By: Natalia Lima May 31, 2016
Equipped with hidden cameras and a thirst for justice, animal rights undercover investigators infiltrate factory farms, circuses, roadside zoos, labs and other facilities where animals are known to be mistreated. Investigators gather the necessary evidence to show the world — and authorities — what really goes on behind closed doors. Catching animal abusers in the act isn’t easy, but it’s the job description of animal rights undercover investigators.
The investigative footage is hard to watch — so much so that the news media rarely shows videos and images when reporting on the issue. The live version is even tougher to endure, so how do they do it? Mike Wolf, Investigations Manager for Compassion Over Killing, TJ Tumasse, Manager of Investigations for the Animal Legal Defense Fund, and Taylor Radig, a former investigator for PETA and Compassion Over Killing all spent years undercover. We asked them what the experience was really like.
How did you end up working as an undercover investigator?
Mike Wolf: After my dog died I started becoming more aware of things and started seeing how animals were treated. In a few weeks I became vegetarian and wanted to help animals.
T.J. Tumasse: I read “Animal Liberation,” by Peter Singer, and I didn’t make it through two chapters before deciding I was going vegan and fighting for animals. I sent an email to PETA wanting to get involved as an artist and at the end I just said, “by the way, I’m 6’4, 200 pounds and a pretty intimidating former football player,” and then they got back to me about being an investigator.
Taylor Radig: Seeing an undercover investigation was what started my journey into animal protection work. I believe that people’s circle of compassion is in constant flux — bending, shifting and expanding — and I think undercover investigations are one of the most powerful tools we have in allowing people to see why animals are in desperate need to become a part of that circle.
What was your first day undercover like? Was it what you were expecting?
Wolf: I started out at a zoo. I spent about four months there and it was eye-opening. There were weeks that animals barely got fed. Seeing first-hand what was happening just pushed me harder to keep on doing it.
Tumasse: The first job I got was at a factory farm, in a slaughterhouse owned by Tyson in Georgia. I thought I was prepared, and when it came down to it the reality was much different. When you’re actually exposed to it there’s nothing that compares. A part of me never left and I’ll never get that part of me back. It changes who you are.
Radig: My first day at Quanah Cattle Company, my coworker called me over to show me this blind calf. When I came over, he showed me the blue color of this tiny baby calf’s eyes as he sat on the ground, too sick to stand. Knowing how sick this calf was, my coworker repeatedly kicked this baby calf over and over to try to get him to stand, when he very clearly couldn’t even muster the energy to stand even though he was being kicked. It took everything in my body to not scream at my coworker in that moment.
What is the worst thing you ever saw?
Wolf: Artificial insemination is so cruel and barbaric. It happens to millions of animals and people at the farms are every crude about it. It becomes normalized and people make jokes about it but it’s awful and the closest thing I can compare it to is rape.
Radig: That [first] day I also went with my coworker to get baby calves from local dairies. I remember my coworker and I entering into the space of where the calves are held, and the look on the mother’s face as we took her baby from her. The heartbreak in her eyes felt like she realized that this was the time where strangers took something from her that she would never get back.
How do you cope with seeing these awful things as an animal lover?
Wolf: You need to find an outlet. I used weightlifting as an outlet. I found a gym close by and spent time there. Even after working 12 hours a day, I would still go and lift. It definitely has an impact on you, and it’s the kind of thing that sticks with you. But the way to look at it is that my being there was the only way to show the public what’s going on there. And to remember that we’re trying to help the future generations, not the ones already at the slaughterhouse.
Tumasse: In order to stay you have to become a different version of yourself. You’re playing a character that is like you but not you. For me it was like getting psyched for a football game — I would talk myself up and listen to empowering music like some vegan metal bands before going to work and then some classical music to calm down after. What keeps me going is the belief that any action we take for animals is an end in itself.
Radig: I get this question a lot, and it’s always tough, because the answer is sometimes that I just can’t. Investigations are about the animals who are suffering needlessly in these farms, and if I breakdown, especially on the job, I not only put myself at risk, but I fail them. Sometimes I think about all the animals I loaded up on trucks to be sent to slaughter, and those I cuddled next to in their crates when no one was around, and just can’t handle the fact that I left them to die. But then I think of how incredibly powerful undercover investigations are for stopping and preventing the abuse these animals endure every single day of their lives.
What would you say the main quality is that someone needs to have to become an undercover investigator for animal rights?
Wolf: It’s really more of a mental thing. There are a couple of things that push people away. First you need to travel a lot and live on the road. And, people who care about animals usually have companion animals they can’t leave behind. Second is the long hours. Third is the fact that you have to perform standard practices. If you’re in a hog farm, you need to castrate a pig without anesthesia. You may need to kill an animal and if you are passionate towards animals you might not be able to do that.
Radig: A strong ability to compartmentalize your emotions, and a very — I mean very —strong work ethic. With the smell of ammonia, fecal matter, blood, and terror filling your lungs sometimes 12 hours a day, working on factory farms, specifically slaughterhouses, is one of the most dangerous jobs that exist.
Did you ever get caught?
Wolf: No, I never got caught. [At the zoo] I worked with the big cats, and one time I was in a pen with a lion, and he started playing a little rough and ripped my clothes. Some of my equipment fell out to the ground. That’s the closest I ever came, but nobody saw it happen.
Tumasse: I never got caught but there were times I was accused. Once I got searched while wearing my equipment but by then I had figured out how to wear it so they didn’t see it.
What’s your take on Ag-Gag legislation that aims to outlaw the work of undercover investigators?
Wolf: It would be interesting to bring Ag-Gag to the supreme court one day because there’s no way they could uphold that. It’s so obvious that it’s an infringement of the first amendment rights.
Tumasse: Fighting Ag-gag laws is the next step in achieving the peaceful world we all believe in and is part of the golden rule we all love so much. “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you” does not say human others. Surely each other individual is worthy of our consideration and to try to hide abuse toward others, adult, child, or animal falls outside that universally moral imperative. To make it illegal to say there is cruelty and abuse happening and stop the person speaking out instead of the company committing the abuse is deplorable.
Radig: Ag-Gag laws are created by the industry to cover up what they do. Instead of stopping the cruelty, it’s their way to shut the information down and keep people from knowing what’s in their plates.
Where are they now?
After working as an investigator for four years, Wolf has been the investigations manager for Compassion Over Killing since 2014. He helps set up investigations like the one into a chicken facility in North Carolina where birds were being buried alive and he recruits new investigators. Those interested in the job can email him directly.
Tumasse works as the manager of investigations for the Animal Legal Defense Fund helping to set up investigations like the organization’s newly released expose on Hormel pork supplier, Maschhoffs. The undercover video shows pigs being left days without food, piglets having their tails seared off without anesthesia and injured animals being left without proper care. The organization has issued a letter to the attorney general of Nebraska where the facility is located asking authorities to further look into the company’s practices.
After finishing a Compassion Over Killing investigation into Quanah Cattle Company, Radig went to the sheriff’s office to hand over her evidence and give them a first-hand witness account of the acts of animal cruelty she witnessed. The sheriff, however, who turned out to be a former dairy farmer, charged Radig with animal cruelty for not reporting the crimes as soon as she saw them and distributed her mugshot to the media. After having her mugshot printed, Radig’s identity was exposed and her career as an undercover investigator was forced to come to an end. But, over 180,000 people signed a petition to have the charges against her dropped, which the sheriff’s office eventually did. She now does research work for several animal rights organizations.