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True grit

Undercover investigators confront the challenges of a life in the shadows

All Animals magazine, September/October 2017

by Julie Falconer

An HSUS undercover investigator's shadow is cast on the floor of a factory farm. Photo by The HSUS.

On paper, Amy Winter looks like a drifter: someone who moves from town to town, taking one menial job after another, never staying put in one place long.

Over the past five years, she’s worked at two industrial pig farms, two commercial dairies, a calf ranch, a tiger breeding facility, a horse training stable and three research laboratories. She’s visited nearly every pet store that sells puppies in New Jersey and puppy mills in North Carolina, Minnesota and Pennsylvania.

Her homes have been a series of budget motels on the outskirts of rural communities across the country. She’s a perpetual outsider, the new person in town with a carefully crafted back story and no plans for making long-term friends.

Only a few of her family members know that Winter’s real job is working as an undercover investigator for The HSUS. Her high school and college friends have 9-to-5 jobs and don’t understand why she’s gone for months on end, why she can’t pop home for holidays and why she’s not on Facebook. Few of her HSUS colleagues know her real name: Amy Winter is the pseudonym she uses to protect her cover.

For all the cases of mine, I felt I made some impact on the animals, which means the world to me.”- Amy Winter

It’s a lonely lifestyle, and a grueling one. A typical workday is a 10- or 12-hour shift followed by several hours in a motel room completing each day’s log, uploading video footage and checking in with her HSUS supervisor. On top of the physical exhaustion, there’s the perpetual fear of being caught and the witnessing of animal suffering.

Growing up, Winter considered herself an animal lover, but she had little exposure to animal protection issues. “I never thought much about it,” she admits. Fresh out of college, she saw an online ad seeking an animal cruelty investigator. It sounded interesting, like something she might try for six months or so while she figured out her next career steps.

“As I got used to the job, I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I can’t believe how much cruelty there is,’ ” she says. “I couldn’t believe it.”

Winter had never seen an undercover video before she applied for the job. Now she’s behind the camera, capturing realities that the rest of the world finds hard to watch.

Agents for change

The HSUS hired its first investigators (known as “field representatives” at the time) in 1956, not long after the organization’s founding. Six years later, then-executive director Fred Myers bemoaned the difficulty of finding the right people for these jobs. In a letter to another longtime animal advocate, he wrote: “I have almost reached the conclusion that it is impossible to get a really normal and stable man to take on one of these national field jobs. An ordinary man, with ordinary interests, simply won’t go for long absences from home and all that goes with it.”

But over the years, Myers and his successors were able to find men and women with the resilience, commitment and sheer guts to do this work. They took jobs at puppy mills and pet stores, slaughterhouses and factory farms, research labs, fur farms and roadside zoos. They infiltrated the worlds of cockfighting, dogfighting, greyhound racing and wildlife smuggling.

They made personal and professional sacrifices to win reforms and received little public recognition for their achievements: In press releases and news reports, they’re simply that shadowy figure identified as “an undercover investigator.”

Today, in the basement of The HSUS’s Maryland offices, there’s a locked storage room crammed floor to ceiling with metal file cabinets and cardboard boxes. Inside are fat binders of photographs and slides that bear testament to their work. The technology of the field has changed: Polaroids and grainy black-and-white photos have been replaced by videos captured by dime-size hidden cameras. But the driving principle of undercover investigations remains the same: To combat injustice, you first must expose it. And sometimes “the only way to know what really goes on is to get on the inside,” says Mary Beth Sweetland.

As HSUS senior director of investigations, Sweetland serves as a mentor to a cadre of HSUS investigators scattered across the country. Every day, she reviews their footage, photographs and notes. She talks with them by phone, giving advice and encouragement. But with all the moral support she provides, Sweetland doesn’t sugarcoat the challenges of this job.

An undercover investigator can spend a lot of lonely nights in a hotel room similar to this, with long periods away from friends and family and most time off the clock spent poring over notes and video footage. Photo by Tony Garcia/Getty Images.

Undercover work requires a lot more than collecting random pictures and videos of suffering animals. Investigators must meticulously gather evidence to establish a case that will withstand common defenses—such as claims that abuses captured on film were an aberration, that it was all due to a “few bad apples” among the workers, that managers or owners were unaware of the cruelty. They must win the trust of their coworkers in order to gain access to key areas, and all the while, they must be careful not to blow their cover.

“It’s a really nerve-wracking job,” Sweetland admits, “and I admire investigators who can stick with it and not want to give up after two to three weeks.”

