The Business of Being Undercover
Animal abusers are not always willingly open about their treatment of animals. However, as an undercover investigator you can infiltrate their operations and document what they do to bring their activity into the open for public criticism (see Time Magazine article in Links, below). Evidence gained from undercover work supplies animal advocate organisations with broadsides they fire at animal abusers. It is on the strength of good documentation that pro-animal campaigns are born and won.
An example of an undercover investigation is the case of the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection (BUAV), mentioned in Chapter 4: Animal Lawyer. The British Government had granted licences to Cambridge University to experiment on marmoset monkeys and BUAV took the Government to court. BUAV's evidence was based on a ten month undercover investigation of the suffering of the monkeys at the university's animal house. In the ensuing litigation the judge ruled that, considering the monkeys' suffering, the Home Secretary had acted unlawfully in authorising the licences for the university's experiments.
A well known case of undercover work involved the Institute for Biological Research at Silver Spring, Maryland, in the early 1980's. Alex Pacheco (co-founder of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) took a voluntary vacation job at the institute and witnessed abuses on macaque monkeys that violated US animal cruelty laws. He called in the police and the experiments were stopped, resulting in the first impoundment of animals from a US laboratory. The issue went to the US Supreme Court and the news media dubbed it the case of the 'Silver Spring Monkeys'. The laboratory director was the first experimenter in US legal history convicted of animal cruelty and the case contributed to changes in the law for animals. Although Pacheco's role was fortuitous, stumbling upon a corrupt practice rather than undertaking a deliberate pre-planned undercover investigation, the elements are the same: recognising what is going on and acquiring evidence for litigation.
One of the most horrendous exposures by investigators is what is still happening at Chinese fur farms, where foxes, mink, rabbits and other animals are abused and often skinned alive (1). Skinned animals are thrown onto piles, some animals apparently still alive. In this case video documentation was carried out openly with the permission of the fur farmers, but it demonstrates that investigators must observe appalling atrocities and still carry on with their work, outwardly unmoved and apparently willing to go along with whatever they witness.
Ups & Downs
Being a spy sounds glamorous; indeed it often is - in fiction novels. The reality is usually just a jot of excitement with long hours of labour. And your jot of excitement comes at a price:
- You will be forced to witness cruelties, unable to do anything about them, and will have to cope with it emotionally.
- You will work with the people you investigate, but as a secret investigator you are fundamentally alone. You cannot confide in anyone about your undercover work (except perhaps to a 'case officer', see the next point).
- You might do your undercover work through an animal advocacy organisation. If so, you may have a 'case officer' who debriefs you at the end of the day to analyse and collate information and you may have to write reports and make plans for the following day. Even if you are freelancing you will still have to do all this by yourself. Thus you will work evenings in addition to your daytime work.
- You may have to travel anywhere in the country or abroad to carry out your investigations. Not all investigations are around the corner. Therefore you may be away from home for weeks or months and this could disrupt your home and social life.
However, in the long-term you know that what you are doing will help animals and the animal rights cause and that you will not be undercover for ever. These thoughts may be your only sustenance. There is, however, a more tangible upside to undercover work: you may be paid twice over! You should be paid by the people you infiltrate (assuming you are infiltrating a company employing you to work for them) and by the animal advocate agency engaging you as an undercover investigator (unless you do it for free).
What It Takes
What are the several qualities and skills you should have as an undercover agent?
Setting-Up as an Undercover Agent
- You must be committed and need stamina, determination and persistence to succeed because you must stick with your plan of operation from beginning to end.
- You must be able to pay attention to detail, make your own decisions, and sometimes act fast under pressure to get the evidence.
- You should be informed about animal rights and welfare issues and knowledgeable about relevant animal protection law so that you know what to look for.
- You should be able to keep a secret and not tell strangers, friends or family (except perhaps your partner) that you are an undercover agent. You must be able to live in two worlds. You do not want your cover 'blown'.
- You must be able to work long hours and handle two jobs at once: your day job where the animals are abused and your debriefing at night.
- You must be emotionally stable and able to work with other people. You will see animals suffer yet you will have to masquerade as an unaffected rock, getting along with everyone whatever happens.
- You should be proficient at documenting what you are investigating, whether handling gadgets (see Surveillance Systems, below) or making accurate notes of your observations on paper for people to read.
- You cannot let yourself get paranoid: go about thinking that you are being watched and that you will be found out. If you are the sort who stays cool and rational the tighter the situation gets, then maybe you have the makings of an undercover agent.
How do you set up as an undercover investigator? There are two ways. Now and then a few organisations advertise employment for undercover agents. One such organisation is People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals; they train you, but you have to have the right background for them.
The other way is to do it yourself. Infiltrate your target in some way. You might get a well-placed job at your target and thus some sort of access to the information you want. Or you might find a sympathetic employee at your target as your inside agent who will act for you (you become their case officer). When you are well placed to get the documentary evidence or once you have it, present yourself to animal advocacy organisations and really sell yourself to them. Build up a reputation as a reliable, willing and able agent and you may get contracts.
Two useful digital surveillance systems are miniature pinhole and button cameras. They are called systems because they are self-contained but are made up of a mixture of different units, basically a camera, a microphone, a recorder, a transmitter and batteries. Wear them secretly on your body, hide them in a bag you carry or conceal them in a room. Properly installed they are difficult for the opposition to find because you can disguise them in various ways and anyway your opponents will not be suspecting you.
- A Pinhole Camera
- This is a simple to use camera, smaller than a cigarette packet. You can wear it or plant it somewhere, such as inside a motor vehicle. You can carry it in a briefcase or a lady's handbag and operate it by remote control when you place the bag unattended at a suitable position. The system offers good picture and sound quality and records continuously for a number of hours. Among the camera's features is a motion sensor that stops the camera recording when there is no action, saving battery power. Just connect the system to a monitor or TV to play back your recordings. The camera will also operate from mains electricity.
- A Button Camera
- This camera stays out of sight, literally concealed behind a button. Sew the button onto your jacket. There are different colours and sizes of button for the fussy dresser. Connect the camera to a separate body-worn microphone and battery and to a miniature digital video recorder. Record in colour and store hours of quality audio/video. For playback, plug into a monitor or TV. Like the pinhole camera above, this system will also operate from mains electricity. An advantage of this system is that you do not feel you look suspicious by carrying a bag that conceals a camera.
For every measure there is a counter measure. Might counter surveillance operatives be about? Might they detect your surveillance equipment? A counter surveillance operative sweeping a handheld metal detector over your body will spot any metal you are wearing or concealing in a bag. Furthermore, some camera components emit a weak electronic signal that counter surveillance detectors may pick up. Detectors are small enough to fit into the palm of the hand and anyone can use them without technical knowledge. Just switch on a detector, fiddle a knob or two, and if it blinks it has found a nearby 'bug', a surveillance system. To go undetected you may want to use the latest model surveillance system and test it against existing bug detectors. However, if no one suspects you are carrying surveillance equipment, then you may have nothing to worry about - the opposition's defences, if any, will be down!
Tracks Investigations. Undercover investigations.
Undercover Animal-Rights Investigator, by Kate Pickert. Times Magazine. March 2009.
(1) Hsieh-Yi; Yi-Chiao; Yu Fu; Maas B & Rissi, Mark. Dying for fur. A Report on the Fur Industry in China. EAST International/Swiss Animal Protection SAP. 2005.
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