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TJ Tumasse: Undercover Investigator

Story and Photos Holly Feral

Web Feature sponsor GoodBites

Originally published in Driftwood Issue One

In 2007, TJ Tumasse kissed his mother good-bye. He got in his four-wheel-drive truck and blasted “Wherever I May Roam” by Metallica as he drove off toward his new life as an undercover investigator of factory farms.

You’re likely familiar with TJ’s work. From 2007 to 2013, he embedded himself in 16 factory slaughterhouses across the U.S. Footage from his hidden cameras has been referenced in Time magazine and the New York Times. You might have even seen him in silhouette speaking through a voice modulator on network news about the animal abuse he’d witnessed.

We all know the work of undercover investigators; it’s the evidence they collect that gives meaning and urgency to the vegan movement. But we know little about the people who undertake to hide a camera in a bag and step onto the kill floor, and for good reason. Many of them are ex-military who reach out to animal rights organizations as independent contractors. These people have experience with violent work conditions. Even so, most retired undercover investigators live in reclusion, unable to face society after the horrors they’ve witnessed. TJ was an artist who had just graduated college on a football scholarship.

Life was full of easy concerns until he and his brother, a philosophy major, read Animal Liberation by Peter Singer near the end of TJ’s college career. TJ was no more than two chapters in before he’d decided to go vegan.

After graduation, he sent a shot-in-the-dark letter to PETA offering his services as a graphic designer. He ended it with “P.S. I’m also like 6'4", I’m a pretty tough dude. Used to play football. If you need somebody, maybe I can work undercover and take video on factory farms.”

They contacted him pretty quickly and set up a phone interview. A few days later, he drove up to meet them in person.

“They showed me the equipment I was going to be using, what buttons did what, and they said, ‘Figure out how to use it. Figure out what works. Practice. You start in two weeks.’”

To TJ, it all seemed to happen fast. Then again, no amount of time can prepare someone for the reality of a slaughterhouse.

“I thought I knew what I was in for,” says TJ. “I thought I was prepared. I’d seen tons of undercover footage. I’d watched Earthlings from start to finish... Those things can never prepare you for what happens when your five senses are exposed to the reality of that kill floor. The first time you walk into that room, it takes your breath away. You can’t breathe, you can’t think. You can’t imagine.”

Breathless and dizzy, he had to maintain the composure of his character. He went on from turkey farms in the South to hog farms in the Midwest, leaving parts of himself behind each time.

“A big part of what stays there is your illusion that this is all okay. That the world’s a nice place. That people are kind. That illusion is shattered when you see the kill floor. People are not kind in many, many ways in many instances,” says TJ. “Part of what I feel like I left behind was the part of me that believes we can live in peace. It’s like experiencing war.”

That first night, TJ went through the reactions you’d expect for an animal lover who had just spent the day playing accomplice to the killing of thousands of creatures. He cried. He had nightmares. But he also had more work to do. Being an investigator means working two full-time positions: farm worker by day, investigator by night. TJ didn’t have time to process what he’d just witnessed.

“You have to write down and think about and relive all of your experiences. You have to somehow find the strength to make yourself dinner. You have to continue to work.”

Though TJ might not have felt prepared for the horrors that awaited him, it’s as if he were crafted singularly for the job. As a boy exploring the land around the “gentleman’s farm” he and his brothers grew up on, TJ would bring home injured animals. Without any formal training, he nursed them back to health before releasing them into the wild.

He also had the benefit of growing up in the presence of a hero.

When he was 10 years old, his mother Sue gathered her children and moved 2,000 miles across the country. After a decade as a stay-at-home mom, she found a full-time job, raised three kids by herself, and went back to school to get her teaching certificate.

“My mother is my hero,” says TJ. “My early childhood was rough. My dad was not a very nice man, very abusive of my mother and my brothers and I. I learned very early on what manipulation and abuse was like, especially in terms of men abusing women. That’s also something I would never do; never exploit an animal, never exploit a woman. And I don’t take kindly to that sort of exploitation, either.”

His father’s abusiveness had a massive impact on TJ’s mental state as a young man. He struggled with depression and anxiety. ADHD and dyslexia made school difficult. TJ couldn’t understand his mother’s optimism. It wasn’t until later that her lessons started to make sense, when he was struggling to face himself and the world after experiencing the despair of working undercover inside businesses based on animal cruelty.