Deep advocacy

Part of Sweetland’s job is choosing people with the fortitude to stick it out. When hiring new investigators, she first has applicants watch videos from past investigations. Then she asks some tough questions. “Do you mind getting your hands and feet covered in feces? Do you mind blood and guts?”

And she shares another reality: “This is not a career,” she tells each candidate. “It is a job that you will have for at the most a couple of years. You just can’t consider it a career. You’ll either be outed by the industry, or you will get good and sick and tired of watching animals suffer while you videotape it.”

Most investigators are in their 20s or 30s—capable of hard physical labor, able to blend in with their coworkers and free of commitments that would make constant travel impossible. Beyond that, Sweetland looks for people who listen more than they talk, are confident but not cocky, cautious but not timid.

Animal-handling skills are a big plus, because an investigator may need to carry 100-pound calves from one pen to another, as Winter has done, or avoid getting kicked while working with horses who are afraid and in pain. Winter has done that, too, while working as a stable hand at a training barn for Tennessee walking horses. To document the illegal practice of soring—in which caustic substances are applied to horses’ hooves and legs to cause pain that triggers an artificial high-stepping gait—she secretly collected pieces of the leg-wrappings for laboratory analysis.

Empathy for animals is also key, but it must be balanced with a hefty dose of pragmatism. “You don’t take this job to rescue animals,” says Whitney Warrington, a former undercover investigator who now helps manage HSUS investigations. “You just can’t, because sometimes you don’t get to save the animals at all. As much as you want to step in, or you want to grab that piglet and shove him under your coat and run, you can’t do it.”

It’s an eye-on-the-prize situation, working with the belief that your findings will help win better treatment for animals in the future. But this can be hard to accept when you’re on a job and surrounded by animals for whom any reform will likely come too late. “Be prepared to send your emotions on a roller coaster ride,” Winter warns new investigators, “because you’re going to be on one.”

  • Undercover investigators have helped win state bans on gestation crates. Photo by The HSUS.

Investigators often struggle with feelings of guilt—not only for the animals they couldn’t save, but for the friends and family members they’ve lost touch with and even the coworkers they befriended on assignments.

Warrington still thinks about a woman she met five years ago during her first undercover investigation at a Wyoming hog factory farm. She was the coworker who was nicest to her, the one who told other people she was cool. She seemed to care about the animals and yelled at people who were especially cruel. But on a bad day, when the frustration of the job got to be too much, the same woman picked up a piglet and threw the animal across the room, where he hit his head on a metal feeder. When the woman and eight other coworkers were prosecuted for animal cruelty, Warrington testified in court against her.

“You just don’t get to contact those people and say, ‘I was just doing my job, and I thought you were one of the better people,’ ” she says. “If you start thinking about it, it really starts to tear you up inside.”

Bittersweet victories

What keeps investigators going is the knowledge that any case can have a huge impact—in the form of laws passed, abusers prosecuted, a public outraged, even businesses shut down.

But clear-cut victories aren’t guaranteed. Sometimes local prosecutors refuse to pursue charges, while government agencies drag their heels on taking any action. Reforms are often incremental and can take years to be implemented. Lawsuits and countersuits and gag orders can stall an investigation from becoming public. Every year can bring a mix of galvanizing successes and heartbreaking disappointments.

No matter the outcome of a case, Winter finds consolation in the ways she was able to improve the animals’ lives—even if it was just making sure they had fresh water or gentle pats on the head. “For all the cases of mine,” she says, “I felt I made some impact on the animals, which means the world to me.”

Images and video footage of the cruel treatment and eventual deaths of Shy Guy, below, and other dogs at Georgia Regents University (now Augusta University) led to a public outcry. Photo by Sara Caldwell/The Augusta Chronicle.

of those animals was a hound mix she called Shy Guy. In 2013, he and five other dogs were being used in painful and unnecessary dental implant experiments at a research laboratory at Georgia Regents University (now called Augusta University). By the time Winter was hired as an animal caretaker at the lab, the dogs had their teeth removed and the implants inserted into their jaws. They lived in barren chain-link kennels with grated floors, without bedding or toys and no time outside their cages. A painfully thin lemon-and-white dog, Shy Guy cowered in the back of his kennel. Every day, Winter would sit inside his kennel, talk to him in a soft voice and encourage him to eat.

It’s not something she’d be able to do in every job. In some environments, too much concern for the animals can raise suspicions. “You really have to analyze the people you’re with,” says Winter. In this case, she won the trust of the lab’s head veterinary technician and eventually got permission to give the dogs surgical sheets for bedding and to take them out of their cages for short periods every day so they could run down a small hallway.

