This article is from Edition 11: The Real Risk Takers
Amy Jones
Written by Amy Jones
Published on 9th September 2021
9 min read

Amy Jones is a photojournalist documenting abusive animal industries around the world - work that involves infiltrating powerful organisations and witnessing gory acts. Here she writes powerfully about her work. 

Warning: this piece contains graphic descriptions and images of animal slaughter.

It’s 32 degrees in Cambodia’s capital city, Phnom Penh, and I’ve just stepped out of a tuk tuk into a busy neighbourhood far from the typical tourist hotspots. The street is teeming with life; women are chatting outside the lower-ground apartments, children are chasing one another and vendors are serving sizzling rice noodles. This is the last place you would expect to find a slaughterhouse, but these apartments form the outer walls of an open-air slaughterhouse in which around 600 pigs are killed every night. 

Using a translation app, I clumsily explain to a local that I want to rent one of the vacant apartments overlooking the killing floor. None of the landlords live in this place. Instead, someone hands me a mobile phone. It’s the owner. She asks no questions, but I think she suspects when I make clear that I need one of the back apartments. She names her price for a month’s rent to be paid to a resident. I hand the phone back and trade the US dollar bills for a small, silver key. 

At 10pm that night, my partner, Paul, and I return to the neighbourhood; it is silent and empty now, except for the occasional street dog skulking in the shadows. We go inside and climb the metal steps to the third floor. As we walk to the end of the unlit corridor to our apartment, I trip slightly on a pile of children’s shoes. The children I’d seen playing that morning were now asleep on the other side of the doors lining the corridor, their rooms filled with the stench of ammonia and pig faeces.

Quietly, we unlock the door and step into a small, dark room with dirt-encrusted walls. The artificial glare from the slaughterhouse filters through the single-barred window. We cross the concrete floor, past empty food packets and broken furniture, to the window, where we can see dozens of pigs in the pens below, likely exhausted from their journey across Thailand’s border.

We set up our camera, ready to document the slaughter. Then we wait.

The Cambodian slaughterhouse - photo courtesy of Amy Jones/Moving Animals

For the first few hours, everything is quiet. The pigs lay close to one another, avoiding the bloodstain from the thousands of pigs before them that marks the middle of the concrete floor. Then, at 11pm, the workers rise from their hammocks. 

The process is almost mechanical: workers approach an animal in pairs. One bludgeons the pig with a metal rod, knocking her to the ground. Then he sits on top of her to hold her still. Through the squealing and the struggling, the other worker cuts through the pig’s throat. We were struck by the fact that some of the workers regularly looked away as the pigs’ throats were slit. As the blood drains from the animal, she is dragged away from the killing floor and thrown into a vat of boiling water to peel the hairs from her body. The workers then turn back to the animals and the process begins again … and again, and again until it is silent.

'We were struck by the fact that some of the workers regularly looked away as the pigs’ throats were slit.'

When a baby shrieks from the room next door, the sound blends in with the cries from the slaughter floor. Every second our senses are taut, anxious that at any moment a worker might glance up, and someone will come crashing through the door and discover our covert filming. 

When we have filmed enough and our nerves can take no more, we pack up and creep back to the street and into our tuk tuk. We are privileged enough to pick up our cameras and leave, but for the workers and families that live in these apartments, this place is literally their backyard.

The Cambodian slaughterhouse - photo courtesy of Amy Jones/Moving Animals

Our footage from that night was released by UK news platform The Guardian, as part of its Animals Farmed series, to help draw attention to the rapidly growing meat industry in South East Asia and how this is impacting animals, workers and communities. The series looks into the unforeseen costs of our global industrialisation of meat and fish consumption, contributing to the growing international debate about our current farming models and the need for change.

The animal-agriculture industry exploits those in society who cannot defend their rights, from the animals legally deemed as ‘property’ to the slaughterhouse workers frequently exposed to trauma, violence and extreme stress. Our investigation strived to encourage conversation around both.

