Jordi Casamitjana, a former undercover investigator of animal abuse cases, speaks about how it feels to undertake this type of job to unveil the truth of animal exploitation
This is not going to be easy.
I have written many articles about veganism and animals, but I can tell this one is not going to be easy. It’s not that I don’t know the subject well. It’s not that I haven’t got any interesting stories about it. It’s not that it is a controversial topic, and I must walk on nutshells — did you note the anti-speciesist idiom switch?
It’s a bit more complicated than that. Part of it is the emotional baggage this subject imposes on people like me. Part of it is fightclub-like unwritten rules that the activity brings to the table. Part of it is the avoidance of revealing any hidden tactic to the “other side”. But my colleagues at Vegan FTA insisted I should write about it. They thought others may enjoy learning about the kind of insights I sometimes reveal about this issue during overly-relaxed social situations, but which I am reluctant to put in writing.
Which issue I am talking about? What is this mysterious subject I am nervously meandering around? Well, you’ve read the title. A profession which never shows up in any official form. A profession you only see on CVs when it has already been abandoned. A profession glamorised by works of fiction but ablated by real life. A profession I did some time in the past to expose the reality of animal exploitation.
The profession of the “undercover investigator”.
Researchers, Detectives, and Investigators
Why did I use the term ‘profession’? Because, believe it or not, there are people out there, other than police officers or intelligence operatives, who do undercover investigations for a living. This means they pretend to be someone else while doing something different than what they appear to be doing (the “cover”), and they do it to obtain information someone else pays them to get. In other words, when I use the term “undercover” to describe an investigation, I mean that the work was done under false pretenses disguising the investigators’ identity (or using an assumed identity), so the “target” investigated does not realise what is really happening.
For the purpose of this article, I do not consider falling into the category of undercover investigations those that only involve stealth surveillance from a distance without any interaction with the target — these may be better called “covert investigations.” I do not include either any operation that is done undercover (hiding your real identity) aimed to sabotage or “liberate” anyone from the target, as these are not investigations (the aim of the investigation is only to obtain information). However, there are borderline cases, which I call “incognito investigations”, where the real identity and intentions of the investigator are not revealed without actually having a “cover” that replaces the investigator’s identity. These are cases where the information is obtained discretely but the investigator is not pretending to be anyone else and would not lie if exposed. Sometimes investigators build a cover (choose a new identity and purpose, and learn how to support it memorising a false biography and using pre-prepared false evidence — such as a fake ID), but they never used it in the end because the target never enquired about them. In these cases, an undercover operation may end up being an incognito operation, but not by design.
The concept of P.I. (private investigator) we see in TV and movies, also known as “private detective”, can fit the definition of undercover investigator nicely. We are all familiar with this because we grew up seeing them on our screens. You what to know something “secret” or “hidden” about someone or some institution, and you pay a private investigator to find out. The investigator uses several techniques — among them pretending to be somebody else — to get the info, then you pay the person a fee and expenses in exchange for it. It’s a service as hiring a mechanic, an accountant, or an estate agent. As cold and unattached as that.
There are, however, other types of investigators. Some are less “manipulative”. They don’t pretend to be anyone else, and they just obtain data from publicly available sources or by taking and analysing some samples of the world. We call these researchers, and if they obtain the information by asking openly those who know it, we say they are doing “journalistic research”, while if they obtain it by using the scientific method, we say they are doing “scientific research”.
Other investigators are more invested than the typical P.I. and more discrete than the typical researcher. They do their job for a cause they believe in, not just for money. They may still be paid because they need to make a living somehow, but their motivation is to obtain the information that is crucial to address a problem, as often this is very hidden and difficult to get. Depending on the subject they are investigating, or the cause they are investigating for, they may receive different names. For instance, if what they are investigating is wildlife crime (such as illegal hunting, poaching, or wildlife trafficking), they are often called “wildlife crime investigators” (WCIs). If they are investigating to obtain information that may help animal protection campaigns (such as anti-captivity, anti-pet trade, anti-hunting, anti-vivisection, or vegan campaigns), they may be called “animal rights investigators”.
Which type of investigator was I? All of the above.
Some of my investigation jobs were done as part of my role when employed by animal protection organisations. Some were done on my own as a form of animal rights activism. Some were commissioned to me by animal organisations when I was a freelance consultant. And some I did as my sole form of income when I was a professional investigator hired by several groups on several “assignments”. And it all happened in several countries for over a decade.
