. The best defense is having the verbal skills to diffuse a threat and be skilled enough as investigators to allay suspicion. I’ve heard very few stories of investigators who felt physically threatened by their coworkers. As a woman, however, I do feel as though the risks are inherently higher if I am ever discovered. As many of us in animal protection are aware, the culture that encourages the oppression of animals is often the same culture that encourages the oppression
of women. In every job I’ve had, I have experienced some level of sexual harassment. I’ve had bosses touch me inappropriately, I’ve been warned never to be alone with certain employees, and I’ve been verbally harassed regularly. Whereas the male investigators are risking the possibility of being physically attacked if they are discovered, it has occurred to me that I am additionally risking the possibility of being raped or sexually assaulted.

I have, so far, never felt that I was in imminent danger, but I’m prepared to defend myself if occurs. When I was considering becoming an investigator, this was one of my biggest concerns. I had to do a lot of soul searching to determine whether I was willing to put my body on the line in order to do this job. Ultimately, I determined that I was.

Compassion Over Killing exposes pig farm abuses in Iowa.

Are there different dynamics at play for investigators who are women?

JANE: Despite the risk of sexual harassment, I actually believe it’s an advantage to be a woman in this line of work. The strict adherence to patriarchal values that is so prevalent inside factory farms has, in some cases, helped me more than it has hurt me, which is in direct opposition to my everyday life and was an uncomfortable transition to make. Because of the expectations placed on my gender, I’m not obligated to perform the same masculine roles that the male investigators often are.

For instance, I’m not obligated to drive a truck or know about guns or sports in order to fit in. I’m not obligated to know how to fix things that break and it’s not always assumed that I am able to perform the most gruesome or physically demanding tasks. Although I resent the rigidity of these roles, I have been allowed to use my status as a woman to make strides within a facility that some men simply can’t make. In that same vein, there are jobs I would simply never apply for because they are jobs that women just don’t do, and even asking for them would arouse suspicion. Similarly, there are certain positions that seem to be staffed almost exclusively by women, so female investigators have been able to gain access to areas that aren’t often seen in certain industries.

Undercover footage has shown institutionalized systems of violence, along with individual workers punching, kicking and tormenting animals. For me there’s a tension between 1) recognizing that the workers do not want to be in such dangerous, violent conditions either and 2) feeling like the people abusing animals are monsters. I don’t really know how to phrase this as a question, but I’m interested in your perceptions of the people you’ve worked with. How do you feel about them?

JANE: This is one of the most difficult questions to answer and is an issue that I think needs to be addressed more meaningfully by the animal rights movement in general. I think there is a tendency to paint the employees of factory farms and slaughterhouses as, at best, apathetic and heartless or at worst, monsters and sadists. I think we owe it to ourselves, and to the human lives that suffer greatly in these places, to advance the dialogue with more nuance and less dogma.

While I have witnessed some truly unspeakable acts of deliberate, hateful cruelty toward animals, the majority of people I work with are as much products of the global culture of speciesism as the average consumer. Most people simply believe that eating animals is a necessary part of human life and that this work is the only way to carry that out. While I don’t excuse the culture, I understand how difficult it can be to see outside of it when you are told that your life and family depend on this way of being. I have had hundreds of hours of conversations with my coworkers and formed some very close friendships with them. They tell me about their families and heritage, they share food with me, we laugh with each other and commiserate about the awfulness of our work. I have also seen some of them perform quiet acts of compassion and kindness toward animals, even if it is coupled with unspeakable cruelty. I don’t hate the
people I work with and I have said as much to activists who suggest that we should. The gray areas of the human condition are vast and complex.

Seaboard investigation of gestation crates by HSUSPhilosophically, it remains true that human beings are agents of choice and each of us, in theory, has the capacity to “choose” whether to participate in cruelty or abstain. However, we also know that one of the most common tools of oppression is the removal of personal choice and autonomy. The overwhelming majority of people working inside these facilities are people of color and migrant workers who have been told, much like the migrant workers of the early 20th Century, that the only pathway to citizenship or livelihood is from the bottom up, and factory farms are the very bottom of America’s employment sector. The people we are employing to grow and slaughter animals in this country have been told at every turn that they are not in control of how or when they will participate in our society. As activists, I believe we can be doing more to reach out to the people who are struggling for their own rights within these power structures. We really are more alike these workers than we are different, and it’s time to address that within our movement.

