A rooster's crow at the crack of dawn; a bright red barn resting on a green open pasture; a cow enjoying the shade of a large apple tree as she breaks from grazing: Such farm imagery is now a visual from an extinct past. Today, over 99 percent of farm animals in the US are raised in factory farms where animal welfare is neglected in exchange for efficiency, according to the ASPCA. But many Americans, who consume the second most meat in the world, have no idea where their food comes from, and, more strikingly, what happens in the factory farms where it's produced.
Lisa* has dedicated her life to changing that. She is an undercover animal farm investigator for Mercy for Animals (MFA), a non-profit organization that works to prevent cruelty to farmed animals and to promote humane policy. Her job involves traveling the country and applying for work in factory farms. Once hired, she lives in whichever rural town or bustling city houses her new employer, staying in motels or otherwise inexpensive housing for weeks at a time all the while keeping her true identity concealed. At work, she carries a hidden camera used to record her environment and document rampant animal abuse. After grueling hours of often very physical work, Lisa writes down notes from her day, saves her video footage, and prepares for another day working alongside the cruelty she has dedicated her life to stopping.
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Lisa hasn't gone a day on the job without witnessing some form of animal abuse, she says. One of the most horrifying, and surprisingly common, practices is "thumping" piglets. "It basically means just slamming them into the concrete head first. It's death by blunt, forced trauma," she explains. The killing method is used on runts and injured or ill piglets.
Some of the absolute worst abuse Lisa has witnessed occurred on a dairy farm: While cows were attached to metal milking machines, she explains, they would often become frustrated and attempt to kick the machines off of their udders. The workers would then react by yanking the cows' tails, often using their entire body weight, she says. When that didn't work, "they would take these metal machines and just beat the cows with them."
"They were completely defenseless," she says.
Because showing the slightest bit of compassion towards the animals could blow her cover, Lisa has had to master the art of keeping a completely neutral face. "I have to compartmentalize my feelings and emotions until I'm in a place where it's safe to actually feel them and let them out," she explains.
As a female you're automatically viewed as being weaker than your male coworkers.
Beyond her facial expressions, there are other factors that Lisa is hyper-aware of on the job, her gender among them. According to her, being a female investigator comes with both benefits and disadvantages. When Lisa was once asked to participate in thumping piglets, for example, she was able to use sexist stereotypes to her advantage. "As a female you're automatically viewed as being weaker than your male coworkers. It's more acceptable for you to be a little more squeamish or to act a little grossed out by some things," she says.
But this doesn't always work in her favor: Being barred from doing certain jobs means that she can't document the entirety of the abuse that takes place in factory farm settings. There's also the issue of sexual harassment in a male-dominated field, and the fact that her gender often acts as a barrier to landing a job. "It's much more difficult to get hired in the first place at factory farms and slaughterhouses being a female because the work is just so physically demanding and also just plain disgusting that people are suspicious of why a woman… would want to work in such a place," she says.
Advocates from Mercy for Animals emphasize that the rampant abuse in factory farming is a systemic, industry-wide issue. According to MFA president Nathan Runkle, people who watch graphic documentation of animal cruelty tend to blame the farm workers, which he sees as entirely wrongheaded. At a presentation at NYU's journalism school, he said that the blame lays squarely with a system that not only allows but actively promotes such cruelty in the name of efficiency. And factory farms exploit and egregiously mistreat their employees: According to the Food Empowerment Project, many factory farm workers are migrant workers from Central and Latin America. Many of them are estimated to be undocumented, though no accurate count exists. "Employers find undocumented workers to be ideal recruits because they are less likely to complain about low wages and hazardous working conditions," says the organization.
It's clear how conditions inside factory farms affect animals and farm workers, and Lisa argues that their profit-above-all policies put consumers at harm as well. While working in a chicken slaughterhouse where she was tasked with inspecting carcasses for impurities such as fecal matter or feathers, Lisa was directly told not to document fecal matter found at a specific checkpoint—one of the last, she adds, before the chickens were packaged for shipment.
Mercy for Animals isn't merely documenting the horrors of the agricultural industry: They're also working to introduce legislation that requires farm factories to ditch specific torturous methods for more humane options. Last year, in a historical win, they succeeded in targeting Wal-mart, who finally agreed that they would refuse to source from factory farms that use gestation crates and other restrictive cages to confine animals. Lisa considers these wins the most rewarding part of the job.
She won't sugarcoat her work, but her cause keeps her coming back. "It gets to the point where I feel like I couldn't possibly go into work another day," says Lisa. "That's when I turn around and think about the animals, and they give me the courage and the strength to persevere."
* Name has been changed