  • Shy Guy. Photo by The HSUS.

During her last week in the job, she watched as Shy Guy and the other dogs she’d come to love were euthanized, their blood was drained, and their jawbones were removed before their bodies were wrapped in trash bags.

Winter videotaped it all. “It was really hard not to cry,” she says. “I went back to my hotel room and bawled my eyes out.”

After her footage was released to the public, crowds protested outside the university. “People dropped out of the university because of that,” she says. The university eventually cut ties with the dealer who sold them the dogs, and the dental experiments ended.

Winter counts this case among her biggest achievements, but she still thinks about Shy Guy and the other dogs nearly every day and looks at the photos of them she kept on her phone.

A life of service

No matter how committed they are to the cause, most investigators will quit after two or three years. “That’s all they can handle,” says Sweetland, “and who can blame them?”

But those few years can be life-altering, as Cody Carlson, a former undercover investigator for Mercy For Animals and The HSUS, can attest.

Carlson never envisioned himself working in the animal protection field. In college, he planned to be a journalist. After graduate school, he took a job with an intelligence firm. “I was on track for the corporate lifestyle,” he says. “I had a really promising job, and I [was in] a good relationship.” Still, he couldn’t escape the feeling that he needed to do something more meaningful. When he first started working undercover in 2008, it felt like an adventure: “You’re a spy for the good guys,” he says.

  • Images of extreme cruelty at slaughter facilities led to a ban on downer cows being killed for human consumption. Photo by The HSUS.

It taught me that you really can make a difference as one person.” - Cody Carlson, former undercover investigator

But it was never easy and never glamorous. He saw miserable dogs trapped in filthy cages in puppy mills, birds slowly dying in the manure pits at industrial egg factories, calves freezing to death outside veal slaughter plants, and breeding pigs “going slowly crazy” in gestation crates.

During one of his last undercover jobs for The HSUS, he was part of the “depopulation crew” at an egg factory farm in Iowa, tasked with removing older hens from their cages and sending them to slaughter. He developed a repetitive stress injury. A muscle popped out on his wrist, and he could barely move his hand. He’d lost weight and was having recurring nightmares. “I started to feel that if I did [undercover work] much longer, the toll it would have taken on me would have been too great,” he says.

By the time he quit, he no longer had a girlfriend, and after everything he’d seen, he knew he couldn’t go back to corporate life. He decided to help animals in a different way and applied to law school.

Today, Carlson is an attorney for Mercy For Animals, and the nightmares that once plagued him are gone. He looks back on his time as an investigator as both the most difficult period of his life and the most important work he’ll ever do.

“It taught me that you really can make a difference as one person,” he says. “It gave me the confidence to pursue activism in general. It’s a really rewarding way to live your life, in service to animals.”

Out of the shadows

In June, Winter embarks on a new assignment, working at a pet shop in New York City. She cleans cages, waits on customers and secretly documents the sale of sick puppies from Midwest breeding mills.

She’s 26 now and has outlasted the typical career span of an undercover investigator. Her parents have long been urging her to get a “normal job,” one where they won’t have to worry about her safety or go months without seeing her. Not long ago, Winter herself decided it was time to move on: The pet store will be her last investigation.

Later this year, she will enter the police academy, training to become an animal protection officer. “I’ll be thrilled being able to hold people accountable,” she says.

  • Amy Winter helped expose the cruel treatment of Tennessee walking horses during her time undercover.

She’s also looking forward to a regular work schedule, to coming home each night to her own place, to being able to tell people who she really is. “I keep saying I’m not going to know how to live a normal life, to not have to worry about someone following me home, or lying about my life.”

Even with that sense of relief, though, the decision to leave undercover work wasn’t easy. “It’s always going to be on the back of my mind,” she says. “I constantly think of all the cases I’ve done and all the animals who’ve impacted my life.” So while she’s excited about the future and the prospect of helping animals in a new way, right now she’s focused on this last investigation. “A lot of very sick puppies are being sold,” she says. “I think a lot of people are going to be shocked.” At least she hopes that’s the reaction when her video footage is made public. She also hopes the evidence she collects is enough to shut down the business. Nearly every day, Winter overhears customers asking whether the dogs came from puppy mills and staff members giving the standard response: “Absolutely not.” It’s a regular reminder that undercover work is a vital step toward changing the status quo. “The public will not know any different if you don’t show them what’s happening behind these closed doors,” she says. “I had no clue about any of this when I first applied. The world needs to know that this is happening.”

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