This article was originally published as part of a content partnership between VICE Italy and the Italian animal rights organisation Essere Animali, of which writers Maria Mancuso and Martina Scalini are members.
Warning: the following images and accounts may be upsetting to some readers.
It’s not just spies or police investigators who go undercover – for years, animal rights organisations have been sending people into industrial meat plants across the world to try to catch a glimpse of what happens before the animals end up on our tables.
Esseri Animali is one such organisation, an NGO monitoring the meat and fish industries in Italy and its neighbouring countries, fighting to shut down operations that commit violations. Their members assume false identities and work in slaughterhouses and livestock farms, trying to collect images and documents and shed a light on the realities of what happens behind those closed walls.
We asked four activists about what they’ve seen during their undercover work, and the challenges they came across.
Marco*, 28, worked on several pig farms
One of the farms has since shut down following a legal battle with Essere Animali.
VICE: Hey Marco. You started this sort of work when you were very young. What attracted you to it?
Marco: The misleading images in advertising. One evening, I was watching videos on YouTube and I came across some animal rights investigations. Before then, I knew nothing about the topic. I immediately decided to go vegan, and got in touch with Essere Animali. I wanted to make myself useful.
What’s your worst memory from your time undercover?
One Saturday, my colleagues had to kill a sow because she was ill and no longer able to give birth. But the person usually responsible for shooting the animals wasn’t there.
One of my colleagues decided to kill her with whatever was available – a club. The pig screamed and looked at us while he was hitting her. It took another 30 minutes for her to die. My colleague said that I didn’t have to stay, but I was there to get evidence, so I did. If I hadn’t, it would’ve all been for nothing. It was thanks to those images that that pig farm was shut down.
Do you have any regrets?
Yes, in hindsight I do regret one incident. At one particular farm, I was asked by my employer to castrate a pig, although I’d only been working there for six days and had no preparation. At that time, I couldn’t back out. In theory, you need a specialist to do [the procedure], but in the places where I’ve been undercover, it was often carried out by pretty much whoever was on hand.
I had cold sweats, minutes felt like hours. The pig’s screams penetrated my ears even through my noise-cancelling headphones. In the days that followed, I secretly went to see how he was doing. I tried to feed him because he was getting sick. He died not long after. I suffered a lot over that little one – I even dreamt about him once.
Ambra*, 36, worked undercover in an industrial chicken hatchery
VICE: Hi Ambra. What’s the worst thing you’ve seen at the hatchery?
Ambra: The hardest parts are the things you constantly see, rather than individual events. I’ll never forget the smells, the factory noises, the suffering of day-old chicks that are instantly chopped up alive if they’re ill or injured. I had to touch them, throw them, process them as a product while pretending I didn’t care.
What is the working environment like in these places?
For most people, this kind of work is a last resort. I met a lot of nice people there who would say, “You’re Italian, what are you doing here?” [Italian meat plants mostly employ foreign workers.] The employees I worked with were almost exclusively women, often working more than ten hours a day.
We were under a lot of pressure. We couldn’t step out of line or fall behind. The conveyor belts were overflowing with chicks, some falling off, others getting stuck and suffocating. In just one minute, around 100 chicks were processed and vaccinated.
Andrea*, 42, worked undercover in fish farms in Greece
VICE: Hey Andrea. Why did you start collaborating with undercover investigations?
Andrea: I’ve been an animal rights activist for 20 years. I’ve been in protests and behind picket lines. Inspired by what was happening abroad, I decided to map intensive farms near my place and infiltrate them. The next step was doing that through an organisation. I was one of the first in Italy to do that.
Tell me about an incident that stood out to you.
When I was in Greece, I saw underwater cages filled with fish, some of which were as large as 2kg and had been there for six years. It’s a long time, especially if you consider that they’re swimming around in narrow, dirty nets, bumping into each other and eating what looks like cat food. Below Igoumenitsa, near the Albanian border, there’s a 20km-long stretch of coast full of cages. Most of that fish is exported to Italy.
Were you scared of being found out during that investigation?
Compared to the other parts of the animal farming industry, fish farm operators are less suspicious, because very few people question the suffering of fish. We generally don’t mind seeing them get slaughtered. Plus, investigations in fish farms are much rarer [than in the meat industry]. No one expected they’d be filmed at work.
Davide*, 30, infiltrated a number of sheep slaughterhouses in Sardinia
VICE: Hey Davide. How did you prepare for your first investigation?
Davide: I went through technical training, which involved analysing case studies of previous investigations and making a list of all the things that might happen while undercover. I also watched a lot of [graphic] videos to get ready for what I’d see inside these places. It was shocking, but I had psychological support throughout.
Were you ever scared of being caught?
The fear is always there, but I learnt from my mistakes. Once, I was filming lambs being killed with some hidden-camera glasses, when the vet came in. He looked like a smart one, and I thought, ‘This guy is gonna fuck me up.’ The vet started whispering to the manager and looking at me.
A while later, I was called into my manager’s office and asked for my documents. I gave her my driving licence, but then I made a scene and left, taking my spy glasses with me. When I got into my car, I realised that I didn’t have my licence. I went back to get it, but the manager wouldn’t return it unless I handed over the footage. I did, since I’d filmed everything on another separate hidden camera anyway.
What’s the worst thing that can happen when you work undercover?
The footage not coming out right. You go home after your shift, you’re tired because you haven’t slept in days, stressed about what you’ve seen, then you look at the film and realise your time and efforts were for nothing because the footage is unusable.
*Names changed to protect the identity of the investigators.