Saving animals undercover

Want to know what it's like to be an animal rights investigator? Gem de Silva from Tracks Investigations reveals all

In 2021, all over the world, animal rights investigators look into and reveal instances of abuse and cruelty, using undercover footage and exposés. Many of these projects have brought about long-needed laws and legislation, to better protect the innocent animals caught up in the exploitation.

This wasn't always the case, though. How did it all begin, and why is film so powerful? We talk to the pioneer of undercover filming and investigations, Gem de Silva, executive director of Tracks Investigations.

Hi, Gem! Please, tell us about how you became vegan.

I am not a traditional animal lover; I did not have pets as a child or play with idyllic farmyard toy animals. Quite frankly, my only relationship with animals as a child and teenager was eating the flesh on my dinner plate.

In the mid-80s, I had a political awakening, and began campaigning against issues such as racism, which I had experienced as a mixed-race kid immigrating to the UK from Sri Lanka at a young age.

I also was standing up for the people less fortunate in society and worked at a welfare rights centre, helping people to survive the trauma of unemployment, which was rife at the time. My journey to veganism only came about after reading the seminal book, Animal Liberation, by Peter Singer.

It blew my mind and altered the way I looked at the world. The premise of the book was that animals have rights, and to deny them rights is a form of speciesism. It seemed a logical extension to other 'isms' that I was against.

After reading the book I immediately became vegetarian - it was only after I entered a factory farm for the first time that I began vegan.

When did you first become involved in animal welfare investigations?

I began investigating animal issues in 1988, having joined a film and video collective in Oxford. Its motto was 'Giving voice to those denied a voice in mainstream media'.

Having discovered Singer's book, I decided to put what I learnt from that together with my interest in filmmaking to generate stories about the plight of animals.

No one had previously gone undercover in the UK and Europe to expose the atrocities that happen every day on factory farms. I was the first activist to do so, as I had access to these new video cameras through the film workshop.

Over two years, I began filming in UK factory farms. I had an idea of what to expect - but nothing can really prepare you for when you enter a factory farm for the first time. I remember the details vividly… It is something I will never forget.

The first farm I investigated was a broiler chicken unit. These poor birds reach their slaughter weight in a mere six weeks. Their jungle fowl ancestors have a life span of seven years.

\"The world is not going to stop abusing animals overnight. But change is happening\"

When I entered the large barn full of 20 to 30 thousand chickens all my senses were immediately attacked… But I had to get into filmmaking mode - to put my emotions to one side. I was here to do a job!

I started to focus on individual birds, but it is hard to focus on one thing when there is so much suffering to document. I got home exhausted and tried to wash away the dirt - but the smell of the unit lingered on me. The images of suffering ingrained on my retinas.

What was going undercover for animals like back then?

Going undercover to film factory farms was a new thing in the 80's. No one had done it - I can honestly say we were pioneers in this approach, which is so (thankfully) prevalent these days.

Together with some friends, we started funding our clandestine investigations by running animal rights information stalls.

That generated funds for petrol money and videotapes. These were the days before camcorders, so to film I had to strap a heavy video camera and VHS recorder to my back. Not an easy task when you're trying to go unnoticed!

It was the days before the internet and Google maps - so you would spend days at the local library researching potential locations - via Yellow Pages and ordinance
survey maps.

But like now - the key thing was that we were determined to get the footage so we could tell the hidden stories of animals on factory farms.

You made the first-ever film documentary with footage from inside factory farms. How was it received?

After two years of filming inside a range of factory farms, we made a self-funded film about farm animals called Meathead.

It was a drama documentary about a man gorging on meat intercut with factory farm footage accompanied by contemporary music from bands we liked.

We got two prominent musicians of the era - Captain Sensible and Lene Lovich to act for free in the film. It was well received - it screened in full on an MTV-style programme where I was interviewed by Boy George.

I was asked how people should act after seeing the film - I advocated the power of the consumer to change the ways animals are treated.

Fast forward 30 years. Animal protection issues are in the mainstream. Our supermarkets and restaurants are falling over themselves to satisfy the ever-expanding market of conscious consumers.

Veganism is no longer the preserve of 'outsiders' - it has crashed through the middle of society.


Tell us a bit more about Tracks.

After setting up and running the Investigations Unit at Compassion in World Farming (CIWF, ciwf.org.uk), I then moved on to be director of investigations at Cruelty Free international (crueltyfreeinternational.org).

Investigations were now in my blood, so 15 years ago, I co-founded Tracks. I realised there was a need for an ethical investigation agency to support the work of leading animal protection charities around the world.

To date, we have conducted over 250 investigative projects for 35 animal protection and conservation groups in 57 countries, which have illuminated the lives of animals used for food, fashion, entertainment, companionship, religion and experimentation.

Tracks seeks to help organisations shock the world through using the power of image as a campaigning tool to create change. I believe investigations are the most powerful tool we have to expose the cruel and abusive treatment of animals.

Our work is frequently featured in the media, encouraging consumers to make more informed decisions each time they choose what to eat. It also persuades policymakers and companies to make meaningful changes for animals.

How do Tracks work to document, expose and prevent animal cruelty?

Firstly, it is vital to get a good understanding on why the project has been commissioned. How it is going to be used by the group? What information and images are required for the project, such as underlying animal welfare or environmental issues to be highlighted?

We then progress to the 3 Rs. Research, research, and research! A combination of mining data, contacting people who know something about the Issue and trawling the internet to identify locations and activities of specific targets.

Finally, we move onto preparing logistics. This could include setting up fake companies and websites to help with cover stories that enable us to gain access to the activity that we want to expose, to modifying covert equipment for the project.

It is so vital that when we start the project, we have everything in place so we can focus on getting the imagery needed.

Some investigations can be undertaken in a few weeks, but in some instances, like when infiltrating animal labs, we have been known to work for over a year on a project.

\"To date, we have conducted over 250 investigative projects for 35 animal protection and conservation groups in 57 countries\"

What does it take to be an animal cruelty investigator?

It is important not to spend time being too depressed about an issue, but to have hope. I suppose I am an optimist, but also a realist. The world is not going to stop abusing animals overnight. But change is happening. I am fortunate to be able to be part of that change.

Bearing witness is incredibly difficult. It does hit your emotions. You have got to remember the images you take are not yours to keep in your head.

It is your duty to put them out there or let organisations get them out there. By doing that, it helps you keep sane; knowing that your actions have made a difference.


How can people at home help with animal rights issues?

Put simply - adopting a plant-based diet is the most effective way of ensuring we don't go down the route of 'Environmental Armageddon' by benefiting from the lives of billions of animals, whilst ensuring you, the individual, lead a healthy life. It is a no-brainer.

Do support animal protection groups in their campaigns to change legislation. But never underestimate the power you have as a conscious consumer to make the world a better place.

For more from Gem, visit tracksinvestigations.org and follow @tracks.eco.spooks


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