Louise Wallis, former president of the Vegan Society, talks about her activism and the psychological toll of working undercover
Louise Wallis is an important figure in the animal rights world: a former president of The Vegan Society, she founded World Vegan Day. Now Louise runs Karamel – a vegan dining and performance space in north London (famous for its delicious roasts). In the 90s, Louise spent time working undercover with lab animals, eventually publishing the results of her work in the mainstream media, exposing horrific practices to the wider community. She shares details of that time – and how the work affected her.
You were vegan by the time you were 18. Veganism is still not part of the mainstream, but would have been even more ‘unusual’ when you made the change. What inspired you to go vegan? Do you think there are certain personality types – independent thinking and determination for example, that made it possible for you to choose and stick with this path?
I’ve always felt close to animals, and considered them friends. I went vegan in 1983 at 18. I’d been veggie for a couple of months when I joined my local animal rights group in Southampton, and met my first boyfriend. We often joined forces with another group in Portsmouth that had a lot of vegan members. Some of them even ran a vegan shop called Time For Change, a truly radical move at a time when people could barely get their heads around vegetarianism. They intrigued me, and I enjoyed hanging out with them. Then I read a Vegan Society leaflet which explained veganism, clearly and simply. In that instant I realised that vegetarianism was a cop out, and still supported the very industries I wanted to put out of business. So I decided to go vegan, with my boyfriend. We were both living at home at the time, so we booked ourselves a self-catering holiday in Jersey, where we taught ourselves to cook vegan. It was a very sweet and romantic time. I’m not sure if my personality type played a part – it’s an interesting question. I guess I can be quite stubborn. Once I’d read that leaflet, I couldn’t un-know what I’d learnt about dairy and egg production. To me, they weren’t food anymore – just products of immense cruelty and suffering. I’d have gagged if I’d tried to eat them.
Can you tell me a little bit about what inspired you to start working undercover?
I was inspired after seeing an undercover investigation in the national news. My friend Sarah Kite had got a job at a notorious contract testing laboratory called Huntingdon Life Sciences, and her photos of beagle dogs were all over the front pages. This was the first I knew of it! I thought: Wow, what a powerful way to show people what’s going on behind closed doors. To me, it seemed the single most effective thing you could do to show the public the reality of animals’ lives. Sarah set a great example. So a few months later when I saw a trainee animal technician job advertised in my local newspaper, I knew I had to go for it.
What undercover jobs did you do, and for how long?
I worked as a trainee animal technician in two separate animal research laboratories for seven months. Five months at Smith Kline Beecham’s Toxicology Unit in Essex, and then two months at St Bartholomew’s Medical School in central London. Trainees are not required to do experiments, as you need a Home Office licence for that. The role was to look after the animals – to feed them, clean out their cages, and maintain records, which I knew I could handle.
Do you feel working in these environments took a toll on you psychologically? If so, how?
Yes it was tough, knowing that I couldn’t protect or rescue the animals I met, for the sake of the investigation. I had to keep reminding myself of the long term goal. I started out in the rodent unit, where I saw routine mutilations like baby mice having toes cut off (as a means of identification). Unfortunately it was a sterile building – meaning staff had to change into special clothes every time they entered – and I’d never be able to smuggle in a camera. So I requested a transfer to the dog unit, which was eventually granted. There I was given 24 male beagles to look after. A mixed blessing. I was relieved to be in a less stringent situation where I could take photos and film, but it was impossible not to get attached. They were so sweet and gentle (one of the reasons beagles are used for experiments). I made friends with most, but others were terrified, and would cower in the corner. This really upset me. I daydreamed constantly, hatching up daring escape plans and rescues. Had I come up with a workable one, I might even have got through with it – however mad that sounds – just to get them out of there. But of course the place was too secure – security fences, cameras, alarms etc. I couldn’t take it anymore, so decided to move on to another laboratory: St Bartholomew’s Medical School.
What was the result of working undercover, in terms of what your investigations achieved?
My investigation ended abruptly and unexpectedly when I was called into the manager’s office one morning, and sacked. I’d been rumbled – most likely as a result of a police tip off. (Years later I discovered that the flat I’d moved into when working undercover had been the base of an undercover cop. How bizarre is that?). But after seven months it was actually a relief. I took all the photos, film footage and info, straight to the National Anti-Vivisection Society (NAVS), where I’d worked a campaigns officer. We spent several months collating the information and then launched a report at a press conference, where it made national news. NAVS also launched a national campaign called Vivisection in Britain, as well as a second campaign called Free the Beagles, aiming to re-home the ones I’d looked after. Tragically SmithKline Beecham refused to release the 24 dogs and killed them.
