Interview of Kerry McElroy’s Interview Series “A Light in the Mineshaft: An Interview Series With Society’s Traumaworkers”
Erik Hastings is a devoted animal advocate and vegan. He was formerly a hunter and fisherman with a background in law enforcement. Erik has spent the past eight years fighting for the rights of farmed animals while working at Mercy For Animals. A resident of the Pacific Northwest in the United States, Erik spends his free time hiking, gaming, and volunteering with various animal rescue groups.
Kerry McElroy is a Contributing Editor to Narrative Paths Journal. She is a feminist cultural historian and writer holding a doctorate in Humanities from Concordia University, Montréal. Her thesis entitled Class Acts: A Socio-Cultural History of Women, Labour, and Migration in Hollywood, focused on women in performance systems. She has published articles on cinema, women, history, culture, and politics in Irish America, The Independent, and Montréal Serai, among other magazines. She holds master’s degrees from Columbia and Carnegie Mellon Universities.
KLM: So today I’m speaking with Erik Hastings, who is investigations field manager with Mercy for Animals. Which, by the way, is international, right? Not just an American organization?
EH: Yes, international. My work is US-centric, though.
Mercy For Animals operates in the United States, Mexico and other Latin American countries, Brazil, and is expanding into India and Southeast Asia.
KLM: That’s a whole subject on its own, I think. The international branches.
Maybe I’ll start with you, though. If you can say a little bit about your work, and your role.
And I’m especially interested to talk about your trajectory, and how you got there? I definitely want to hear how you came to this work because it’s very interesting. But also in the present, what the work actually entails.
EH: Right. So my current role at Mercy for Animals is that I’m the senior investigation specialist for the United States. My current roles include interviewing, hiring, and training all of the new investigators for the United States, as well as being their point of contact daily while they’re doing investigations. So that’s my current role.
Being the senior investigation specialist, I also coordinate with other countries, the investigation specialists for those countries– assisting with any questions that they might have regarding investigations.
KLM: And then also– you used to work in the field yourself. So now you’ve experienced bringing in new people, finding out what motivates them to get involved with this work. But first you’ve also done the work yourself, so I think we’ll talk about that a bit more.
Can you say something about your own biography? And how you came to do this work?
EH: Yeah. So when I was twenty-one, I became a police officer. And I wasn’t vegan. I actually was a hunter! I did a little bit of fishing as well. And kind of had this transition where I realized the sentience of animals. And didn’t really want to be a part of the killing of them anymore! So decided overnight that I was going to become vegan, and did.
And at the same time I was transitioning out of law enforcement. And wanted to look at the skill sets that I had developed, and learned and been trained in as a police officer– using those in a way almost kind of a little bit to make amends, I guess? For… I guess guilt that I felt.
Now I was a vegan looking back at my former life. Of not only being someone who ate meat, but also someone who actually was hunting, and had killed animals to eat them.
And wanting to try to atone for that, I guess. And looking at those skill sets that I had, knowing that I could do the work inside of a farm. I’d been hunting. I’d processed animals before. I knew that I could be in that environment, and still function.
And then I also knew as a police officer that I could do an investigation, in these settings—factory farms, slaughterhouses. And as a vegan… it was my duty! Like: I have to do this work, because I know I’m capable of doing it. So, I have to do it.
I’d heard of PETA, but other than knowing the name, I didn’t really know anything about the animal rights organizations. So I started doing some research, and I came across Mercy for Animals. It had an advertisement for an undercover investigator position. And, you know– that’s a job I just have to do! So I applied and started working as an undercover investigator in 2014.
KLM: Wow. I’m curious. Sometimes I find in life– remember I said to you in our pre-interview that I’m someone who’s also lived a lot of different chapters and done some different things, such that people often say: wow, that’s really interesting! But I think your trajectory is very interesting.
And sometimes we’re making these transitions, but we don’t realize that they’re lining up until they’re over and we look back in our rearview mirror. Right?
So my question with that is, in other words: did having an awakening towards animals and becoming a vegan connect with not wanting to be part of law enforcement? In terms of that being a kind of culture of violence? Or did you not make that connection at that time? Or do you not make it even now?
EH: Yeah, I don’t think—well, I definitely didn’t make it then. I got into law enforcement when I was twenty-one years old. And kind of because it seemed like a fun, exciting career.
And then once I’d been in it for a while, I kind of realized that it wasn’t this picture of playing cops and robbers. Definitely there’s excitement. I chose always to work the graveyard shift, because that was when you had the most drunk drivers, the most kind of unusual things that were happening. But it wasn’t what I had originally imagined.
And it just didn’t feel… you know, you have a badge and a gun. And your job is to protect people! And if your heart isn’t 100% behind that job, then you probably shouldn’t be doing it.
KLM: Very true.
EH: So, it’s not a bad job. And I liked helping people. But I just wasn’t 100% behind it. And so, let somebody else do it. So that was the path.
KLM: Okay, I see. So even in retrospect, these two shifts were actually separate.
EH: Well, yes. I’d done that, the transition with my career. And then was the transition from being a hunter and a meat-eater into being a vegan. Like I said, it was almost overnight I decided to be vegan.
But there was still this little transition phase, where I had a hunting dog. That I used for– I had hunted ducks. So I had got this duck hunting dog to be my partner hunting. And it was the first dog that I had that was more than just a pet that lived outside, that you fed. That when you went outside to have a picnic in the backyard or something, you interacted with it. Growing up, that was the extent of a pet that I had.
