This is What It’s Like Being an Undercover Animal Rights Investigator

There’s perhaps no bigger nightmare for a vegan than being stranded inside a factory farm, helpless – unable to rush to the assistance of injured or frightened animals. Instead, imagine being forced to just stand there and watch, maybe even having to laugh like you think it’s funny as you witness chickens being slammed into walls or piglets being trampled. Asking for help does nothing. And crying – or even showing any concern — could be your own death sentence.

But this isn’t a dream. For Cody Carlson and many like him, this was life as an undercover investigator for the preeminent farm animal rights group, Mercy for Animals (MFA).

After going vegetarian as a teenager, Carlson went vegan a few years later when he saw a PETA video, “Meet Your Meat,” being played at a band table at a punk show. That led him into activism. After working as a researcher for a corporate investigations firm, he stumbled on a battery-cage investigation conducted by MFA and reached out to the group. When he got a response from the organization’s founder, Nathan Runkle, he wasn’t expecting it to be a request to quit his job and go undercover. But that’s just what happened.

For more than two years, Carlson would bounce around from farm to farm, starting out in a New York dairy where he witnessed abuse even on his first day. He went into the work with what he called, “a healthy skepticism.” Could this “really” be the way our food is produced?

What he saw though was that animal abuse wasn’t just being done by “a few rotten apples.” The practices are widespread. Most farm animals don’t live on rolling green pastures with friendly farmers tending to their barns and fresh bales of hay. No, most of the more than 55 billion animals raised for food every year never even see grass at all in their short, horrid lives. They spend their days in living hells – dark, dense steel “farms” where the sounds and smells of thousands of animals are overwhelming, offensive, and unavoidable.

Carlson recalls one particular Pennsylvania pig farm.

“Thousands of mother pigs with the same emotive eyes and emotive faces as any mother, but living in the worst form of hell,” he says. “These poor pigs can barely move. They’re mad from boredom and when they finally give birth, they watch their babies tortured and taken away from them.”

He remembers one sow, “Buttercup,” who for some reason was singled out by workers among the 3,000 or so animals in the factory farm. The workers would talk to her, feed her, and pet her while all the other pigs were just nameless numbers. “It was such a weird thing for me to see,” he says.

Carlson says this practice is common on farms like this. “If we can invest our emotions into one animal, we can justify the way we treat these others,” he says. Farm workers who are abusive to animals are usually doing so because repressing their urge to bond with them or at least show respect leads them to do the opposite of what they really feel. Shutting down our innate sense of empathy is profoundly difficult when witnessing suffering. But when that’s your job – perhaps the only job you can get – this repression can lead to blame toward the one you’re instinctively inclined to protect or save.

And even though his purpose — to expose cruelty and advance legislation and corporate policies that prevent it– was always driving him to do the work, the stresses were all too real for Carlson. Even in just a few weeks time he developed a repetitive muscle injury in his hand. His lungs were strained from inhaling manure all day. And there were nightmares much like one may experience in post-combat PTSD.

While today, the organization employs therapists to help its undercover agents deal with the stresses of the work, back when Carlson was an investigator the group was much smaller. After every day out in the field, Carlson would get on the phone with the always compassionate Nathan Runkle, Mercy for Animals founder, and talk through what he saw and how he was feeling. “One of the ways I was able to cope with things was to recognize that [factory farming abuse and cruelty] was happening whether or not I was there,” he says. “I just sort of had to intellectualize it.”

But the stress was more than just about seeing the animals suffer – there was the adrenaline of having video cameras and microphones wired all over his body, the risk of being discovered, and what type of consequence that may have. It’s one of the main reasons the investigators never stay at a job very long – they can’t risk being caught or they could face not only their own harm, but losing vital footage that can and has brought criminal charges against workers and operations.

And now more than ever, factory farm operators are more suspicious of new hires. It is the age of the Facebook Live video, after all – someone even hired who’s not working undercover can quickly decide they see something they don’t like and capture it on video.

But being fully wired with the intent to catch workers abusing animals put Carlson and his colleagues in exceptional physical danger.

“Employees would joke about it all the time,” he says. “‘You’re not one of those PETA activists are you?’” Workers would ask Carlson this question if he showed any inclination to alleviate the suffering of an animal. So he’d learn to steel himself and build a tolerance to the suffering, much like the workers themselves have to do.

And many of the workers were just as scared as Carlson, only for different reasons. Many are here in the U.S. illegally. Factory farm or slaughterhouse jobs are often the only work they can get and they’re terrified of being deported. Even a job-related injury – extremely common in factory farms — can lead to extradition.

Carslon would go on to spend time on two egg farms in Iowa, and investigating some 40 puppy mills across the country.

Cody Carlson / image via Mercy for Animals

And while the suffering was there at every turn, the victories, though, have made it all worth it. California just became the first state to ban pet shops from selling animals that were bred in puppy mills. An ‘ag-gag’ law in Utah that would have made it illegal for investigators like Carlson to film without permission, was declared unconstitutional. In 2016, Massachusetts passed a landmark bill (“Question 3”) that will protect farm animals from cruel confinement. And just last weekend, Carlson was in Los Angeles for the launch of the Prevent Cruelty California campaign, being spearheaded in part by Mercy for Animals. If the campaign can gather 600,000 signatures by April 30th, it will give the state’s residents the opportunity to vote on a measure even stronger than Question 3. It could help usher in a new era of factory farming legislation that gives animals more rights in more states.

Yesterday, Mercy for Animals submitted a petition to the USDA urging it to grant federal protection to poultry under the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act.

Under the 1958 law, birds such as turkey and chickens, which now make up the majority of animals raised for food, are exempted, while animals including pigs and cows are protected against neglect, abuse, and pain.

“Chickens, turkeys, and other birds are every bit as capable of experience pain and suffering as the cows, pigs, and sheep who are protected under the humane slaughter act, and it simply makes no sense to exclude these animals from equal protection under the law,” said Vandhana Bala, an attorney for Mercy For Animals.

The group has used its undercover footage not only in the courtroom, but in the boardroom as well. It’s one of the reasons MFA’s undercover work has been so important for chickens. While there’s no federal protection for birds as the petition notes, MFA has been unrelenting in its conversations with major food producers, distributors, and suppliers.

Its work with corporations like Nestlé, Butterball, Tyson, and Unilever has led to sweeping changes at supplier operations. It’s been critical in creating the growing support for cage-free eggs and the end of gestation crates, among other victories.

In the eighteen years since Runkle first formed Mercy for Animals it has become one of the strongest voices for farm animals, due in large part to the work of investigators like Carlson. In his recent book, “Mercy for Animals: One Man’s Quest to Inspire Compassion and Improve the Lives of Farm Animals,” Runkle dedicates several chapters to telling the stories of investigators, including Carlson’s.

“Their stories are a huge part of my story,” he says. “They are Mercy for Animals.”

Undercover investigations have also driven tens of thousands of consumers to explore reducing or eliminating animal products from their diets. The organization runs the website that offers recipe and diet support for people wanting to transition to a more plant-based diet.

For the past three years, Mercy for Animals has celebrated the work of its undercover investigators, its “hidden heroes,” with a star-studded gala event. In September, the organization raised nearly $2 million at the event in Los Angeles.

Today, Carslon spends his time supporting MFA’s legal efforts as one of the organization’s staff attorneys. He often takes the stand in cases about factory farm abuse, where he’s forced to recall the cruelty and suffering he witnessed for more than two years. And even though those memories are still uncomfortable, he relives them time and again in hopes that his experiences will help reduce another animal’s suffering. “We’re providing a window to these places,” he says. “We’re helping people to see.”

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