It can’t be easy working undercover – did you feel nervous about your cover getting blown? Was it hard to maintain your composure under pressure?
Yes it was nerve-wracking working undercover and very easy to get paranoid, but in reality the last thing on your colleagues’ minds is that you might be a spy. But I did take some precautions – I’d bring my own sandwiches to work (a common practice) deliberately using fake ham and cheeze. Black coffee isn’t that unusual, thankfully! Sometimes my colleagues would even joke about animal rights activists, these were some of the most surreal moments. The secrecy was hard. I could only tell a couple of people what I was up to, and one of these was my boyfriend, so it was very lonely at times. I wrote a diary every day, it became like a friend really and kept me sane.
Did you ever feel like you had to do anything you were uncomfortable with?
No. I was clear from day one that my role was a witness, and that I would *never* participate, no matter what happened. Being a trainee this was generally fine, but one incident stays with me. I used to attend a day-release animal technology course once a week, which got me out of the lab and gave me an insight into the theory that trainees are taught. One afternoon the tutor presented us with several rats and explained we would be learning how to ‘euthanise’ them by ‘cervical dislocation’ (a euphemism for breaking their necks). We watched as he killed one in front of us, by pressing a pencil down hard on the rat’s neck and the sharply pulling its tail. When we were asked to have a go. I said: “No, I don’t feel ready yet”. This was accepted. I think it’s probably quite common for trainees to feel ‘squeamish’ – at least at first, before they become desensitised. So it was ok for me to say no, and didn’t arouse any suspicions. I know my refusal made no difference to that rat – who was killed anyway, by someone else – but it certainly made a difference to me, to my mental health, which would have suffered had I felt forced to do this.
Did you ever come into contact with Bob Lambert (an infamous undercover police officer who posed as an animal rights activist, and fathered a child with another activist)? If so, did you have any suspicions about him?
I may have done, as my friends certainly did, but I can’t honestly remember. I did encounter another undercover policeman, John Dines, when he was posing as the boyfriend of my friend Helen Steel. When I happened to mention I was looking for a flat, he suggested I move into the one he was vacating (to move in with Helen). This was on Burgoyne Road, just off Green Lanes in north London. So I did. And then was horrified, years later, when I found out his true identity. To this day I still wonder if the flat was bugged and being monitored. I suspect it was, and shudder every time I think of it. I also think this is how I got the sack from my undercover investigation.
Do you see this work as your biggest ‘success’ when it comes to your work for animals? If not, what do you see as your proudest accomplishment?
I am very proud of working undercover, and it is something that people seem to consider heroic although I don’t think of it, or myself, in that way. I did it because of the impact it has – evidence that cannot be denied. And I continue to encourage others to go undercover, especially as there are now many animal advocacy organisations looking for people who are willing to work undercover, for a day or two or longer periods of time. It is so worthwhile and they can support you while you do it. I would say my biggest – and by this I mean lasting – ‘success’ is World Vegan Day which I founded in 1994 when I was president of The Vegan Society – a small idea that’s become a global phenomenon. It’s truly astonishing to see the momentum it’s gathered in 22 years, and of course it can only grow – until one day, we won’t need it anymore.
People rave about the food at Karamel – do you see presenting veganism is this positive (and delicious) way as a form of activism?
Absolutely. This is the front line for positive change. We are normalising veganism by helping people realise that at the end of the day vegan food is just FOOD – and damn tasty too. So what’s the problem? Many non-vegans come to Karamel for gigs and events, so if they want to eat they have to eat vegan food. So they do and then realise, hey this isn’t so bad after all. It removes the stigma and the weirdness attached to veganism – and, we hope, plants a little seed that will one day bear fruit. That’s our strategy in a nutshell – the Sunday Roast being our weapon of choice.
What are your plans for the future in terms of animal advocacy?
I would like to write a book – most likely a memoir. I was very inspired by Jasmin Singer’s memoir Always Too Much And Never Enough, which has a partly vegan theme. Jasmin is co-director of the animal advocacy organisation Our Hen House, and recently started working for a fantastic magazine in the US. Reading her story has convinced me to tell mine. Now I just need to find the time.