My name even appears in a 2014 book authored by Ben Isacat and titled “How to do Animal Rights”, as the epitome of the “scientific investigator”. This is because one of my trademarks in the business was to offer my services as both “undercover investigator” and “scientific researcher”, and do the work of both for the price of one (although, publicly, I would only “come out” as the latter). My innovative investigation of Scottish pet shops in 2003 was what prompted my inclusion in this book.
Secrets and Lies
When you have been an investigator and you are asked to talk about which investigations were you part of, the “professional” bit stands in your way. Either when you did it as part of a wider role employed by an organisation, or you did it under contract when working freelance, there are often confidentiality clauses that you must abide by for life (well, not always this is a legal “must”, but if you are a professional, you will honour them, because that is what good professionals do). More often than not, the information you were paid to obtain, in whatever format (including images and videos), does not belong to you anymore, but to the organisation that employed you or contracted you. And even if you worked freelance and you had a “shared copyright” clause in your contract, the sensitive nature of the information would often prevent you to share it without permission.
Then there is the risk of revenge from the “target” investigated, which, whoever or whatever it is, tends to take their exposure by an undercover operation quite badly. And then you have the problem of past targets “warning” other potential targets about you, ruining future investigations and making your profession no longer viable. Secrecy is the name of the game.
This is why many exposés where the investigator is publicly known are often undertaken by one-off amateur investigators (disgruntled employees or motivated animal rights activists) rather than professional ones. Unless you work in an established animal protection organisation, you are unlikely to have heard about professional investigators and their work. But they are out there. There are not many, but they are very active and efficient. And if they are good, you would never know who they are and what they did (even if, most likely, they are behind the most memorable exposés you may have come across).
I met some investigators who were very good, much better than I. We often know each other because when we cannot do a job offered to us, we may pass it to another. Sometimes, the assignment requires several investigators, and you must work together — on one occasion I participated in a coordinated operation that involved 12 investigators hired by three separate organisations. And we often shared the technology needed for the job (concealed cameras and the like), which was always improving, and you had to be kept up to date (in the past, you could not get the good stuff from the Internet).
The Two Types of “Cover”
Some of the investigators I knew managed to do several “deep cover” investigations during their professional life. In the business, the term “deep cover” often means operations where investigators will go “deep” into the institution investigated and spend a long time (often years) inside it as if they were part of it. For instance, becoming an employee of the target organisation. We are not talking about “moles” here, who are employees who either have “turned” informers after a personal problem with the organisation or who were planted inside by the competition or opposition, not only to obtain information but also to rick havoc and compromise its work.
Deep cover investigators are somehow different because they are professionals who may investigate different targets, they are initially outside the target organisation, and they must find an ingenious way to end up working in them. Quite often, to gain enough trust and climb sufficiently within ranks to access more important information, they must spend some years just building the cover but not really taking any information out. In that initial phase, they may be called “sleepers”. At one point, after their “handler” instruct them to do so (normally, a deep cover investigator will have a handler, who would be the only person they have contact with associated with the commissioning organisation), they will “awake” and begin taking the info out until it is time to leave. After leaving, it may well be that the information is not good enough for a public exposé (or prosecution) and it will become only “intel” (intelligence information), and nobody else other than the commissioning organisation may know about it. In such cases, the cover of the investigator may remain intact, which will allow further investigations of other targets.
PETA was the first animal rights organisation that did well-publicised undercover investigations of biomedical labs, and their 1981 exposé of the Institute for Behavioural Research (known as the Silver Spring monkeys case) became a model of “deep cover” investigations that many others imitated. This led to the first arrest and criminal conviction of a US animal experimenter for cruelty to animals, and the first confiscation of abused animals from a laboratory.
I have never done deep cover investigations — as an investigator, I was really “lightweight” in this regard. I have handled other investigators (I managed a team of WCIs when I worked at the International Fund for Animal Welfare), but I haven’t been in deep cover myself. Instead, my style — shared by many other professional investigators I know — is what I call “shallow cover”. It consists in going in and out very quickly and obtaining the info mostly through misdirection and manipulation of a situation. In other words, in shallow cover, you do not become an employee or contractor of the target, but rather pretend to be someone “external” who happens to get inside using a useful cover (I am not going to reveal which ones work best as this would ruin it for other investigators), get the info, and before anyone becomes suspicious, get out.