As was the case at this Cambodian slaughterhouse, many of the people employed to slaughter animals come from low-income neighbourhoods and are paid minimum wage to do the dirty work that everyone else prefers to ignore. In the United States, the industry often employs and exploits underage workers and illegal immigrants. In the UK, even after Brexit EU migrants make up 62% of the meat-processing workforce, and unions believe that many are unaware of their rights or how to file a complaint.

Given slaughterhouse work means performing or witnessing acts of violence day in, day out, it isn’t surprising that it has been linked to multiple physical and psychological problems, including post-traumatic stress disorder and perpetration-induced traumatic stress. Studies have also found that this work is linked to higher rates of domestic abuse and drug and alcohol abuse, in turn affecting families and communities.

Paul and I met while working for an animal-advocacy organisation. When we left our London lives to start travelling in 2018, we didn’t want to leave this work behind. We had seen first-hand the importance of photographs and footage in creating change for animals, and over many hours in a south London cafe, discussing how we continue our work on the road, photojournalism and media project Moving Animals was born. 

A 2018 grant from the Culture and Animals Foundation helped kickstart our work, and Moving Animals has grown from a side project into a full-time mission spanning 75 locations across seven countries (we are now in the process of turning our lenses to document the UK and parts of Europe). Our stories and photographs have featured in more than 150 major media outlets, and our investigative footage has received over 25 million video views. 

Amy and Paul in the field - photo courtesy of Amy Jones/Moving Animals

Initially though, slaughterhouses weren’t on the itinerary. Instead we decided to document the negative side of wildlife tourism. From whale shows in the United States to monkey performances in Thailand, wildlife tourism is a multi-billion-pound global industry, propped up by those who pay for these experiences: us. Behind the scenes, many of these animals are subjected to horrific living conditions and abusive training methods to condition them to ‘entertain’ people with tricks and rides - all far from their natural habitats. By ticking off these bucket-list items, backpackers and tourists turn the cogs in an industry that abuses and enchains animals for profit.

Since then, Moving Animals has developed in so many ways. From seeking out factory farms in the middle of the night to gaining access to vivisection-breeding facilities, our work focuses on the damaging industries in which animals are used for food, entertainment, fashion and experimentation. We’ve seen countless animals trapped in these systems. 

Most of the time there is nothing anyone can do to save them - in fact, the law actively prevents us from doing so. The majority of our work focuses on industries that are entirely legal. To release animals from their chains and cages, we have to change the systems that confine them - otherwise the cages will just fill up again. Sometimes it feels as though I’m collecting ghosts with my camera.

'Sometimes it feels as though I’m collecting ghosts with my camera.'

It is hot as we make our way along the dusty road. We pause at an empty roadside cafe. When we ask for directions to the zoo, the cafe owner shakes her head as she places our drinks down on the table: “A cruel place,” she says. “Wild animals should not be kept in cages like that.” 

Arriving at the zoo, we blend in with the coach loads of tourists and make our way past cage after cage of animals. Some sway repetitively, which is a sign of zoochosis - a form of psychosis often found in captive animals, typically manifesting in repetitive, obsessive behaviours with no purpose. Others simply lie on the hard ground. During the crocodile show, handlers bait the animals with wooden battens, dragging them backwards by their tails and ‘kissing’ their open snouts. Walking by the primate area, we see a young gibbon, no more than a few months old, being passed around like a parcel for tourists to take selfies with.

It is during the elephant show that we first meet Dumbo. The baby elephant is standing in the middle of the show ring next to two other elephants, his ribs jutting out from his sides. It is clear from the state of his body that he is very ill. To entertain tourists, the elephants are forced to ‘headbang’ to loud music, play the drums with their trunks and perform tricks. At the end of the show, we watch as tourists laugh and take selfies, all while this baby elephant stands with his eyes closed, quietly sucking on his trunk - a sign of distress seen when infant elephants are without their mother.

Dumbo - photo courtesy of Amy Jones/Moving Animals

When we released his story to the press, Dumbo’s story went viral. Over 200,000 people from around the world urged the zoo to release him to a sanctuary. There was also pressure to seek veterinary treatment, upon which it was revealed that Dumbo had been suffering from a digestive-tract infection for months. But, before he could be rescued, he got stuck in a puddle of mud. He was so weak that his back legs snapped beneath him as he tried to free himself. The zoo didn’t realise for three days. He was finally taken to hospital, but died three days later. 

