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August 2003
Behind Closed Doors: Going Undercover to Expose Animal Abuse

The Satya Interview with Matt Rossell

 

 

These kitten experiments at Boys Town Hospital in Omaha, Nebraska were stopped after an undercover investigation by PETA.

What is so powerful about images of abuse is how undeniable the actions are. It is evidence of what is otherwise denied by those in power. Without “proof,” authorities will invalidate any claims brought against them. In the case of animals, since they can’t complain at all, their abusers often act with impunity; and on rare occasions, somebody gets it on film.

When we see video footage of animal abuse, our focus is on the abused and the abusers. How often do we think of the person behind the camera? Brutal images of half-starved fur-bearing animals pacing in tiny cages, waiting for death by anal electrocution or gas. Heart-wrenching footage of psychotic, terrified monkeys screaming behind bars; pictures of kittens with tubes sticking out of their brains. Many people will wince, but nod in familiarity. This is the painstaking work of Matt Rossell.

Unassuming and soft-spoken, Matt Rossell has a knack for getting jobs at the most unexpected places, places most people would rather not set foot in: labs, slaughterhouses, circuses, fur farms. But Rossell is no cold-hearted animal torturer. He takes these jobs with the sole purpose of exposing animal abuse. He spends months—sometimes years—appearing as a congenial colleague, while on the sly, photographing, filming, photocopying, taking notes, documenting what goes on behind closed doors, sometimes at great risk.

But Rossell’s labor has paid off. Some evidence he has gathered has been used in a court of law, such as the fur farm and In Defense of Animals’ a lawsuit against Oregon Health Sciences University (OHSU) for violations of the Oregon Public Records Law. Complaints of abuse based on his research have been filed with federal and state regulatory agencies, which have also seen results. More often, Rossell’s documentation is used in the court of public opinion to great effect. His point is that compelling images of animal abuse can force change—even if they are still seen only as chattel or property in the eyes of the courts. And the key to public consciousness is exposure through the media, perhaps the most difficult obstacle of all.

Currently, Matt Rossell serves as the Northwest Outreach Coordinator for In Defense of Animals and is their Primate Research Contact. Rossell recently took some time to talk about his work with Catherine Clyne and answer some of the burning questions some of us might have.

How did you get started? And can you describe what you do?
I feel I was called to undercover animal abuse investigations by some kittens. They were the subjects of Edward Walsh’s experiments at Boys Town Research Hospital in Omaha where I lived and worked part-time as a security guard. When I heard them crying out I went behind the locked vivarium door to check out what was wrong. Over time I found out these kittens were part of a study purporting to help deaf children. Actually, Walsh was botching brain surgeries on otherwise healthy, very young kittens, sometimes only one or two days old. Many didn’t survive; these were the lucky ones. The others were crying out in pain, not receiving proper pain medication, some were unable to walk or nurse. I called People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals to see what I could do, started documenting the abuse, and, long story made short, I eventually became an undercover animal abuse investigator for them. The kitten story does have a happy ending: after a long campaign, PETA eventually succeeded in shutting down all the cat studies at Boys Town.

What I did? Painstaking documentation of everything I witnessed, taking meticulous notes, copying files/records, and, when I could, getting the abuse on camera. This work is tedious and nerve-wracking because, obviously, it has to be done on the sly. I guess I would describe it as having two full-time jobs. I would have to do the job I was actually hired to do; then keep track of all the details, often staying up late to record my notes. It’s not Hollywood and I’m no James Bond or Ace Ventura (but if I had to choose, I’m definitely leaning towards the latter).

What was your relationship with animals before working as a security guard at the Boys Town Hospital?
I’ve always loved animals and had actually become vegetarian by then, but would not really characterize myself as an animal activist at that point. In high school and for a time in college, I cringe to recall that I worked in pet stores. Now I see that for what it is—an animal slave trade—but at the time I wasn’t quite that evolved. In college I was very active in the environmental movement and was just beginning to see how these two social movements overlap. I think it was factory farming’s impact on the environment, and temporary poverty, that shaped my early decision to be a vegetarian. Ramen noodles and macaroni and cheese were about all that fit my budget!

Why undercover work?
It was a job that chose me, not the other way around. Undercover work is one of the best tools we have as animal activists. Without undercover investigations, it often comes down to a “he said, she said” situation; but video doesn’t lie. Of course, the animal industries try to deny it anyway, but when shown the evidence, the public can see right through their false claims.

I think undercover work is indispensable and it’s too bad there’s not more of it happening. Seeing is believing, and the images, albeit hard to watch even for me, tug at people on an emotional level that draws them into action. Also, the abusive industries are getting increasingly better at covering their tracks by changing state laws and hiding information from the public. The U.S. Department of Agriculture isn’t protecting these animals and in many cases, investigations are the only way for the public to know what is happening behind closed doors.