On paper, some of these types of undercover investigations I have done are relatively easy, such as visiting a zoo pretending to be a tourist. Others are more difficult, such as going to an illegal exotic animal market and pretending to be an animal dealer. But the actual difficulty in each case depends on the type of information and images you are trying to get, and the level of interaction you need to have with the target people under the cover you have created specifically for the assignment. In some investigations, you are after “quantity” while in others after “quality”, and in some, you are just looking for something that may be of interest to your client, while in others you have been told exactly what evidence you need to obtain.
If we think of undercover investigators as “actors” (but in this case you are not trying to persuade an audience you are the character you are portraying, but you are trying to fool real people about you being who you appear to be), then a deep cover investigator would be a “method actor” (who aspires to complete emotional identification with a part) while a shallow cover investigator would not. The former will “become the part” by thinking like the cover and embodying it completely, while the latter would only use behavioural and psychological techniques to get the target off any suspicion.
For a vegan animal rights investigator like me, though, the implications of both methods of cover are enormous, and they have very heavy psychological consequences. If we are assigned to investigate animal exploiters who abuse animals with their routine activities (such as vivisectionists in animal experimentation labs, workers in slaughterhouses, or animal trainers in circuses), if you go with a deep cover you may have to become, temporarily, one of such abusers. You may be a vegan, but you may need to eat meat in front of others to keep your cover — I bet that you have never thought about that. And you may need to perform the tasks your “colleagues” do if you don’t want to blow your cover.
Even if you are a shallow cover investigator, you may need to witness animal suffering and not only control your emotions and not interfere (an important rule of undercover investigations is that your job is to obtain information and evidence without interfering), but you must appear relaxed and even happy — against all your natural instincts and emotions. Add to that the nervousness of the risk of being caught, and you have a very dangerous emotional cocktail that most people cannot handle.
The Investigator’s Guilt
One of my investigations I can talk about (because I already wrote about it in my book ”Ethical Vegan”) is what I did for the anti-bullfighting movement. While working as an employee of several anti-bullfighting organisations, I investigated the bullfighting industries in the nine bullfighting countries where they still existed in the early 2000s. Part of such investigations involved going to bullrings and bullfighting farms — as well as attending bullfights — under the cover of being a Spanish bullfighting aficionado. The objective was to get footage difficult to obtain and to learn about the most “secret” aspects of this cruel spectacle.
To be able to do my job properly, I had to control my emotions and react with happiness — and even jubilation — in front of unimaginable animal torture and death. As an example of what it was like, this is what I wrote in my book describing one case in which I had to witness a particular long agony of a bull called Limeño in Lima, Peru:
“I left the bullring with everything recorded — three days later we delivered 160 DVDs with the footage to all Peru’s Congresspeople — and I took a bus to my hotel, in the Lince district. On my way there through the traffic-clogged streets, I did what I always do. I mentally recited the names of each of the bulls, to honour their memory. Arquipeño, Sonambulo, Celoso, Castellano, Cuzqueño … and when it was Limeño’s turn I couldn’t contain my emotions anymore, and I started to cry. I spent the evening sobbing in my room, with a painful jaw. A jaw which had smiled against my will for several hours, to match the jaws of hundreds of blind people submerged in an orgy of violence. An orgy I had bought a ticket to attend.”
There is a feeling of guilt that never leaves the mind of an undercover investigator. It may come from different places, but it is mostly the result of not stopping the animal abuse you are witnessing. As your role is to report, not to interfere, you will always find yourself in situations where, had you not been an investigator, you might have acted and helped an animal in distress. Naturally, you compensate for this by telling yourself that the information you are trying to get may end up helping many more animals. That is true, but the fact that is true does not always help, because often your guilt is not built from thoughts and intellectual arguments, but from images, sounds, and smells. Sometimes, it cannot be erased by logic.
The guilt could also come from desensitisation. If you are exposed to animal suffering many times, you get desensitised after a while. You react less and you feel less. But for an ethical vegan, that makes you feel guilty as if you have somehow betrayed the victims for not feeling their pain anymore. You become afraid that you lost the empathy that allowed you to connect. The empathy that made you a vegan. This is one of the sources of guilt I have experienced more often, especially when I was investigating captive wild animals. I even wrote a novel about this guilt.