But now this hunting dog lived inside with me. You know, slept in the bedroom, sometimes would climb up on the bed. I was okay with that. Now I’m okay with her being on the couch!
KLM: A lifestyle change.
EH: Really just experiencing an animal be part of a family unit. And seeing it as an individual rather than just– it’s a pet outside that you feed. That really started the process for me of seeing animals as individual beings with their own desires. You know– they want to live and they want to be happy and they have friends and family.
And I had a friend that was vegetarian who had asked why I hunted. And I’d probably been asked that before in my life! And I don’t know if I was really in a space that I could really answer that truthfully.
You know, you hear a lot of reasons when people ask that. “Tradition”.
KLM: Yeah. And “culture”!
EH: Yeah. But when you really start to break those down, they really have nothing. They don’t carry any power to them.
Because today we have a grocery store. If you’re talking about the tradition and the need originally to hunt– it was because you had to. In order to have enough food to survive.
But now we have grocery stores. You don’t need to hunt. And it all boiled down to the fact that hunting really is like this selfish… I just want to do it because it’s fun.
And so I’d decided that I wasn’t going to eat meat that I purchased from the grocery store, or from a restaurant, anymore. The only animal products that I was going to eat were from animals that I had hunted and killed myself. I felt that, or tried to tell myself, that I would be okay with that. Because I had taken responsibility for ending the animal’s life.
It was as I was leaving law enforcement, I was trying to do that. Eat only animals that I was hunting.
But now that I’ve recognized that animals have this desire to live– well, that’s in direct contradiction. And after that– really fast I became vegan. So, that was kind of the transition to becoming vegan.
So they happened somewhat in tandem, but becoming vegan happened after I left law enforcement. And then I took a little moment like: okay, what do I want to do?
KLM: Okay! There’s two big spheres I want to talk about.
So first, kind of an overarching question to the whole interview. About your own awakening, about the people you interview as well, the people in this world and this community of animal activism. Because then I want to talk about the practicalities– like: what are the investigations actually like?
But to this first overarching thread. This is pretty obscure. Have you ever heard of a story called “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas”? By Ursula Le Guin?
EH: I actually have! Yep!
So that story is kind of like a foundation to this entire series.
[From the series introduction, “A Light in the Mineshaft, An Interview Series With Society’s Traumaworkers: Introduction– A Meditation on Trauma, Misogyny, and the Cultural Moment”, March 2022
Do you know the Ursula Le Guin story “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas”? This interview series began as one grounded in some of what I would call Omelas questions. It’s a philosophical thought experiment of a science fiction story, written in 1973: quite short, yet deeply troubling and disturbing, brilliant. Very briefly, it presents the reader with a hideous moral dilemma. The story paints a portrait of a happy, prosperous kingdom. But the reader comes to learn, the entire wellbeing of the kingdom is based on its underpinning in one deeply abused and tortured child. That one child’s suffering, in a hidden away basement, is the motor that powers the cheerful and comfortable society. The story goes on to explain the different types of people therein. Those who choose not to know. Those who know and are sickened but learn not to care, to justify. And the rarest ones, those who become so sick at heart that they must flee, to opt out—to leave behind everything they know and cherish. Once they have seen what’s behind the scenes of their perfect society, they cannot stay. They go off into a poor and unknown future, but they are free.
It’s a story that has stuck with me since the first time I read it. It’s made me reconsider all sorts of aspects of life and culture, in fact. I put myself through my PhD working as a private tutor throughout, with students from all around the world. I have always loved to teach this story, to raise its moral questions with my brighter students, to see their reactions.
If you had to spend a day in a slaughterhouse watching, could you still eat meat? So, you like to eat it, it tastes good to you– but you don’t want to see it, right? Who wants to think of how the system by which animals are slaughtered to get you your food each day actually works, in practice? What are the implications of putting torture into your body for nourishment?
These are Omelas questions. The central dilemma of Omelas in our actual world is that, to some degree, we all live on the suffering child in the cellar. There are things we prefer not to know, or at least not to think about, so that the world can keep spinning. What am I supposed to do? I can’t save anyone.]
So if you remember, the premise of that story is that everybody gets to live a beautiful life, as long as they don’t look at the child that’s locked in the basement and tortured and abused. And that’s the devil’s bargain of this society. Everyone’s happy as long as nobody thinks about that child.
And so what can be more of a metaphor for that than the way we approach animal products, slaughterhouses? Going into the grocery store, making your burgers, and having your barbecue, and your happy family!
Nobody– or 90% of people, anyway- nobody wants to think about the chain of suffering that that food comes from. And so that Omelas story to me– it’s overarching to this entire series. I discuss it in other contexts– children in poverty mining for the minerals for an iPhone. Coercive, trafficked pornography. But it doesn’t fit any better on how society shields itself from traumatic subjects than it does with the aspect of animals.
It seems to me– it was so important to me to not make every interview in this series about traumawork and traumaworkers about people. It’s mostly about people. But I think without an animal rights approach or an animal activist approach in this series– it would be really remiss.
So I wanted to know if you knew about that story as well.
EH: I did, yeah!
KLM: And of course it’s sort of a metaphor in a way– you know, the people who walk away. You could say it’s a metaphor for becoming vegan or stopping eating meat…
In relation to that story. They have to just be blind to what’s happening down there, right?
It’s interesting. I’ve seen a little– videos and even in person– when people who aren’t vegan encounter footage of undercover investigations.
