BOOK REVIEW: Animal Spy: Animal Welfare Behind Enemy Lines

Animal Spy: Animal Welfare Behind Enemy Lines

Undercover reporting is the premier animal rights resource of the new millennium. In the US, undercover video footage from groups such as Mercy for Animals, Compassion Over Killing, and the Humane Society of the US have made tremendous strides in educating the public about the cruel reality that goes on behind the scenes in commercial animal industries. Indeed, this information has been so publicly embarrassing for some industries that Big Ag is pushing state laws criminalizing photography or recording devices on factory farms and puppy mills. This is, of course, more appealing to the industries rather than simply correcting the egregious cruelties in the first place.

While these American investigators have yet to write a book on their experiences, we do have Animal Spy, from an RSPCA investigator who has engaged in similar undercover reporting in the UK.

Of greatest interest to me was Spamer’s investigation into the illegal trafficking of wild-caught monkeys into Western laboratory research. Spamer explains:

American dealers and animal-broking companies buy more [monkeys] than everybody else put together, about a third of the legal trade, with the UK next in line. That’s the open side … and it shelters and shades the parallel universe of the illegal trappers and dealers.

Spamer introduces us to an illegal animal dealer in Africa with whom he sets up a business deal to purchase monkeys for a fictional research firm. We quickly learn that the animal dealer was involved in all sorts of shady business, including procuring poached rhino horn, and was

pleased to tell me all about his long experience and huge success in bringing wild-caught primates for laboratory experimentation to dealers in the UK and the USA.


After catching a glimpse of some of the dealer’s paperwork from his previous (real-life) sales, Spamer reports:

Later, back in the UK, we would find that the PO box was a mailing address for a firm describing itself as one of the world’s leading pharmaceuticals companies.

The dealer explained his methods of getting primates out of their native lands and into lab-bound shipping crates thusly:

He also made it plan that we were not to mention research during our negotiations with Ghanaian officials. A bribe would ensure that they didn’t look at the paperwork and didn’t ask any awkward questions, but we must not make matters more difficult by using words in their presence that they didn’t want to hear.

Despite all of this damning evidence to the contrary, governments are choosing to ignore common sense and turn their heads away from this illicit trade:

The official government position in the UK and African countries is that there is virtually no illegal trade in wild primates. Such trade does not occur and has not occurred, not for sale as pets and absolutely certainly not for research.

When the RSPCA concluded their report, the information Spamer had found was potentially highly embarrassing to political leaders. However, officials simply chose to go on doing as they had.

So that was how far the Ghana government’s actions had reached; nowhere at all. They hadn’t done anything, apart from writing a memo saying they had.

Clearly, it’s going to take much more than some embarrassing tape to do anything about this global, extremely profitable trade. As long as primates remain in top demand for vivisection purposes, we can expect to continue to see them plucked from the wild for an easy buck.

Spamer also found his way into other, lesser-known animal industries. You’ll learn the story behind that reindeer meat that’s spotted on so many trendy menus.

Reindeer are not farmed. They are herded, managed in a loose kind of way, but they are wild animals.

Although most Americans associate dog fighting with the US, it is also re-emerging as an issue in Europe. Once the pursuit of American rednecks and hate groups, dog fighting in the past few decades has also migrated into the urban gang subculture. Elsewhere, the bloodsport seems to have retained its racist roots, as

[O]ne very successful [dog fighting] breeding operation is run by a group of neo-Nazis in Finland.

These fellows make their money by shipping puppies all over the world, including into European countries in which pit bull terriers are banned.

Above were all of the good and worthwhile areas of the book. Now on to the not-so-good stuff.

It’s a well-known fact that undercover investigators may have to engage in activities that contradict their morals in order to not “blow their cover” and place themselves and their investigations at risk. For the vegetarians and vegans who take part in animal industry investigations, this often means eating meat. It’s an unpleasant aspect of the job, but it’s for the greater good. Now imagine my dismay when I read Spamer’s line about having to dine on meat stew with an African wildlife smuggler: “[the] excellent flavor and tastiness of the stew help[ed] to suspend any feelings of vegetarian guilt.” Ok, I get it. You’re sitting across the table from an infamous rhino-horn smuggler, and you don’t think it’s wise to order the tofu burger. Fine. But an AR investigator praising meat makes about as much sense as an Amnesty International investigator talking about how, golly gee, torture’s wrong but it sure is fun to flail that whip around.

Speaking of torture, I also have to take issues with what I can only see as Spamer’s inhumane treatment of his readers in his chapter on “crush” videos. For those who are unaware, “crush” videos are a type of pornography that depict the torment and death of small animals. During one investigation, Spamer uncovers an individual who is producing these films for sale; the first time production of such materials is found in Britain. Clearly, this information could have been imparted in a way both sensitive to the animals abused for these films and the readers. Instead, Spamer offers up a hauntingly graphic, piece-by-piece recap of three different sequences contained within the confiscated tapes. My reading choices are not squeamish, and I do read a great deal of animal rights material, so it’s not as if I’m not used to references to cruelty. However, Spamer really took the cake with his pointlessly explicit passages, which no doubt lost many readers less forgiving than me.

(Review Originally appeared at


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