I Went Undercover on a Factory Farm—This Is What I Learned

factory farm investigator

The listing was from a non-profit looking for an undercover investigator. I found it while searching for animal-related positions on a job site that catered to non-profits. The ad said they were looking for someone to work and film inside factory farms and slaughterhouses. Truthfully, I felt a bit out of my depth even before applying. I hadn’t had much exposure to the animal rights movement, besides attending a couple of events during college with a friend. I certainly didn’t have experience working undercover. But I was interested. I had studied Ecology in school because I wanted a job protecting animals. I was newly vegan, so I had some knowledge of the inherent cruelty in animal agriculture. Perhaps most importantly, I read a lot of comic books and was obsessed with being a hero. It looked like this job was everything I was looking for. It would also be the hardest job I’ve ever done.

Despite my enthusiasm, the application process did give me pause. Everything, from the job listing up until you’re actually put into the field, is designed to convince you not to do this type of work. I was warned about stress so intense it made people break down. I was warned about lifelong injuries sustained on the job. I learned that most potential investigators quit before completing their first investigation. I also learned that I wouldn’t fully understand these warnings until I actually experienced fieldwork myself.

They weren’t exaggerating. Everything about the job was hard. I investigated three slaughterhouses during my time in the field—a chicken slaughterhouse, a pig processing plant, and the largest lamb slaughterhouse in the U.S. It never got any easier. When I talk about it now, most think of how horrible it must be to bear witness to cruelty on a daily basis. Investigators, many of whom took this job because of their empathy, have to keep a straight face while animals are beaten, neglected, and slaughtered. They have to pretend everything is fine to maintain their cover, as blood flows freely from the cutthroats of animals just as sentient as your dog or cat at home. Work in slaughterhouses is so devastating that it’s been linked to PTSD and other disorders. To protect and support our investigators, we offer to pay for any mental health services they want.

Maintaining cover also means being able to respond to questioning at a moment’s notice. This is something that was always nerve-wracking for me. Every time I spoke to my coworkers, I was paranoid that they could see right through me. I thought everything I was doing was awkward and at any minute they would surround me and accuse me of being an undercover agent. It’s something that was constantly in the back of my mind, so much so that I still have nightmares about it, and I’ve been out of the field for three years now.

One of the things I was most afraid of was not being able to keep up with the work. As an undercover investigator, you spend months doing tough physical work at high speeds. When I worked in “live hang” at a chicken plant, my coworkers and I had to wedge the bony legs of live chickens into shackles that zoomed by at eye level. The requirement was shackling 24 birds per minute, a ludicrous speed both for the animals and the workers. I remember my joints swelling and constant pain in my hands and back. My coworkers would tell me that’s just how it was to work there. In addition to the injuries from the repetitive movements, meat packing facilities are notoriously dangerous, with workers frequently suffering amputations due to working in close proximity to heavy machinery. This danger is omnipresent during the long, grueling work hours. I frequently worked 12-hour shifts and interviewed for jobs that only gave workers every other weekend off. Investigators work long hours and have to do more investigations-related work when their shifts are done. They can work in a factory farm or slaughterhouse for months.

Though investigators go through stressful experiences, they can’t really talk with many people about them. They’re sent off alone, potentially thousands of miles from home, and are basically barred from telling friends and family what they’re going through. They keep quiet until they’re completely retired from fieldwork. It’s isolating and you often feel very much alone out in the field. I turned to journal writing just to get some of my thoughts out, even though no one would ever see them.

It was really only after I completed an investigation that most of the weight lifted from my shoulders. The stress I was constantly under was replaced by a feeling of accomplishment unlike anything else I’ve experienced. I remember walking out of the pig slaughterhouse on my last day and going straight past my car to a nearby park next to a river. I sat on a bench and just stared out at the river. It’s a feeling like you’ve regained control over your life.

Investigators get a break after finishing work in a facility when they can spend much deserved time at home with the people closest to them. After they’ve had some rest, the investigator serves as an expert, ensuring the accuracy of the investigation release materials produced by the organization. They do interviews and get to see their work released to the general public, often in major media outlets like the Washington Post or The New York Times. We’ve also had footage in documentaries including Eating Animals and What the Health. Letters of support pour in.

We often send investigators a trophy or framed picture to commemorate their accomplishments. Though local law enforcement is often reluctant to prosecute animal cruelty in rural areas, sometimes criminal charges are pressed. We’ve had facilities settle lawsuits with the Department of Justice and companies change their standard practices as a result of our investigations. Each time I saw the impact of my investigations, a second wave of accomplishment washed over me.

Though I struggled in the field, it was worth it to see my footage released to the public. Investigators pride themselves in knowing their work has been seen by thousands or millions of people, some of whom have changed their eating habits as a result of what they were shown. I know the footage is hard to watch, but please do, and share it with others. We’re trying to change the world and we need your help to do it.