And especially if it’s an adult with a child, they’ll cover the child’s eyes. Like: oh, you can’t see that!
But, well, that’s your food! You’re eating it!
KLM: Yeah, exactly.
EH: And you can’t see where it comes from? It’s too brutal for kids to see where their food comes from?
KLM: Right! It’s like watching a beheading video, or a porn video for a child, or something obscene.
EH: Yeah, exactly! And okay, well—so if you showed them the harvesting of carrots, would they be able to watch that? Yeah, sure they would!
KLM: Right. Well, and if this is the metaphor, then the paradox of the people who do the kind of work you do. It’s immense.
That these are the people who are the most likely to be the most affected by this, and yet put themselves into these positions. To look at these things that they really don’t want to see, but yet feel this sort of moral calling to see, I guess.
EH: Yeah. And that’s exactly it. I interview all the applicants in the United States. So, it’s a couple thousand people who apply to this position every year.
KLM: Oh, wow!
EH: Not all of those are interviewed. But it’s a lot of applicants. And I talk to a lot of people, who are wanting to do this work. And the vast majority of them are either vegan or vegetarian.
They care about animals. And they want to help animals and be their voice. Being an undercover investigator, especially with Mercy for Animals– our investigations are what are considered employment-based investigations. So, we’re not just sneaking in at night and filming. We don’t do it that way.
We go in as an employee of those facilities. And do the work, that the other workers are doing.
KLM: Ahhhh. Whoa!
EH: And we’re wearing a hidden camera while we’re doing it. So it’s more than just seeing the animals.
KLM: Right, you have to do!
EH: We have to be those workers!
Yeah. So, to be a vegan and someone who cares about animals enough to be an animal rights activist.
It’s completely contradictory to what I want for animals to have, as far as their lives go. To go in and do these jobs.
But, if it’s not a vegan or an animal rights activist going in to do it, the reason you’re doing it… is for money? What other reason would someone want to go do this work, other than that?
So even though it’s the antithesis of what I believe in, it’s still like– I have to do it! Because no one else is going to do it.
KLM: And that’s the paradox of the whole thing. It’s a lot.
And then what about the practicalities of, do these companies ever sort of get wise to what’s going on? Are they on the lookout for people who are doing this work? Or how does that all work?
EH: Oh, absolutely. So I’m not sure if you’re familiar with the term called “ag gag”.
But that’s state legislation, essentially that criminalizes doing undercover investigations.
Everywhere from the farmers, the companies.
Like for instance, Tyson. One of the largest food manufacturers in the world. They’re very aware of undercover investigations. And then, even at the legislation level, the state and federal lawmakers are aware.
And there’s definitely a handful of lawmakers who are protecting animal agriculture. It’s a very lucrative business, in a sense. There’s a lot of money, in that industry. Not necessarily for the individual farmers, but for the industry at large.
But there is a lot of money. And, to a degree, when we’ve set up our current food system to be so heavily dependent on meat… you’ve got to protect that system! So, there is a lot of interest, at every scale.
And, absolutely the farmers know about undercover investigations. Whether it’s they’ve heard from other farmers, or from– most of them are contract farmers. So they’re growing animals, raising animals for a larger company. So that company’s trained them. To be on the lookout for undercover investigators. And then, obviously, if you’re talking about working at a slaughter plant, it is in that larger company.
So, yeah, absolutely– they are on the lookout for you. And because of that, undercover investigators have what I refer to as a shelf life.
The more investigations you do. They’re going to start circulating amongst themselves like: be on the lookout for Erik Hastings. If a guy shows up by that name, don’t hire him.
KLM: Plus just the practicalities of, for example, racism in the US, right? A lot of these people are either undocumented immigrants, they’re brown people, Spanish speakers. And if you’re in there, let’s say a white person with tattoos and piercings, you’re going to look conspicuous. Like a vegan activist? From the city? You can’t look like a vegan activist!
EH: Yeah, exactly. So probably, on top of the emotional trauma that you experience as an investigator, the most difficult part of the job is just getting hired in the first place. Because they’re on the lookout for people.
Farmers have had their businesses closed overnight. The workers and the farmers themselves have been charged with animal cruelty. I know of an owner of farms that was convicted of animal cruelty, pled guilty. So, as a business owner.
KLM: They’re afraid.
EH: Yeah. There’s a potential that you could maybe go to jail! For something that’s happening on your farm.
Plus, they want to continue making money. So all of those incentives are really pushing them to make sure they’re not hiring an undercover investigator.
And so those are the hurdles that you have to get over as an investigator, just to get in the facility. And then what we’re talking about– the trauma that you experience when you’re in there.
KLM: And then there are more militant groups, who would break in at night instead of working with? And so everything they’re doing is completely illegal?
EH: Yeah. I guess the most recent major story– last year, a group had entered a hog facility in Iowa, I believe, to document. When the slaughter plants were experiencing coronavirus. Because it’s a perfect environment for the virus to thrive in.
KLM: Right! I was going to talk about that.
EH: So the workers were getting sick. And not being able to come to work. So the processing facilities were having to slow down their production.
That resulted… you can’t just pause the growth of the animals. It’s this continual chain to supply a daily number. So in one day that you’re shut down, the number that you would process in that day is now excess. And so every day that they were shut down or slowed down, they had this excess number of animals, that they’d never be able to catch up the processing for.
So they had to euthanize them. Which is just completely sad. The idea that they were being raised to be killed for food is sad enough. And then to add on top of that, just because there is something happening with the humans, you’re now just considered completely useless. So we’re going to kill you and incinerate you.