I don’t dismiss the fact that people are, and should remain, culpable for their actions. I am not arguing that we excuse the behavior of all marginalized people because oppression absolves one of all wrongdoing. That’s not true and it just as harmful an ideology as the inverse. What I do believe though is that the blame for this culture of cruelty, which we are told must exist for us to continue eating animals, lies less in the individual worker and much more on the shoulders of CEOs and industry leaders who are the ones requiring
that the lines move faster, that more eggs are hatched, more milk pumped and more weight gained as quickly as possible, no matter the consequences. These are the people who are requiring their workers to toil away in filthy, unsafe environments for 10, 12, 15 hours a day with no overtime. These are the people who require that animals be kicked, beaten or thrown if they cannot walk themselves to the slaughter line. These are the people who believe it’s too costly to administer proper veterinary care to sick and injured animals or to safely euthanize them if they require it. These are the people who are spending millions of dollars paying legislators to criminalize our behavior, give themselves immunity, and lie to our faces at the grocery store.

There is no excuse for sadistic, malicious cruelty toward animals, and when we see behavior like that, we address it as such, no question. Ultimately though, our focus lies more on dismantling the power structures responsible for creating these institutionalized forms of violence that the industries have repeatedly defended as necessary for their survival.

The survival of these industries is clearly at the heart of recent “Ag Gag” legislation. Let’s talk a little about how these attacks on undercover investigators have been justified. For example, I’ve seen industry groups claim that footage is “staged” or edited to give a false impression. Could you respond to that line of argument?

JANE: This argument is completely absurd. I received extensive training in the field of investigations, and the overwhelming message throughout is always that we are solely responsible for filming conditions *only* as they would naturally occur in our absence. It is absolutely unacceptable to pressure employees into performing certain actions or to entrap anyone into saying or doing anything, particularly that which pertains to animal abuse. I would be thrilled to enter a facility and be able to tell my boss “No cruelty exists here. I have nothing to document.” The day that happens will be a banner day for animal rights, and I will celebrate

The strength of our work is based in the fact that we move about these facilities silently, without alteration, and allow unadulterated behavior to occur around us that we then bring to the public so that they may judge it for themselves. It’s not in anyone’s best interest for us to manipulate our footage. It doesn’t benefit the animals and it doesn’t benefit our credibility, which is of vital importance in this field. It is in the interest of that credibility that we go to such great lengths to conduct our work in accordance with absolutely every
state and federal law, and are painstaking in our quest to portray actual conditions as they exist and nothing more. I have sat in on editing sessions where we have determined that certain footage, although truthful and accurate, may appear misleading to the public or require heavy contextualization, so we have refused to use it, despite how “shocking” or “salacious” it may be.

More candidly, it’s not like any of us is getting rich off of this work. In fact, more and more, we are becoming the target of deeply troubling government repression which threatens to put all of us in jail for simply exposing the truth as it occurs in our nation’s farms and slaughterhouses. The people whose motives we should be suspicious of are those who do stand to directly profit off of the abuse of animals, which are these industry leaders who would rather allow abuse and neglect to run rampant on their farms than risk a
few pennies on each purchase to provide a higher level of care for the animals and humans that they are responsible for.

If anyone is still doubtful, I would be happy to sit down with them and watch every single minute of unedited footage I have ever shot so that they can see how false this accusation is. Unlike these factory farms, I have nothing to hide.

Along the same lines, I’ve seen some critics say things like “If these investigators cared about animal welfare, they’d report the abuse right away rather than waiting to release these films.” And some of the Ag Gag laws have requirements for this. Why do investigators often wait?

JANE: This is another red herring thrown out by the industry to attack our credibility that, ultimately, doesn’t stand up. The number one reason we wait to publicly release footage is because we are working with law enforcement. In many instances, we are legally barred from releasing footage which might impede a law enforcement investigation into the facility in question. In other cases, we have needed time for animal welfare experts to review our footage and help provide a veterinary and behavioral context for what we are
seeing so that we can better explain it to the public. In some cases, we want to give major grocery or fast food chains the time to review the footage and make meaningful animal welfare policy changes in advance of our release. What people don’t realize is that we often perform multiple releases before the footage actually becomes public. We release to law enforcement, veterinary experts, corporate representatives, and others before finally releasing to the media. These things can take time.

I’ve heard many animal activists say things like “I could never do that. I could never cope.” How do you emotionally process the suffering that you see in front of you, so that you can keep doing the work and also take care of your own mental health?