By pretending to be someone else who does not care, you often wonder if you have become “one of them”. If you have become an animal exploiter, who exploits animals differently but somehow still profits from such exploitation. You become very aware that there are many ways in which you may be helping the exploiters while keeping your cover (for instance, in my previous example, giving money to the bullfighting industry by paying the entrance ticket to a bullfight), and that bugs you. And when an investigation does not work because you do not get what you were after or are caught (I was caught once), it feels that it was all a waste and you failed everyone. There are many reasons to feel guilty when you are a professional undercover investigator — and that guilt accumulates with time.
Besides, deceiving others, even if they are not seen as “good people” and are involved in despicable acts, is nothing to be proud of. It’s not nice to have to lie to get to the truth. It does not make you feel good about yourself — and if it initially does, you feel guilty about it afterwards. You recognise that people are often the victims of the same carnist system that deceives them all — and oppress many. And you feel for them too, because you remember when you used to have similar attitudes before you became vegan. You know that just because you managed to “awake” and free yourself from carnist indoctrination, this does not make you a better person — just luckier.
Also, in deep cover operations, you can take your job so seriously that, after some time, if you are not careful, you could become your cover, and it is the role of the handler to find the early signs of that and pull you out before it happens. And when you do this job for a long time, it may be eroding your mind bit by bit, until it breaks it. Professional undercover investigators may end up having serious mental health problems (difficult to deal with if you are still covered by secrecy).
It Is All About the Truth
In the end, the business of investigators is finding the truth. The same truth that scientists seek. The same truth that judges look for. Who did what, where, when, and to whom, and what were the consequences of those actions. But investigators search for “secret” truth, so you need skills to take it out from the “dark” and expose it to the public “light” while dealing with people who do not want you to do that and will do everything in their power to stop you.
Recent advances in technology have made the job easier, though. You no longer get your skin burnt from the heat of the camera’s batteries concealed around your body, like in the old days. You are now less likely to be caught as you can record for longer with less detectable cameras, and you may get good enough quality footage in your first go.
However, it is more difficult to build a solid cover as you need to have a longer digital trace of it and potential targets have become more clever and secure. But these days, by using remote cameras that you can plant in a facility and leave there for days (or even drones), many investigators no longer require covers, as they operate via stealth surveyance instead. This involves completely different techniques. But for some assignments, the traditional undercover job may still produce the best results.
You need to have a particular type of character to do this job well, and I would not recommend it to anyone. Someone has to do it, but the fewer people who do it, the better. It is preferable to have just a few highly skilled professionals with the right equipment, experience, character, and emotional stamina doing it. Better than many vulnerable enthusiastic activists giving it a try because it sounds “glamorous” and exciting. It is intense and dramatic, but not in a good way. It is psychologically hard, emotionally draining, and physically risky. And if you are good at it, nobody will praise you for doing it, as they will not know it was you.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t regret any of the investigations I took part in. Through them, I managed to close down several of my targets. They were definitively worthwhile to do. And those investigators who are still out there taking great risks for the animals, especially the deep cover guys, have my utmost respect. But I hope I don’t have to do this job anymore.
Times have changed and I am in another place now. In the unfortunate post-truth era we live in, I feel that the truth needs to be spelled out more than ever, putting it up there more prominently and in a clearer format — otherwise, people don’t recognise it anymore. Exposing animal exploitation with evidence does not have the same effect as in the past. Many people don’t believe evidence anymore, no matter how strong it is. Using confirmation biases, they reinforce their fake realities with false news they find on the internet and in their echo chambers. True images are still powerful for some, and they do awake people, but if we do not return value to the truth, we will not get too far with them.
In this climate, lying is no longer something I want to do as a means to expose the truth. Lying to expose lies feels like reinforcing a vicious circle that urgently needs extinguishing, not fanning. Therefore, I think that, currently, my time is better spent promoting the vegan philosophy, exposing false news, fighting propaganda (even “plant-based” propaganda) and preventing conspiracy theories from contaminating the vegan movement. That’s why I am a writer now, and I try to write honestly about what is true.
An investigator in a world where the truth has no value is like a wild animal in a zoo — just a shadow. I want to live in a world with no violence and no lies. An honest world with no secrets. A peaceful world of truth.
The vegan world of our dreams.