What kinds of abuse have you documented?
I have been inside most every type of abusive animal industry and factory farm. When I worked for PETA, for about two years I traveled a lot and visited veal, dairy, turkey and puppy farms, as well as a pseudo-sanctuary that was actually breeding white tigers. I worked for a day on a slaughterhouse kill floor in Nebraska, apprenticed for three months during the pelting season on a fox farm in Illinois to document the lives and deaths of over 500 innocent silver foxes. I also worked for a month as a tent worker on Walker Brothers Circus to follow Lota and Liz, two magnificent elephants who were still on the road despite having tuberculosis. After I parted ways with PETA, I worked for more than two years as a primate technician at the Oregon National Primate Research Center, documenting and advocating against the abuse of more than 2,500 monkeys.

How did you learn to do undercover investigations and documentation, and how did you get jobs at the different places?
For me, getting jobs was never much of a problem. Like applying for any job, I got rejected. But the abusive jobs I applied for always seem to have openings with little expectations or experience required. In fact, I often undersold myself on the application so that the employer wouldn’t think I was overqualified and split after a week. Even research labs often hire unskilled people for the grunt work because they can’t find anyone willing to do it. These jobs are usually grueling, depressing, dirty; quite literally the shit work.

But there was also a lot luck and fate. Sometimes I really felt like the animals were somehow on my side. How likely is it for a fur farmer to hire some skinny Omaha kid who shows up at his door wanting to learn how to get in the business?! Fortunately for the foxes, Dan Aeschelman’s only employee had just died, and he was desperate to kill while the foxes were in “prime” (which means during the coldest part of winter; otherwise the fur garments will actually shed).

Learning to do undercover work was trial by fire. I guess it’s mainly common sense, I really didn’t get any training and nobody’s published Cliffs Notes as far as I know. Of course I practiced using cameras before going into a situation, and I got better at it as I went along. But I’ve also shot hundreds of blurry photos and hours of shaky, unusable video. Animals are very difficult to photograph, especially when they are distressed and behind bars. I think anyone who does this work is amateur, at least in the beginning. I fumbled my way through, and, luckily, among the bad shots, there were always a few good ones.

How do you not get caught?
I’ve been caught more than once, and have had many close calls. I take every possible precaution, studying co-workers’ habits, knowing when the best opportunities are for taking risks, but it’s bound to happen. Once, at the primate center, I thought for sure I had been seen with a camera, and my suspicions seemed confirmed when I got a call from my supervisor that night. She asked me to give her a ride to work the next day so she could discuss something, but would not give me any details. Needless to say, I didn’t sleep much that night, worrying about what to say when she confronted me about taking pictures. I almost burst out laughing when I arrived at her house the next morning to find she had bought a new yellow Volkswagon Bug and wanted my opinion about whether it was “professional enough” for her to drive to work!

The trick is knowing you will get caught and having something plausible in mind to say when it happens. I was able to talk my way around getting caught red-handed with a camera at the fur farm by calmly saying my dad really wanted to see the farm and I was making a home video for him. I would try to think of the worst-case scenario and then be ready for it. Once you’ve worked at a place for awhile, people get to know you as a co-worker, not a spy, and can be incredibly unobservant. It’s actually much easier than it may seem.

As far as being recognized, like, “Aren’t you that undercover investigator from Boys Town?” No, I never got that. In fact, when I was hired at the Primate Center, I had worked for PETA and submitted a letter of recommendation from Jean Greek, a veterinarian who co-authored a book scientifically opposing vivisection! It was foolish for me to use her letter but I got the job anyway! Bottom line: we should never underestimate the stupidity of our enemies.

Obviously, this is heavy stuff. How do you cope, with both your witnessing of animal suffering, and working alongside the perpetrators?
It’s a question of looking long into an abyss without the darkness creeping into you. I still don’t know how to avoid that and have not always coped well with the depression and anger that results. I’ve felt emotionally pinned beneath a heavy weight of powerlessness, surrounded by suffering animals, unable to stop their pain, and actually participating in acts of cruelty I abhor. It helps to focus on the end result, and I would relish the opportunities when I was able to get a critical piece of evidence.

Coping was also about depending on others for support. I would never have survived the Primate Center for two years without the emotional and material support of my partner, Leslie, who actually quit her job so she could work on the investigation full-time. When I was working for PETA, it was Paisley, my canine travel companion who helped keep my sanity.

Many people who see images of animal cruelty just turn their heads or walk away because they are overwhelmed. How did you manage to not walk away, and instead literally submerge yourself in their misery?

Knowing that I could walk away, that I have that choice and the animals have no choices, that is what helped me stick it out. Leslie helped remind me of this fact when times were tough. This kind of work is something that occurs one day at a time. Often it was a struggle to make the decision every morning about whether I could go back for another day. It does get easier over time. I never became numb to the suffering, but the shock does wear off eventually. I guess basic survival mechanisms take over in the moment, and you just do what needs to be done. What I have done, bearing witness, pales in comparison to what the animals endure.

