Sunday, May 17, 2009

Acitivism: Life of the Undercover Investigator

Read about how one college animal rights activist has gone on to do undercover investigative work.

Going undercover for animal rights
by Van Wallach
published in the Princeton Alumni Weekly

If you viewed a recent People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) video of workers stomping on turkeys’ heads at a plant in West Virginia, you might think twice about eating turkey at Thanksgiving. One of the individuals behind planning that video was Hannah Schein ’96, an investigations specialist at PETA since 2002 who helped arrange an undercover operation at the plant.

Besides hiring and training undercover operatives, Schein does fieldwork herself. It requires drama skills and knowledge of the criminal-justice system and religious practices; Schein specializes in scrutinizing kosher food plants, which prepare meat according to Jewish dietary requirements. Investigations often start with a call from a whistleblower at a plant, alerting PETA of problems. The group tries to meet with companies to discuss concerns and solutions. If that fails and PETA decides the plant warrants an investigation, Schein gets to work. She studies a company’s operations for months, then visits a site incognito through a business or personal cover — such as by signing up for a public tour. If it’s legal, she brings hidden recording devices to note violations of animal-protection laws. She might also try to get an operative hired. After that, PETA publicizes the findings and alerts prosecutors and regulatory agencies to prod them to act.

Gaining access “can take a lot of legwork,” says Schein, a Woodrow Wilson School major at Princeton. In October 2007 she went undercover to film a kosher slaughterhouse in Uruguay that used a “shackle-and-hoist” slaughtering system: Cattle are chained by one leg and hoisted in the air to have their throats cut. In 2006 Schein and a PETA colleague confronted the singer BeyoncĂ© in a restaurant to try to persuade her to stop wearing fur and not to include it in her clothing line.

“Our role is to hold companies’ feet to the fire in obeying the humane handling and slaughtering law,” says Schein, who now focuses on training undercover operatives and strategy for PETA more than actual fieldwork. In the Uruguay case, the publicity led rabbis in Israel to urge plants to phase out the shackle-and-hoist approach, although Schein, who observes religious dietary rules, doesn’t know if that has happened.

A passion for alleviating animals’ suffering drives Schein, a vegan who eats no meat, eggs, or dairy products. While “always an animal lover,” she ate meat and wore leather until she met her husband, PETA senior researcher Philip Schein, in 1998. At the time, both were program directors for Hillel chapters, Hannah at Princeton and Philip at Syracuse University. Philip was a vegan, and she soon adopted that lifestyle.

Undercover work for Schein and her operatives is emotionally draining and stressful: Not only are they watching animals suffer, but during an operation they have to record useful footage. “As long as I have the energy, I’ll do it,” she says. “I’d feel worse not being on the front lines.”

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