So they were doing a process called ventilator shutdown. Which is essentially they turn off the fans inside the barns. And without the constant flow of fresh air, the gases from the feces, as well as what they would additionally pump into the barns that are now like a contained unit that aren’t venting, would suffocate the pigs.
KLM: Like a gas chamber almost.
EH: Exactly. Yeah. And so you’d have a couple thousand pigs, in a gas chamber, in a single barn.
And so a group had gone in overnight, to one of these barns that was doing it. And had filmed the pigs that had suffocated.
KLM: Does that include, though– could anybody get in trouble with your organization, even if they’re hired legally– could they get in trouble for the filming, for example? Because you spoke of these gag order laws.
EH: Everything that our investigators do is aboveboard. We’re not going to put an investigator in a situation where they’re… everything that we do is legal.
KLM: Oh, okay. And so then let’s go back a step maybe. So someone gets hired, and has to work on these lines. Which is its own moral quandary for sure, as we’re saying.
But and then– well, first of all, how does an investigation work? How do you choose where to go? Is it because someone who works there has reported that bad things are going on? Or are you just trying to go to every place and kind of check them out?
EH: Most of that’s confidential. But what I can tell you is that it’s pretty much like at random, any facility we go to, there’s going to be something that is either going to shock the public that they don’t know, that that’s what’s being done to their food. Or, there’s going to be some type of criminal neglect or abuse that’s happening. I can say that every facility I went to, I observed something illegal happening.
I remember very much last year when everybody was locked down, and Rachel Maddow was doing two weeks, three weeks about how bad COVID was in the slaughterhouses. And that it’s a socioeconomic problem because the people who are working there are undocumented and they’re poor. And so a lot of them were still coming to work. And so it was like a perfect storm of every social problem that you have in the US. Right?
The animals’ lives are completely degraded and abused. The people working there are the people doing the work that no one wants to do. Then they’re dying of COVID, but you can’t stop the slaughterhouses. So I was just saying: oh my God, this is such a metaphor right now.
And it was at the height of everything with COVID, when people were just in their houses. Everybody’s getting their meat delivered to them now. With the groceries. You can’t stop the meat!
EH: Right. And because of that thinking, the presidential administration actually started passing laws to protect the companies.
KLM: I remember, yeah!
EH: From lawsuits, of workers getting sick and dying. Like, wow!
KLM: Right. I remember that this was all big about a year ago. I was watching that all the time.
So then an investigation would be– someone comes in and they get hired, and they work for, what, a few days, a few weeks? And they’re filming and then they leave and file a report, and then hopefully something changes? Is that the idea?
EH: Yeah. So the average I usually tell like new investigators, the average investigation is going to be probably a few weeks, around three, to a few months.
We’ve had investigations that have been much shorter. Especially if you go into a facility and there’s just crazy abuse that’s happening. We might need to tell law enforcement the very first day.
So your investigation could be one day long! It’s not very common, but there is that chance, and it has happened.
The other end of that, is we’ve had investigations that have lasted for more than a year. The average is probably around three to six weeks.
KLM: And then, going a little bigger picture. Can you say anything about– the idea with this series, of trauma. When you were in the field yourself, before you started training everyone as you do now, did you experience trauma from this? Did you experience really painful times? And how did you handle that? And how do you keep doing it? That’s a big crux question that I have.
EH: Yeah. So to unpackage that group of questions!
I absolutely experienced trauma. Kind of the most memorable one… I was working at a dairy farm. And to me dairy is like the worst industry. I’ll go into it to why that is. Because a lot of people are like: well, but you’re just milking them. Right?
KLM: Right. Like they’re just hanging out or something.
EH: Yeah, well, that’s true. Except in factory dairy farming. It’s all about maximizing production.
So when a cow reaches three years old, she’s past her peak milk production. So, she’s going to be replaced by a new cow, who’s producing more milk. That three-year old cow is now being sent to slaughter.
So on top of all the other things that are happening to a dairy cow, she’s still being sent to slaughter, while she’s still a young cow.
A lot of people justify on dairy: well, we’re not raising them to kill them. But well, we kind of are!
And then on top of that, you’re dealing with artificial insemination. Which I describe as rape. You’re locking the cows head so she can’t move away, and then inserting an arm and a tool into her and forcing her to get pregnant.
And then a dairy farm that I worked at, and this is common on almost all dairy farms, is within the first hour of birth, the calf is taken away from the mother.
So now we’re raping, and then kidnapping their newborns.
That cow, if she’s a female, is maybe going to come back within the next three years to that farm. Maybe they see each other one more time. Doubtful, but maybe.
If it’s a bull calf, they’re just a byproduct. They’re worthless. They’re going to be killed.
So on top of all of that, at the end of the day, when that mother is three years old, they are killed, and sent to slaughter anyway!
So, for me, that’s why dairy is so bad.
So this one dairy that I worked at, I was opening the gates and bringing the cows from the pens to the milking parlor. It took about an hour per pen. Once I brought the cows to the parlor, I’d take the other ones back to their pen, shut the gate. And then, while that current one’s being milked, I had to walk through the pregnancy pen, and take note of any newborn calves. Connected to that was also a hospital pen.
And there was one cow who, it looked like she was in labor, but– there was just something wrong. So, I notified a supervisor and we found out that she was actually having a miscarriage. And a miscarriage for a cow is pretty dangerous for the cow. A lot of times they’ll die. So in order to prevent that, they were going to remove the calf. So this is just a really barbaric process where they just forcefully use tools and rip the calf out of the cow.
