One of the most powerful tools animal-rights activists have is the video footage shot inside places like poorly run dog kennels, animal-testing facilities and factory farms, used as grim evidence of the brutality that can take place. But how do animal-rights crusaders actually get those videos? Through people like "Pete," a 20-something undercover animal-rights investigator who, armed with a hidden camera, surreptitiously got a job in 2006 at an Ohio hog farm. The resulting footage captured with the help of a group called the Humane Farming Association and eventual courtroom drama that followed are featured in the HBO documentary Death on a Factory Farm, airing March 16. "Pete" refuses to reveal his real identity, saying only that he has legally changed his name twice so he can continue to get hired by unknowing slaughterhouses, farms and other facilities suspected of animal abuse. TIME talked to "Pete" about his undercover work, what it does to his personal life and the lengths he's gone to keep his cover intact. (See the top 10 animal stories of 2008.)
How did you get into this line of work?
My initial plan in life was to become a cop and then join the FBI. But I started to learn that the worst things I've ever read about human beings doing to each other similar if not identical things happen to animals on a mass scale. I felt that there were enough people in law enforcement but there weren't enough people working in animal rights. In 2001 a private investigator trained me, and my first job on my own was working at a dog kennel in Arkansas.
How old are you?
I can't say. Sorry.
Do you do this full-time?
I do this on a contract basis.
How has doing this job shaped the kind of person you are?
This job has completely redefined who I am and has completely changed my outlook on the world. It's a very depressing life and it's a very lonely life. Most of the time, I'm pretending to be somebody that I'm not. Most of my social interactions are under the pretext that I'm a different person and that I'm trying to hide a certain part of myself.
What kind of toll does that take on your mental health?
You're moving constantly and assuming other identities. At the end of the day, you're not really left with very much. It is very difficult to manage that type of lifestyle.
I've done things that I'm not proud of things that I don't want to have to admit, even in my field notes when I type them up at the end of the day. But there needs to be payback for the animals. Either way, as much as it sucks, I just feel like I have to keep going. But any dreams about who I was going to be before I took this job are gone.
Do you find it hard to have close personal relationships with people because of your job? Are you in a relationship?
I'm not in a relationship. That's not to say that I don't want to be. But I am a professional liar. That's what undercover work is. I'll meet someone, and I'll say I have a job I don't talk about. And all of a sudden I'm a really weird guy. The result is that I don't have much of a personal life.
Are there times when you have to abuse animals in order to fit in with the people you're working with?
Constantly. There are certain organizations that have guidelines investigators have to follow. But for me, if a supervisor tells me to do something, I'm trying to show that facility has a protocol that they follow that may or may not be against the law. As an undercover investigator, you don't alter anything or plant anything. You show things exactly as they are. (Read a Q&A with the head of the Humane Society about factory farming.)
Are you vegetarian?
I'm vegan. Oh, yeah.
Do you ever have sympathy for the people you're working with?
All the time. The vast majority of people I work with are very polite, very considerate people. They just have absolutely no respect for animals. But I blame the companies that own these facilities, not the workers themselves.
Are there any conditions under which you would think it's O.K. to raise animals for food?
I do not believe animals are here for us to exploit, and I do not believe that under any circumstances we should raise animals for food. That said, I am very happy Proposition 2 passed in California and that it will phase out extreme confinement of animals, including battery cages for hens.
What's more effective for the animal-rights movement the public seeing the footage you take or legal action?
Changing the laws would probably be what I would prefer. If you have the law being changed, it validates what the animal-rights movement is about. It also validates these investigations. We're suddenly not a bunch of unlicensed investigators running around for our own sake.
I'm an unlicensed investigator. That's how I'm able to get away with doing what I do.
What's the worst thing you've ever seen in your career?
On an egg farm, it's very, very normal to see live hens thrown in the trash. If you spin them around to break their necks like they tell you to, that doesn't always cause cervical dislocation. So they just kind of throw them away live in the trash. You'll always come across birds that are barely breathing, missing all their feathers, all bloody in the trash. You never get completely desensitized to that.
Have you ever walked away from an assignment because it's just too hard to be there?