Have people criticized you or your work as “hypocritical” or “cruel”? How do you respond to such accusations?
Well, not directly, but many people who hear of my work say, “I could never do that!” and depending on how you interpret that, it could be a compliment or a criticism. That comment has always left me wondering, what the hell is wrong with me?! I’m a sensitive animal person and don’t enjoy witnessing abuse, nor am I a stress junkie looking for an adrenaline fix. So how is it that I can do this work? There’s really nothing that sets me apart from any other animal activist, my life just led me down this path.

I have come to realize that everyone is looking at the world from a different perspective, some are going to see clearly the motive behind my actions, and others will never understand it. I am blessed with widespread support from the public and other activists. The criticism I get from my detractors I wear proudly like a badge—if I weren’t making these people upset, I would worry I wasn’t being effective.

I did, however, wrestle with internal criticism, which isn’t as easy to shrug off. It was difficult to get to know these animals up close and individually, and then be unable to whisk them away to safety. After all, their cries were not telling me, “Help our future generations!” They were calling out for help now. In some cases, like at the fur farm, I actually helped end their lives. This was very difficult, but what made me do it was witnessing their miserable lives. The only thing these innocent critters have to end this horror is anal electrocution. It’s unbelievable how cruel people can be. The only thing that kept going through my mind as I silently whispered my apologies and goodbye to each in turn, was knowing there was a camera hidden in my waistline recording each one’s demise.

Tell us about the news story in Portland and the way the university pulled their money from the TV station that aired it. Did it have the effect they wanted?
Eric Mason of ABC’s affiliate station in Portland, KATU, did a three-part investigation about primate research at Oregon Health Sciences University, and the university reacted by pulling all their ad funding from the station—not small change—literally hundreds of thousands of dollars annually. KATU appears undaunted by this power play from the city’s largest employer. The series went on to win a Genesis Award which put OHSU in the national hot seat when the awards aired to millions on Animal Planet this past May.

Would you recommend this work to other activists? What do they need to know before getting into this kind of work?
Recommend? Well, not in the way I would recommend a good book, but I think it’s vital work and I would love to see activists seeking employment everywhere animals need a voice. I strongly suggest that people seek the support of someone they trust. Confidentiality is critical and secrets like this can be a burden for friends to keep. People need to know that they may never fully recover from the experience, but in the end, the satisfaction far outweighs the regrets. The best two words of advice I have heard come from Douglas Adams in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, “Don’t Panic.”

What can people do to raise awareness about animals in labs—how can people help with your work?
People need to educate themselves so they can confidently discuss animal research. Too often, people shy away from the issue thinking it’s hard to argue and always comes down to a choice between a mouse or a child. In reality, vivisection is a choice between valuable clinical research and outdated, unreliable animal research—you need not love animals to hate animal research. This scientifically flawed research will end eventually, but we need to help it along.

What gives you hope?
Hope is something that comes and goes for me. I get inspired by some of my heroes, like Dr. Jane Goodall, who supports our campaigns and changed forever humankind’s relationship with our closest cousin, the chimpanzee. She literally wrote the book on hope, A Reason for Hope, which I highly recommend.

I also draw courage and inspiration some of the animals I’ve met along the way, who keep their spirit despite unfathomable hardship. Monkey #20600, known by some of us as Joplin, was one such strong character. I met her in the Oregon Primate Center’s quarantine with a group of 100 rhesus macaques captured and shipped from China. Something about her resilience impressed me. Her entire world, family and culture had just been abruptly destroyed and her life reduced to two feet by two feet of stainless steel solitary confinement. While the rest of her troop were understandably cowering in the corners and pulling their hair out, Joplin defiantly stared down her human captors with a look of collected defiance.

I am very proud to have played a part in getting 22 capuchins released from the Oregon Primate Center. These were some of the primates abused the worst, some spending more than 20 years alone in a tiny cage being injected with psychotropic drugs. Their retirement to zoos in Austin, Texas and Richmond, Virginia also gives me hope. Coulston, a notorious chimpanzee and monkey laboratory in New Mexico, was also closed recently from outside pressure that included an eight-year campaign by IDA. We must celebrate these important victories and use them to keep fighting for the abolition of institutionalized animal cruelty.

To contact Matt Rossell, call (503) 249-9996 or e-mail matt@idausa.org. To learn about In Defense of Animals and their campaigns visit www.idausa.org or call (415) 388-9641. For news on the OHSU lawsuit see www.boycottohsu.com. To learn about the use of animals in medical experiments, Rossell recommends Sacred Cows and Golden Geese: the Human Costs of Animal Experimentation by Drs. Jean and Ray Greek (Continuum) and their new book on the subject, Specious Science.


 


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