That was just horrible. I still remember the look on her face and the sounds that she was making while she was screaming.
Because she was in the hospital pen, over the next three days, I was making sure she had a bowl of water next to her so she could drink. There was hay near her. Because she wasn’t getting up. Over those three days she ended up dying. That was powerful.
So that was probably the most traumatic– my experience with that individual cow. I can go on and on with stories. It’s just all sad.
KLM: Of course. And then you must have these days or weeks– you go home and it’s staying with you. Right? And at a certain point, are you saying: I can’t do this forever. Because it’s heavy… right?
EH: Yeah. You’re there as an undercover investigator. The other workers aren’t showing emotion towards that. That’s just a normal day at work.
And you have to play that role, as a worker. You have to be that same person, because you have to blend in.
If you were to show emotion and break down over this, they’re going to be like: oh, what’s wrong with Erik?!
And then they start wondering: ah, is he one of those PETA people? You see that so many times at farms, like: you’re not one of those PETA people, are you?
So, you have to mask those emotions. And it’s really the ability– I talk to the new investigators about this as well.
How do you mask what you’re feeling, continue your workday, go back to where you’re staying that night, which is maybe a hotel, or an apartment or something. And then come back first thing the next morning to do that job again?
And, you know, I don’t really know how to teach people to do this, but I talk about it. How to compartmentalize your emotions. Just put them in that room, shut the door.
When you get back to your room. And open that door. When you’re in your room by yourself– yeah, you can cry, you can yell, you can do whatever. But in the moment you have to hold it in. You can’t show it.
And is it maybe the healthiest thing for our individual mind? Probably not! But it’s necessary.
KLM: It’s got to be done, right.
And so I suppose along those lines… you have to be a bit of a psychological profiler when you’re interviewing people. Because you’ve probably had some people who are very passionate and committed, but maybe there’s something in you that can look at them and say: they’re too sensitive. Like, they’re going to crack in there. They can’t do this work. They might want it. They might think they really want to, but they will not be able to do it.
EH: Yeah! Oftentimes, I’ll say: I can teach anybody to use a camera. But I can’t teach you to be able to handle the situations. That’s just something that you have to know that you can do.
KLM: Right. Because I could tell you right now, I couldn’t do it for five seconds. I would be so traumatized. They would just take one look at me and say: get out of here. We know exactly what you’re here for!
EH: Yeah, exactly. And so not only do you have to find someone that wants to do this job and can physically do this job. They’re very physically demanding types of work.
KLM: Yeah, that too, right. It’s not just standing there.
EH: A lot of times they’re twelve-hour shifts. I’ve worked in some farms that were twelve-hour shifts, seven days a week!
And– again, because of some of those systemic racism issues, of being migrant workers. There’s no worker unions.
And, are, sometimes, labor laws probably being violated? Yeah, probably! Being forced to work that many hours. There’s no overtime pay. It’s a system that takes advantage of a lot of different things.
KLM: I came to this project because I’m a feminist cultural historian, and I wrote about Hollywood for my PhD thesis. And kind of the MeToo movement before MeToo started. Putting a MeToo lens on the history of Hollywood, and “the casting couch”. And so you’re a feminist and you’re working on these really brutal stories of rape and misogyny and sexual harassment that people were just like: oh, that’s how Hollywood was!
So anyway I got my PhD now and it’s done. And I went back in my notes and I had this whole parallel track, like: why do we work on the things that we work on, when they’re painful, and when we could do other things? These very heavy topics. This nexus for me of feminist work, anti-racist work, trauma, working on painful things, and then my own sort of animal activism or animal rights or animal ethics concerns.
And In one of the memoirs that I used, it’s by a Hollywood star, pretty obscure, back in the ‘40s. You’re from Washington State, aren’t you?
EH: I am.
KLM: Do you know who Frances Farmer is? Because there’s a Nirvana song about her, and it’s got Seattle in the title. She was a very obscure ‘30s movie star, and she was very beautiful, but she had some mental issues. And they ended up throwing her in an asylum in Seattle for almost twenty years.
EH: Oh, wow.
KLM: And when she got out, she wrote a memoir. [Frances Farmer, Will There Really Be a Morning? 1972].
It’s the most brutal… it really hits you hard. It’s like: if this could happen to a Hollywood star, it could happen to anyone. Because she was basically thrown away for ten years. She was in the deepest of the psych wards. There was rape in there. They were eating food with maggots in it. This is during World War Two, because there was nobody to work there.
So she talks about, that they would take some of the men who were– I guess back in those days, they would call them “homicidal maniacs”. There were different levels of “insanity”–you know, we use different terms today. And they would make the men work fifteen-hour days, in the slaughterhouse. Men who were mentally ill, who were homicidal, they would say: oh, you can go. And they would club animals all day long and there would be puddles of blood everywhere.
And I just remember reading that and feeling like: I’ve never been so affected by one page in a book in my life. Because it’s like the confluence of what society does with the mentally ill, how it locks people away. How the actual violence of murder was channeled into: we need somebody to kill all these animals. Let’s take these “crazy people” and get them to do it. And this is all being done behind closed doors.
I think your average person would not know that they used to use inmates from “insane asylums” to be the slaughterhouse workers.
EH: Yeah. And that would be the exact opposite of what you would imagine would be a treatment for some types of mental illness.
