… 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…
Undercover investigators confront the challenges of a life in the shadows
by Julie Falconer, All Animals magazine, September/October 2017
The Humane Society of the United States - August 10, 2017
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.
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.”
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