09/03/2017 14:26 EDT | Updated 09/05/2017 15:23 EDT

I Spent A Night Exposing What Really Goes On In A Factory Farm

We documented every room, every injury — the dismembered piglet tails all over the floor, the castration wounds, the dumpsters of dead animals.

Jo-Anne McArthur/We Animals

I remember the first time I entered an industrial pig barn, almost 10 years ago. After 20 minutes of taking photos, hands shaking, eyes round with fear and disbelief, I told the seasoned investigators I was with that I'd gotten what I needed and was ready to go. They looked at me quizzically. "No," one replied. "We're here all night."

I thought there was no way that I could endure it. Physically, emotionally, there was no way I could stay in this building full of suffering. But we stayed. We documented every room, every injury — the dismembered piglet tails all over the floor, the castration wounds, the dumpsters of dead animals, the filth.

We stayed all night. We filmed it all. And it's good that we did. Those images have been used in campaigns worldwide to expose and help end the cruelty that is industrial farming.

The first question people always ask me is about access. For the most part, organized investigations take place at night. We'd love to be above board, visit with no risks, but the lives of animals confined in industrial barns are carefully and deliberately concealed from the public. So investigators take risks. I don't break in. I go through unlocked doors. I document and I leave. Other activists have been caught, threatened, brutally beaten, detained, even jailed for their actions.

Honestly, I hate the whole experience. I'm always scared of getting caught. Of what I'm seeing. Scared that we might have to run for it before the job is done, the job I've come such a long way to do. Adrenalin always kicks in. Part of the experience of being an investigator, for me, is simply managing the flight response.

The animals I document are so underrepresented in our world. We love dogs and cats, we revere elephants and tigers. But even self-proclaimed animal lovers lower their eyes and turn away at the mention of the animals suffering in the greatest numbers — those on factory farms. And so we go in to take photos and film so that the world can see.

The last thing I feel like is a hero when I'm in these places, trembling, wanting to leave, trying to help end factory farming.

You can always smell a farm before you see it. In many farms, especially pig barns, your eyes will start to water from the burn of ammonia. My heart always aches for these animals who will only leave the cages and concrete cells and dirty floors on the day they're slaughtered.

Some industrial farms are cleaner than others. Some are modernized, mechanized. But they all confine animals with an inhumane amount of space. Imagine never being able to turn around. Never having a moment of privacy. No matter the farm, it's always far from decent, or natural, or kind.

One of my recent investigations was inside a chicken barn. Birds bred for meat are referred to as "broilers." When we met them, the birds were still peeping like babies, just a few weeks old. In fact, they'll still be peeping like this when they're slaughtered. It's incredible that they are killed so young — modern farming has bred them to grow so quickly that they reach market weight at just six or seven weeks old. Incredibly, chickens represent six out of seven farm animals slaughtered in Canada, with similar numbers reflected around the world.

The chickens were naturally curious and clambered up on the camera bag I set down, pecking eagerly at the coveralls we wear during investigative work. These birds were still quite mobile and it disturbed me to think of the pain their bodies would endure all too soon when their bulking bodies, designed to grow too quickly and too large for their legs, became too painful to carry.

Jo-Anne McArthur/We Animals

People call me a hero for the work I do. But the last thing I feel like is a hero when I'm in these places, trembling, wanting to leave, trying to help end factory farming but unable to help the thousands of individuals all around me. You face the animals, you make eye contact with them, then you move on and face the next, and the next, and the next. There I am, unable to help the individuals right in front of me, beings innocent of any crime which could possibly justify this relentless incarceration.

Experiencing this helplessness can lead to feelings of resignation, depression and incapacity. For investigators, it can all become too much, too hard, too exhausting. We feel we're shouting as loud as we can and no one's hearing.

I've experienced all of that. But living in that state of hopelessness and helplessness is no remedy for the animals.

The founder of VINE Sanctuary, Pattrice Jones, says that hope is not a thing you feel, but a thing you do. I find hope in the act of putting one foot in front of the other, in one person reached, and one day at a time. I have to, because that's how I can stay in this for the long game. I focus on change. On good. On the possibility of an end to animal suffering. Hope is a thing I do.

The broilers I photographed that night are long gone. They've been eaten. The birds who replaced them are just now gone as well. I couldn't help those individuals. But I keep my promise to them and to all the animals I meet and who suffer by the billions at our hands.

My promise is to bear witness to their lives. To tell their stories with films like the one my team just released, Promises. My promise is to never turn away.

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