Exposing the Secretive World of Animal Exploitation with Pete Paxton

It was a Zoom webinar for Sentient Media called “Reporting on Life at Sea” that I first met Pete Paxton. My contribution stemmed from my seven years at sea with Sea Shepherd, Pete’s from his time on U.S. commercial fishing boats trying to expose cruelty. 

He sat behind dark glasses and a baseball cap, to shield his identity—keeping his true self hidden. Pete Paxton is of course not his real name; it’s a pseudonym he uses which enables him to speak out about working undercover, infiltrating abusive and exploitative animal industries and exposing them.

Over the last two decades, Paxton has worked in more than 700 puppy mills, factory farms, slaughterhouses, and companion animal stores, as well as onboard commercial fishing boats to document pervasive animal cruelty. His work has resulted in important changes. Several U.S. states banned the sale of cats and dogs in pet shops, California introduced a mandatory buy-back scheme of fishing permits to end the use of destructive drift-nets, and the illegal practice of selling companion animals to labs for experimentation has largely come to an end.

Anyone involved in this kind of work has a tale to tell about how it all began for them. Growing up in the U.S., a young Paxton was drawn to the idea of law enforcement—the bottom line being, “I just thought it would be cool.” Like most of us, he had no idea exactly what he wanted to do with his life, just that he wanted to have an effect on the world. Since art was his only real natural talent, he “dabbled with painting to provoke thought” but the problem was, “no-one ever really understood what I was trying to say.”

By age 16, Paxton had started looking into various agencies connected with law enforcement—including the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI)—and stumbled across John Douglas’ non-fiction crime book, Mindhunter. Douglas was a unit chief with the FBI and one of the first criminal profilers. He examined crime scenes to try and describe the habits and characteristics of criminals and attempted to predict an offender’s next move. It was revolutionary and exactly what Paxton had been looking for: the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit.

Around the same time, Paxton discovered vegetarianism and began recognizing correlations between the worst acts serial killers inflict on their victims and the mass mistreatment of animals for food, fashion, entertainment, and companionship. At 19, he went vegan and, driven to help animals, fell into a career that aligned this goal with his passion for investigations. “I’m 49 percent driven to help animals and 51 percent driven by a passion for investigations,” he says. 

We move on to talk about the attributes an undercover investigator needs and what virtues can make them more successful in the field. For me, this is one of the most compelling parts of our discussion, bearing in mind that the average career of an undercover investigator in the U.S. is one to two years. 

When talking about investigations, we often focus on the secondary trauma narrative—how hard it is to sustain emotionally demanding work and what defense mechanisms we can develop to deal with PTSD. We rarely ever hear anyone talk about the excitement of an investigation or the adrenaline rush experienced by an investigator when capturing some heinous act on camera. 

This is where my candid chat with Paxton becomes so refreshing. We joke about the monotony of surveillance work and how “most of what you do is extremely god damn boring.” He recounts numerous interviews he’s done where when people ask “what did you do when you got that footage,” he can only respond with, “I continued to stay still because that’s what I’d been doing for hours.” That honesty takes some of the glamour out of investigative work but nevertheless, it’s an important part of the job—being as prepared to deal with the boredom as you are the sustained moral injury of doing something you don’t want to do, such as killing an animal or allowing another to suffer in order to get the job done. These horrendous things are essential when working incognito or you risk blowing your cover.

So, when it comes to filtering out the brain noise as a result of such distressing work, what are Paxton’s top recommendations? Well, the first is to go and listen to Slipknot really loud! I like this one, I’m a Slipknot fan too, and reckon a good pounding of Wait and Bleed can fix anything. But on a more serious note, in the moment, Paxton says you need to learn how to reprioritize things so that every painful emotion adds value. Basically, when you’re experiencing something really unpleasant, you need to see it as a challenge to overcome—in order to become stronger and more resilient to the difficult times. Physical fitness can be another outlet, as well as mindfulness and meditation.

For Paxton, there have been many difficult times, almost 20 years’ worth of them, but there’s one I’m particularly interested in—his first job for Last Chance for Animals. He introduces me to Martin Creek Kennels, owned by C.C. and Patsy Baird, who were licensed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to sell dogs and cats they did not breed themselves to veterinary schools and research labs across the country. Unknown to the government, this reportedly included stolen companion animals. 

Paxton worked at the kennels for six months, videotaping routine abuse from dogs dying of malnutrition to severe beatings and extreme neglect. His investigation led to a plea of guilty by the two owners, a huge $267,000 fine, which at the time was the largest penalty ever imposed under the federal Animal Welfare Act, and the closure of the kennels. It became the subject of an HBO documentary, Dealing Dogs, and led to Paxton’s Coin of Excellence award from the U.S. Attorney’s Office of Arkansas. 

I can tell straight away that dogs are a big love of his and so we talk about his book, Rescue Dogs. Part autobiographical, part how-to guide on adopting dogs it tells the stories of some of the individuals he’s met during his assignments and how potential adopters can prepare their homes to welcome a dog, even one with problematic behavior or one that, as Paxton puts it, is “just an ass-hole.”

Chatting away about the dogs in our lives, I can still see the passion in his eyes (no sunglasses this time) to simply want to help all animals. So, for anyone seeking to emulate his undercover work, what advice does he have? 

The first he says is to get experience in manual labor, which “doesn’t include landscaping your parents’ garden.” He means real hard graft, “the kind that leaves every bone in your body aching at the end of the day.” Secondly, you need to work out. You have to be physically fit and train yourself to overcome exhaustion rapidly. And finally, “get used to doing disgusting work.” He suggests volunteering at wildlife rescues to learn how to handle animals that are sick and injured so that you don’t fear death and know what to do when it happens.

I really respect his drive and leave our call inspired.