Pioneering Undercover Investigator Finally Emerges From Behind the Camera

When I was in the final year of my philosophy degree, my class coined the term ‘to get Singered’. Pretty much all of us read Peter Singer’s book Animal Liberation at some point during that year and by the end of it, most of us had given up eating meat; we got Singered. It turns out that Gemunu de Silva also got Singered back in the eighties. 

But the encounter with Singer’s argument that it is wrong to treat human beings as morally superior to other species didn’t only change Gem’s diet; it set him on his path to become the UK’s first—and longest-serving—undercover investigator of animal exploitation.

He already had some exposure to animal rights ideas through the beloved punk music of his youth. But Singer helped him understand “more about speciesism, akin to racism, sexism, and things I was against,” he says when we meet for a walk on a cold, drizzly day in the midst of England’s second lockdown. We both happen to live in Oxford, UK, and conduct our interview while doing slow laps of the picturesque University Parks. “It would have been contradictory not to be involved in animal rights if I was involved in other social justice issues.”

Gem (pronounced with a hard ‘g’) took his new belief in animal rights and combined it with the filmmaking skills he was learning with the Oxford Film and Video Makers collective (now Film Oxford). Crucially, it was his access to video recording equipment that enabled him to expose what was going on behind the closed doors of the UK’s burgeoning factory farming industry. 

Along with three other filmmakers, Gem put the footage he had gathered over two years from a range of farms into a short film called Meathead, featuring punk musicians Captain Sensible and Lene Lovich as characters in a dark tale of meaty gluttony. “It wasn’t very subtle,” Gem says with a laugh. He followed it up with two television documentaries, a run leading the new investigations unit at Compassion in World Farming, and a stint at Cruelty Free International.

Now, thirty years on from Meathead, Gem is celebrating the fifteenth birthday of Tracks Investigations, the animal-focused investigation agency he co-founded and runs as executive director. With 250 investigations under its belt, Tracks’ investigators—a freelance pool of “eco spooks” with backgrounds in the military, journalism, science, and activism—have gathered video evidence of animal exploitation across the world for a multitude of NGOs, which use the footage for public campaigning and lobbying policymakers.

For such a staple of the animal advocacy world, Gem and Tracks have flown surprisingly under the radar. But that is by design. Up until this year, Gem avoided doing press, leaving it to the NGOs to draw the media’s attention to the cruelties his investigations exposed. It is only as the pandemic has forced a hiatus on the majority of Tracks’ projects that Gem has begun telling the stories of his decades-long career. 

Gem has done plenty of factory farm investigations of the type now frequently carried out by animal activists and advocacy charities such as Viva! And Open Cages, involving secretly entering livestock or fur farms and filming the miserable existence of their inmates, or following long-distance live transport of calves across continental Europe. But other projects sound more like something out of a spy thriller.

“We create fake companies, we create fake personas,” Gem explains, “and we’ll have websites for our companies, which enables us to get access to situations you wouldn’t do if you were a normal member of the public.”

One such situation was monkey-trapping in Mauritius. Wild monkeys are trapped and made to breed on farms in order to supply the research laboratories of countries including the UK and the US. For Gem, gathering evidence of this trade involved posing as a “daredevil tourist” hungry for experiences out of the ordinary. “You have to be an actor,” he says. “You’ve got to make the people you meet believe you.” He did what was necessary to play his role. “With that project, the hardest bit was eating meat for three weeks as part of my cover. I couldn’t suddenly say, oh I’m not eating this because I’m a vegetarian when you want to go monkey-trapping with somebody.”

Investigations into puppy smuggling in Eastern Europe on behalf of the Dog’s Trust have brought Gem into contact with some hardcore criminals. “We met one guy in Lithuania, we found out he was on a European arrest warrant for modern slavery in the UK.” 

I find it hard to imagine keeping my cool in some of the scenarios he describes, but Gem comes across as someone who takes things in his stride and keeps focused on the task at hand. To be a good investigator, he says, “you’ve got to be adaptable, on a very practical level … You have to think about the bigger picture, you have to hide your emotions.”

I wonder how much easier investigations have become with the advent of technology like camera phones, but Gem insists that the right disposition, determination, and thorough preparation is more important than having high-tech equipment. “You don’t just turn up on a farm; there’s hours, days, months of research that goes behind doing an investigation.” Having said that, he does regret getting rid of a lot of his old camera gear a few years ago. “I’d have loved to have a little museum about covert cameras through the ages,” he says wistfully.

His attitude and appearance are unpretentious and practical—he is wearing a sensible rain jacket, trainers, and cap, with the small stud in one of his earlobes the only sign that he might still be a punk at heart—and so is his perspective on the purpose of investigations in the animal protection space. “The reason you do investigations is two-fold really,” he says. “One is to raise public awareness and by raising public awareness you get legislation change. That’s how [it] happens.”

In a sane world, there would no longer be a need for the sorts of investigations Gem does with Tracks. He acknowledges that in some respects not enough has changed in the past 30 years, particularly regarding factory farms. But if there had been no changes at all he would have found it difficult to keep at it for as long as he has. Seeing change, or the possibility of it, is “what keeps you going really,” he says. For years he documented the live export of veal calves from Britain to Europe, for example, and in September the Scottish government finally halted exports of unweaned calves, while the UK government recently announced it would partially ban live exports from mainland Britain.

Tracks has had a few quick wins in its time, too. “There was a sudden one last year when we were investigating the facilities of performing bears in France, and they were in real shitty conditions, in dungeons,” Gem says, “and one of them had maggots coming out of his paws. It was really shocking material.” Within a month, Mischa, the worst-affected bear, was released to a sanctuary under the order of the French Minister for Ecology, Elisabeth Borne. The remaining two bears were rescued a couple of months later.

The difference in the impact of Tracks’ various investigations hints at the incongruity in how people respond to the abuse of different animals. The investigation into puppy smuggling has pushed the issue up the agenda of some British politicians because they receive even more emails about it from constituents than about Brexit. Meanwhile, factory farming continues unabated, though in some countries conditions for the animals have improved slightly over the years. Exposing the abuse of animals that aren’t typically consumed as food can perhaps have quicker results because it does not so directly force people to confront their own choices or societies to contend with the massive, entrenched system of exploitation that is industrial animal agriculture. 

Though Gem likes Tracks to focus on a range of issues and not just factory farming, he hasn’t forgotten where he started as an investigator. “If there was one animal I’d want to champion it would be the humble broiler chicken,” he says. “Partly because it’s the first type of farm I ever went to, and I was really shocked by it. But the number of chickens is so vast and there’s not many people championing them.”

A week or so after our interview in the park, Gem tells me in an email that he has received a testimonial from none other than Peter Singer. “[Gem has] had a huge impact, reducing the amount of suffering we inflict on nonhuman animals,” the philosopher wrote to Gem. “I’m delighted that reading Animal Liberation got Gemunu started down this path. That’s the kind of response I would like every reader of the book to have.” It’s official then: Gem has seriously raised the bar on what it means to get Singered.