KLM: Right. They certainly weren’t trying to “treat” them! They were trying to use them. Well, you’re a murderer. Go murder these animals we need. That anecdote will never not give me chills.
Going back though. Can you say anything more than about the people who come to you, and the people who want to get involved. And how do you talk about this idea, of: you are probably going to be traumatized, and are you sure you’re up for this work? And especially because you care about animals, this is going to be even harder for you than if we took somebody off the street maybe. So how does that work?
EH: So the hiring process itself is pretty extensive. It usually takes about six months from when you apply to when we decide: okay, we’re going to hire you.
And you have so many steps. Like one, I need to get to know who you are, and that we can trust you.
Because you’re going to be out there by yourself, telling us what’s happening. And we need to know that you’re being truthful. So we have to know that about you.
But then the other parts of it is all about trying to get an applicant to be pushed to really imagine themselves in that environment.
If you’ve never been to a slaughterhouse before, or inside of a factory farm, it’s unlike anything that you’ve ever experienced. The sheer size of them, the numbers of animals that are packed into these facilities. The sounds, the smells, just that heat. A lot of times– if it’s hogs or chickens, the environment is just packed with ammonia. It’s a horrible environment.
So if you’ve never been there, how can you realistically say: oh, I can do that!
So that’s what it really is. Watch the undercover investigation footage that we have. And imagine that you’re wearing that camera, and you’re watching what is happening in there.
Can you go do that for five, six, seven days a week? For a month? Could you do that? Without showing any expressions on your face? Seeing what’s happening: can you handle that?
It’s really their honesty with that question. Are they really considering it? Are they showing that they’re confident that they can do it?
Because like I said, I can’t train people how to compartmentalize. I can tell them: you just have to not think about it. Whatever it takes to do that. Don’t think about it in the moment, think about it later.
But the ability to actually do that when it’s happening, without taking them to these environments and having them practice doing it– I can’t train you to do that.
You have to just– are you confident in yourself that you’re going to be able to do that? And then convince me that you’re going to be able to do that.
KLM: Right. Have you ever had somebody in an interview process come in with either their activism really pure and fired up, or they have almost maybe like a hero complex in some way? But once you actually explain the job, they say: no, I don’t think I should do this after all. I don’t think I can do this?
EH: More often than not, yeah!
KLM: Wow. But which I guess is better than going in there and jeopardizing and everything.
KLM: And so what’s a successful investigation for you all?
This is a deeper question, right? Because, if we’re coming from the premise that we would say that this whole system is pretty… immoral. But your organization doesn’t have the power to simply shut down these industries. So– it’s a bit of a Band-Aid to get the worst actors?
EH: Well, our organization, if you look at our mission statement, it actually says: to end the exploitation of animals for food! The end day, we want there to be no more farms that are raising animals. So that’s what we’re striving to do.
There’s an interesting divergence within animal rights right now. Which is, holding the individual workers who are committing the abuses accountable, filing criminal charges with law enforcement. Versus observing that they’re part of this systemic racism and oppression system. And where’s that balance?
If there’s something crazy where someone is going above and beyond their normal duties of working on a farm and committing something atrocious… Then I would say definitely support letting law enforcement know, and letting them handle that at that point.
KLM: Like if they’re enjoying hurting the animals, and that’s why they’re there, or something like that.
EH: Right. But, you know, by and large the focus now is not necessarily on that individual worker. It’s more on the companies and the system itself, this systemic abuse, is how we like to refer to what happens in factory farms. It’s systemic abuse. And changing that system.
Are we overnight going to get farms to shut down, around the United States and even globally? No. So there are steps that we are going to take to get there in the first place.
Like egg hens– that cage-free movement that’s happening. And getting the hogs who are giving birth to the ones that go to slaughter, getting them out of gestation crates. Getting general improvements for working conditions and living conditions for the animals. Those are all steps along the way.
Mercy for Animals is a really cool group to work for, because it has so many different moving parts to it. I’m in the investigations department. But what the organization does with investigations is so much beyond that.
We make a video and we put it on YouTube or Facebook so people can see what’s happening. But then we also have this legislative arm, that is working with lawmakers to get new laws passed.
We also have recently been filing lawsuits and complaints against the USDA for some of the rules that they’re allowing to happen at slaughter plants. Increased line speeds, which are bad for the animals, and bad for the workers.
And we have volunteers that go out and do demonstrations. Right now we have a Costco campaign. Last year we released an investigation from a Costco supplier, someone that raises chickens for their broiler, their $5 rotisseries. We did an investigation at a farm that raises those chickens. And so now we have this overarching campaign where we have demonstrations outside of Costcos. And we call their offices and ask them to make changes.
So that’s all the today work. But the end goal definitely is to end factory farming.
KLM: A follow-up topic there. I’m curious because I’m very engaged with these topics, but more on my own. I’m not involved with any real animal rights networks in particular. I read about things and I’m very personally committed, but I’m not involved with activism, I would say, on that kind of level. So I don’t know what the word on the street is.
Are people in these communities hopeful about cultured meat and lab meat being a revolution, and that maybe we will soon be done killing animals, and that that will be a thing of the past? That our children and grandchildren will say: wow, you guys used to eat dead animals for meat? That’s so weird!
That’s what some of these billionaires who invest in cultured meat say. That we’re about to move into this new future, that we’ll look at it like slavery or other backward practices from the past. Like, wow, they used to kill animals to get meat, gross! And that people won’t even think about it, the next generation.