“She demonstrated for me—instead of telling me what to think—an approach to life that was very accepting of others and very peaceful. And very…kind. She’s genuinely very good and kind, and she’s experienced a lot of things that could have made her otherwise, but she chooses to be that way.”

The day he became an undercover investigator, he told his mother, “There aren’t very many people who can do this. I feel like I have to do this because I can.”

Living as an undercover investigator, you take all your worldly possessions, put them in a vehicle, and drive state to state, town to town, across mostly the Midwest and southern U.S., working in horrible, degrading places week after week, month after month, year after year.

“In doing this, you have to fit in, in that rural, farming, redneck culture,” TJ says. “You can’t be yourself. You can’t be a complete person. You have to be a different version of yourself. That reality is hard to deal with. You can’t even be yourself when you go out in that town that you’re staying in because you are bound to meet someone who knows someone who works at that facility you’re working in. I had to always be this knockoff redneck caricature of myself.”

While most college grads spend their twenties navigating social relationships and learning to become their best self, TJ spent his hiding his thoughts and feelings from everyone around him. His family members were his only confidants while he spent his nights alone in hotel rooms reliving the horrors of his days. He learned to do little things to keep his confidence afloat. He went to see the first Jason Bourne movie and it gave him a jolt of excitement to watch Matt Damon play a spy—when he was becoming one in real life.

“It made me feel like a total badass.”

Confidence, according to TJ, is the most important asset an undercover investigator can have.

“If you’re asking somebody for information, if you’re trying to find out which slaughterhouse the truck full of chickens is going to and you have to ask that question to the driver and to your boss, you have to find a way to ask that without raising suspicion,” says TJ. “Even if your character is some dumb redneck that’s asking because he’s uneducated, your confidence is going to sell it.”

He bought a wallet with the words “Bad Mother Fucker” stamped on it. At times when the realities of working on a killing floor, having to kill the animals you want to protect, would threaten to sink him, he’d take out his wallet and focus on the words. They embodied a voice from his subconscious that said, “You can get the shot that you need. You can find the evidence you’re looking for. You’re tough enough to make this happen. You can do it. You’re a bad mother fucker.”

In that way, TJ made it six years as an undercover investigator, an incredible tenure for such a position. By the time he retired from investigating in 2013, his body hurt constantly from injuries and wear and he was starting to recognize emotional problems in himself.

“I was kinder than another person would have been in the same situation. I was doing this for the greater good. I was taking video to show other people the reality of the suffering. All these things I know. And all of these things are true. But it doesn’t change the fact that, with my own two hands, I tortured animals, for a long time. For six years. And that’s a hard thing to come to grips with, no matter what my reasoning for it was, no matter if it was for the greater good.”

Professionally, he’d worked himself into a corner. There are only so many farms to work before you’ve worked them all. And yet, he couldn’t completely walk away.

“What’s one more case?” TJ thought. “What’s two more months? They’re spending their entire lives in these horrible, horrible places. What’s a couple more months of my time? What’s another year? What’s another two years?”

When he left investigations for good, he knew he would eventually have to find another way to help the animals, but he took time to help himself, too. He’s rekindling his relationship with art. He hikes and works on motorcycles. He knows that he has to be mentally sound. He talks to his mother every week and falls back on her example to find balance in an unstable world.

“My mother never was angry or depressed or cynical or bitter,” says TJ. “The circumstances that life throws at you [are] always going to be tough. The choice is yours how to approach it and how to respond to it.”

Now he works for the Animal Legal Defense Fund. He’s creating an undercover investigation unit, meaning there will be someone with inside experience acting as a liaison to the agents in the field. Where most undercover investigators retire to a quiet life, TJ speaks as often as he can. And he recently learned that one of his last undercover cases led to a change in Walmart’s practices. They no longer purchase from farms that use gestation crates.

“I have to know that experience was not in vain.”

Although he doesn’t believe the human race will change in time to save itself from the environmental disasters caused by animal farming, he does believe that any reduction in the suffering of animals is an end in of itself, and that makes his work invaluable.

“Their existence has been made better,” says TJ. “That’s a complete act all on its own.”

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