Cody Carlson had no way of preparing for this moment. He was a Manhattan kid, days removed from working as an analyst for a business-intelligence firm, where he scrutinized corporations and their executives.
Now he was standing in a bleak barn at New York's largest dairy farm.
There was a medieval feel to the place. Cows were wedged head-to-tail in pens carpeted with their own waste. The air was an acrid blend of urine, manure and chemicals. Some animals were left unattended with open sores that leaked puss. Others lay dying in pens, too sick or weak to stand.
"It's incredibly overwhelming," Carlson says. "Your brain can't process seeing this many animals crammed together in one place."
His first job, technically speaking, was to repair the mechanism that pulled manure from the barn.
His real job: covertly filming it all for Mercy for Animals.
As espionage goes, it was easier than infiltrating a Pizza Hut. Experience told the Los Angeles, California-based animal-rights group that it could send an undercover operative to a factory-style farm anywhere and it was certain to find abuse.
Carlson had simply been told to find a job in upstate New York. While the work requires punishing labor while surrounded by stench—all for the princely sum of $8 an hour—it isn't like spying on North Korea. Two days later, he was hired by Willet Dairy.
His hidden camera caught employees kicking and shocking animals that wouldn't bend to their will. Supervisor Phil Niles is heard recounting an abuser's greatest hits: how he beat cows with wrenches, smashed their heads with two-by-fours, kicked them when they were too feeble to rise.
"Fucking kicking her, hitting her," he chortles while recalling one incident. "Fucking jumping off the top of the goddamned gate and stomping on her head and shit."
After five weeks of filming, MFA took the footage to ABC's World News. Niles was subsequently charged with misdemeanor animal cruelty. His penalty for 19 years of beating cows in every way imaginable: a $555 fine.
Prosecutors cleared Willet Dairy of any wrongdoing. But the company did take an uppercut to the wallet. After the video went national, Willet was dumped by one of its major buyers, Leprino Foods, the world's largest mozzarella producer.
Carlson didn't wait around for the fallout. He soon re-emerged at Country View Family Farms in Fannettsburg, Pennsylvania, where nearly 3,000 pigs live as pork-products-in-waiting for Hatfield Quality Meats. Once again, his camera caught the gruesomeness of the factory food chain.
Workers threw piglets by their ears and ripped out their testicles with bare hands sans anesthesia. Constantly impregnated sows were kept in cages just 2 feet wide, unable to turn around and allowed to walk just four days a year.
"It's about the most sensory-deprived life you can possibly imagine," says Carlson. "Pigs are incredibly smart animals. They're said to be smarter than dogs. Pigs go so insane from these conditions that they bang their heads back and forth against the cage. It looks like a scene from The Matrix."
But like most states, Pennsylvania provides farmers with sweeping exemptions from cruelty statutes. These laws are simple: If it's commonly practiced in agriculture, it can't be construed as abuse.
Country View veterinarian Jessica Clark admits that the video showed violations of the farm's own standards, but says those issues were corrected before MFA posted the film to the Internet. Because Pennsylvania grants farmers a wide berth in dealing with livestock, no charges were filed.
Carlson soon took a new job working undercover for the Humane Society of the United States. This time he resurfaced in Iowa at Rose Acre Farms, the nation's second-largest egg producer, with nearly 5 million chickens.
His video showed hens packed into cages the size of a filing drawer, where each creature spent life in a space whose floor had the dimensions of a single sheet of paper.
Carlson's job was to cull the dead, the 100 or so hens whose wings and feet became caught in the caging, leaving them to die of thirst or be trampled to death by their cellmates each day.
"One of my colleagues called it 'pulling carpets,' because they stuck to the bottom of the cage," he says. "I actually had a worker tell me he had nightmares from tearing mummified birds off the cage."
Rose Acre was doing nothing illegal. But to HSUS, that was the point. The video depicted something akin to an aviary concentration camp. And not a single government agency showed the slightest concern.
Since the Internet first granted activists a direct pipeline to the public, groups like HSUS, MFA, and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals have waged guerrilla war via undercover video. Each time they've uploaded footage, Big Ag has struggled to explain away what Americans could see with their own eyes.