I’m very hopeful about that. Not for myself, because I already don’t eat meat. But that it might actually be the thing that changes everything. But I wonder, what do people say about that, in the animal rights activists’ community?
EH: Yeah! So Cargill. The very large meat producer. I read an article just the other day that they’ve invested millions of dollars, into lab grown beef. In Israel.
So, I think definitely that is the direction that that side of the industry is moving, to be more mainstream. And I like that it’s there because it does give that option. Like that if people still want to eat meat, there is this option out there, that it doesn’t have to involve raising an animal and killing an animal.
It’s the same stuff. It’s just not an animal raised up.
KLM: Yeah, exactly, genetically.
I’ve been following these companies for a good four or five years, I have a lot of files on them. I even wanted to do some copywriting for some. There’s Memphis Meats in San Francisco, more and more each year in Europe, Asia, North America.
Because I just think, if it can take off– I mean, what better way to end so much suffering in one fell swoop…? If it can change the world that much, I think it’s certainly promising.
But. When the big meat, the big factory farming people started to invest in the cultured meat companies… I was verysurprised! I thought that they would try to discredit, and say: this is going to kill you. You know, this will “poison you”. And then I realized, no, they’re doing: if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em! They’re saying that this is the way our industry is going to go, so we’re going to buy it up. Which is, I don’t know, surprising but good?
Although that means now, if you were to want to be an ethical investor and invest in cultured meat companies as a vegetarian or vegan, you can’t. Because you have to buy stocks in Tyson or Cargill. Which is funny in itself!
KLM: But I guess it’s a positive?
EH: Well and, Beyond Meat, early on. When their shares were being sold. I think it was Tyson bought a huge portion of Beyond Meat.
And, so– I always wonder when I hear like that, those big meat companies investing– is it partly to control and slow down that market? Or are they legitimately getting behind it?
KLM: Right! I think, based on– I make a big file, I save all these articles. And I think that they think that that’s the way that it’s going, and that’s how they’re going to make money, which to me is certainly good.
EH: That’s what I hope!
KLM: We’ve covered so much. Is there anything else that you could say or want to say to wrap up? About trauma, or doing the work that other people don’t want to do? Or just anything overall that we haven’t covered?
EH: I think I talked about how when I was looking at doing undercover work. I’d seen a lot of really bad things as a police officer. Plenty of dead bodies. And then, as well with hunting.
So I knew that I could do this work. And make it through it. And it was kind of one of those things like: if I can, therefore I must. And so it was no doubt that I was going to go do this job.
But it’s learning the long term of that. I have done a little bit of reading into compassion fatigue. You experience this, for just a couple of years maybe. But the memories– because it was such a traumatic memory, it’s going to be there for your life. And how do you build a healthy mind to deal with all of that?
I talk with new investigators about this, too. Developing healthy habits, that can help you cope with these things. I talk about working out. Music, reading books. A lot of times I tell them: whatever you did before you started this job, that you found was fun. You have to really work to continue to do those things. Don’t let them go away. Don’t say: I don’t have time, I’m too tired. Keep doing them.
Because that’s what you need. You need to be able to have these releases, where you’re experiencing things that you found fun. And that helps you just build and cope with them.
I’m not a mental health expert by any means. We had training once a year, in law enforcement.
But I’ve listened to some compassion fatigue things, now that I’m with Mercy for Animals. And there are counselors and therapists that have focused on this niche market, I guess.
That’s another thing that Mercy for Animals does, is really emphasizes mental health. And being able to get help when you need it.
KLM: That’s amazing. I was trying to interview someone for this series who works in web content moderation, which is another very similar sphere. Where, we’re asking people to sit online and be desensitized to twelve hours a day. And a lot of times it’s outsourced to the developing world, and beheading videos and abuse– animal abuse, rape, everything. And they’re being paid an hourly wage. They’re just regular people. And that’s the job they can get.
And the big tech companies talk a really big game about: we have counselors on-site for them. And then you read these exposés with the people who say: oh, no. Everybody there is totally self-medicating with drugs and alcohol, and people last a year or two and they burn out, and then they’re completely traumatized.
So again, it’s another example of an area that society doesn’t want to look at. We’re asking some people to take on that traumatic burden. So the rest of us don’t have to.
But at least it sounds like for you guys, it’s actual– it’s not lip service. You’re actually caring for the mental health of the people who do it.
EH: There is something I want to add! Now that I think about it.
KLM: Of course.
EH: So an interesting thing that happens with undercover investigations, in this animal rights world, is that our videos get posted online. That show some of the grotesque things that are happening. And it’s interesting– because it’s social media people can comment on them.
And the number of people– it’s not a lot, but there’ll be people that comment. If it’s a pig video showing inside a pig farm or slaughter plant, there’ll be people who write: mmm bacon! And comments like that. And it just struck me all of a sudden. If you change the subject matter to, for instance, child rape. Nobody’s going to make comments like that. Everyone agrees that that is wrong. But when the exact same stuff that’s happening, if we switch it to farm animals, there’s a lot of people out there that are just like: oh, well, it’s farm animals, that’s fine.
KLM: Yeah, that weird— that kneejerk impulse to make that joke. Like, how many times if you’re a vegetarian or a vegan, have you ever heard somebody at a party shout at you: I love bacon! It’s very tiresome. Almost like, they’re trying to hit you with it because they think you’re going to preach at them. So they’re going to make the joke first? And you’re just like: oh yeah, I’ve never heard a joke about bacon before.