JANE: The answer to this is different for every single investigator. For me, I have come from a somewhat tumultuous family background which, fortunately or unfortunately, allows me the ability to remain emotionally stable when extremely traumatic events are happening around me. I think about it as a switch that I can turn on and off at will. When I became vegan, I gave myself permission to flip the switch that allowed me to reconnect with my real love and respect for animals. I was finally allowed to feel emotionally connected to the animals that I had been negligently including in my diet, and that alone was enough to compel me deep into animal rights. It’s the same switch that allows many people to pet some animals and eat the rest. Or to claim we are animal lovers when we go to the circus. It’s a matter of cognitive dissonance and we are all better at it than we think. Being an investigator is just a matter of flipping that switch.

Being an investigator is the hardest work I’ve ever done in my life, and I can’t exactly recommend it to everyone. It’s also the most fulfilling job I’ve ever done and one that I wish more qualified people were stepping up to do. At this point in my life, this is the single biggest thing I can be doing for animals and I plan to donate my body to the cause as long as I can. We need more people to do this work, especially now that we are becoming the target of repression and intimidation to stop us from doing it. We can’t let our own fear
stop us before we even start. That is the definition of repression and we do it to ourselves every day when we say we “can’t do this kind of work.” We can and we must.

Avoiding burnout is exactly the same as it is for all activism. You’re no good to the movement if you’re a broken down mess. Take breaks when you need them, meditate, find your form of therapy, exercise a lot, play with some animals, do what you can only when you can do it, stare wistfully at the ocean, buy weird stuff at the grocery store, learn Spanish, finish that book you started reading 8 months ago, call your parents. Forgive yourself.

“Ag Gag” supporters have gone so far as to call your work “terrorism.” How do you perceive these legislative efforts, and how have they affected what you do?

JANE: The most universal truth about activism is also the most difficult to navigate: you only know it’s working when they try to shut you down.

We have learned this time and time again throughout our history. It is this truth that plagued the civil rights movement in the middle of the last century. As their tactics escalated from symbolic gestures of legal dissent like lawful protests and letter writing campaigns, to radical forms of direct action like sit-ins at lunch counters, and illegal filings for voter registration at a time when people of color were not allowed to vote. Civil rights activists used direct action to force the government to openly confront their denial of equal rights to American citizens. These events were the “occupations” of their time. Instead of standing in the protest zone, peacefully requesting that those in power please change their minds, citizens who were being denied their rights took action to forcibly gain control of the dialogue and place their bodies on the line until their demands for equal treatment were met. This is the essence of direct action and it is one of the most significant tools we can employ against our oppressors. We know it works because they are trying to shut it down.

In 2011 alone, several landmark investigations were conducted against some of the largest animal processing companies in the world. In June, an investigation into America’s fourth largest pork supplier, Iowa Select, received international media attention and compelled several American grocery chains including Costco, Safeway and Kroger to cut their ties with the company. In November, an undercover investigation into Sparboe Egg Farms which had been providing eggs to every single McDonald’s restaurant in America west of the Mississippi river, created such a public outcry that McDonald’s immediately dropped the company as a supplier.

These campaigns have been so successful at generating massive consumer boycotts of companies and products that industry lobbyists have desperately attempted to wield state legislatures as a bludgeon in order to fight back. Part of the power of undercover investigations comes from the fact that they are conducted in accordance with all federal and state laws, including those governing employment and the recording of video and audio tape. The fact that such immense damage has been done to such powerful industries through perfectly legal channels, has compelled lobbyists to criminalize that which is not criminal. Enter, the “Ag-Gag” bill.

What is most significant about these bills is that they don’t only send a message to animal activists that their right to free speech comes with an asterisk, but it send a message to even apolitical journalists and whistleblowers, outside the scope of animal activism, that their right to tell the truth is only protected as long as the political winds favor their position. Control the information and then control the media that is used to present it. If these bills pass, the precedent they set would have massive implications for the application of the First Amendment, and specifically, the right to possess and share information in a public setting. These are two very basic freedoms that most Americans take for granted every day, and they are being deeply eroded by the same government officials who have sworn to uphold the document which protects those freedoms in the first place. At almost every turn, the government has tipped its hand and shown that indeed, the fox is guarding the hen house, and meaningful challenges to business as usual will not be tolerated.

As long as our ideas are threatening to those who benefit from exploitation, we will remain a target. This will continue to be true until we can change the very core ideas that allow those systems to thrive. I look back on the civil rights movement and can feel what it must have been like to believe in the sanctity of their ideas, and still be unsure whether society would ever recognize them. I imagine the indescribable joy they must have felt when battles were won, and I imagine the strength and grace of those today who lived through it and arrived on the other side of victory — the right side of history. I have faith that the same can be achieved for the liberation movements of our time, but only if we continue the fight now, when it’s the hardest and bleakest, and when victory seems immeasurably far away.

They are fighting because we are winning, and we are winning because history has already been written in our favor.

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