Like there seems to be this weird impulse to be like: I’m not bothered by meat! In fact I love it!
EH: Yeah. I read a really interesting thing about cognitive dissonance, related to that.
And how the people that fight the hardest are probably the most bothered by it? And they’re putting on this front?
KLM: Well yeah, that’s what I mean!
There’s something really weird there, I find. Just living your life as somebody who casually mentions I don’t eat meat, people will jump out of their way to shout: you know, we have canines for a reason! And I’m like: okay, eat what you want.
There’s a very weird counterargument that they throw at you before you ever say a word, sometimes. I’ve always found that.
EH: What made me think of that, the online comments, was that you had asked: what does success look like for an investigation?
And we talked about the organization itself being able to make these big strides. But on an individual level. When I first started, I said: what would I consider to be a success? When I go in and do that investigation.
And I always said: if there is just one person that became vegan because I went and did that investigation, I’ll say that it was a success!
EH: So after an investigation was published on social media, I’d go through the comments. Until I found the first person that said something like: oh my goodness, I just watched this, and I’m never going to eat meat again.
And, well, good enough! And I’d quit reading the comments after that.
But if one person changed, we’re making a difference. Good enough for me.
A closing note, KLM
This was the final of eleven interviews in my series “A Light in the Mineshaft: An Interview Series With Societies’ Traumaworkers”. I’d like to sincerely thank Narrative Paths and publisher L.J. Frank for the opportunity to bring together such a series of important topics and fascinating people. I hope that this project may live on in further incarnations, perhaps a book or a film. So keep an eye out! In the meantime, I will restate in excerpt what I wrote in the series’ introduction in March of this year, to close:
The interviews. I wanted their format to be what Joyce Carol Oates has called the interview as art form. A sort of Studs Terkel, oral history approach to traumawork. And to my huge gratitude, I found many people who were willing to talk with me– fascinating and brilliant people, with unique stories, from all over the world. A dream team of interview subjects, really.
In the metaphor with which I began this series, I’ve situated these people I interviewed as the ones who walk away from Omelas. Suiting up and going into society’s metaphorical sewers, where hardly anyone wants to look. Do they see in their work what I did? That they might at times serve as part of a “devil’s bargain” made by comfortable societies– that this is work that some agree to do so that the masses can live in the cheerful or the banal, not required to contend with the evils and injustices that underlie so many of our systems?
These are elegant ideas, but now I don’t necessarily think they’re entirely true. They may be for me, to some degree, in my feminist work on trauma and sexual assault. But it turned out they didn’t need to be for everyone. For every scholar or artist or activist or researcher like me, who views their work as doing something dark that must be done, who leans into the pain it causes– there are at least two more who just don’t see it that way, I’ve learned. Happily.
I thought I was coming to these people to ask them, “why you do such depressing work, and how do you fight off the depression it might cause in you? The rage? The madness? The despair?” And I found, it’s not that for everyone. It’s just not.
Today, we have the fascinating and ever-emerging field of epigenetics. After thousands of generations of humanity, today DNA can empirically prove that a person’s depression or addiction issues could have been triggered by a grandparent’s famine, a great-grandparent’s pogrom. A pregnant woman lives through a car accident, and her child is forever changed. Trauma that sits right on the strands of DNA, in the womb, that alters.
In this series you can read my interview with a world-renowned epigeneticist living and working today. He doesn’t find horror in realizing just how many of our genetic markers may be passed down by our ancestors’ traumas, but fascination and pride in the promise of his work. Instead of seeing our human life as one long lesson in “we’re doomed before we even begin” — a depressed view, a traumatized view, a pre-genetic view, if you will– he is deeply hopeful. “Because, you see, if we know it, we can fix it”. It’s true, today we can see the genetic code. If we can see it, we can work with it. Change it. Correct the problems. No?
What about the Holocaust scholar who is himself a descendant of survivors? Has he lived his life under a shadow, haunted and tortured? Not at all. He’s cheerful and quite content with the happy and successful life he’s made. In fact, he notes, all of his friends, the generation of survivor’s children are, too, successful, with happy families. He takes this as a marker that they came through it okay, psychologically speaking. A people who couldn’t be destroyed. A triumph of humanity.
So not everyone who does traumawork is heavy about it. Maybe just some are. It does remain true that traumatized people can do amazingly brave work on trauma, that can also serve to help heal themselves along the way.
But I found that not everyone working on traumatic subjects is even themselves traumatized at all. Some are purposeful, cheerful helpers. Some are curious. Whichever type, what I learned from conducting this interview series is that all do profess to finding some kind of peace or joy in the work. Or they wouldn’t do it.
So, in this series, my premise was completely challenged. I found purpose, but not in a plodding and grim way. Not in darkness, but in finding the light IN darkness. Hence, the title change. From “Night Shift In the Graveyards” to “A Light in the Mineshaft”. I found, in conversation with my subjects, pride at being part of effecting change. I found humour. And in a quite awful year for me personally, this unexpected revelation was particularly beautiful.
In doing this work, I went from a painful 2021 to, like many of us, a still traumatized 2022. But also, to a more hopeful perspective– even in, ahem, “these troubled times”. From grim to more open-hearted. From night shifts in graveyards to lights in mineshafts.
And so, I want to thank each and every person I interviewed for this series for sharing that light with me– that fearlessness, that sense of purpose, that clarity, that joy, that lightness in darkness.
“I meant to write about death, but life came breaking in as usual.” -Virginia Woolf