The story shone a harsh light on the abuse of elephants held captive in zoos, and piled pressure on the owners. Recently, the zoo finally agreed to retire the remaining elephants, who have now been rehomed in a sanctuary. Whilst it is too late to save Dumbo, I hope that he is now finding the peace he was denied in his lifetime and that his tragic story will help to finally put an end to outdated animal attractions.

'But, before he could be rescued, he got stuck in a puddle of mud. He was so weak that his back legs snapped beneath him as he tried to free himself. The zoo didn’t realise for three days.'

Paul and I believe that one of the best ways to help fight against these injustices is to sway public opinion, so we work hard to ensure our visual content is covered in some of the most engaged-with, far-reaching platforms. We hope every view allows others to look through a different lens: one that views animals as individuals, not commodities or property. At the heart of our work is the desire to connect the world to animals’ stories.

Whether visual or written, stories have extraordinary power. But since birth, most of us have been fed a corrupted narrative about the animals we share Earth with. They are seen in the context of how they benefit humans, rather than as the thinking, feeling individuals they truly are. And we’re only taught fragmented pieces of their lives, not the full story. For example, most of us only interact with certain animals like cows, pigs, and chickens when they are reduced to slabs of meat wrapped in plastic at the supermarket. We are spared the details of the crowded, windowless sheds they spend their short lives in, the gruelling journeys to the slaughterhouse that some don’t survive, and the killing itself. Our work attempts to highlight these missing pieces of the narrative.

A huge amount of our work takes place behind a desk: researching investigations, writing and pitching. In the planning stages, we try to think of ways to tell these stories in creative ways that will engage people. What does the media want to post about, and how can we fill that space with stories that relate to animals? Each platform has its own style, so we try to tailor a specific story to a particular platform and then pitch it directly to the editor. That is how we collaborated with The Guardian, as we felt the Cambodia story would support its focus on global farming and the growth of Asia’s meat industry.

A working donkey in Morocco - photo courtesy of Amy Jones/Moving Animals

As Moving Animals has developed, we’ve also found that combining visuals with data-driven stories is a powerful way to advocate for animals. For example, our investigation into Western corporations pumping huge sums of money into expanding Sri Lanka’s industrial dairy sector was a combination of on-the-ground documentation and weeks of research. 

After receiving a tip-off from a Sri Lankan activist, we snuck off from an official tour of an intensive dairy farm to witness and investigate parts of the farm we weren’t supposed to see. We found a replica of the all-too-familiar Western dairy model: newborn calves taken from their mothers and isolated in metal cages and heavily pregnant cows either chained by their necks or attached to mechanical milking machines. In the goat-milking section, one goat was suffering from an untreated head injury with dry blood caked to his face. 

Our research then found that Western corporations are pumping huge sums of money into expanding Sri Lanka’s industrial dairy sector, in turn benefiting from milk sales and animal-feed exports. By teasing out the parts of this story, we were able to create a compelling narrative that was published by the UK media platform The Independent. This triggered an additional investigation by ABC Australia into live exports to Sri Lanka.

Dairy farming in Sri Lanka - photo courtesy of Amy Jones/Moving Animals

We have found that the media is generally very receptive to our work - increasingly so as interest in veganism and animal rights continues to grow as a social movement. We started with no contacts at all, but within a short space of time have built an invaluable list of receptive editors and journalists who are all as passionate about these issues as we are. The fact that we give most of our content to the media for free helps our cause considerably. 

Our background is in the charity sector, so we made the decision to go down the grants-and-donation route based on non-profit funding models. Our research showed us that projects like Moving Animals use this model, as it allows the stories to be told far and wide while still ensuring we are paid for our work. We do receive paid assignments from animal-advocacy groups and some media outlets, but the majority of our funding comes from grants from foundations working to create a compassionate world for animals. Readers kindly support our work through donations, too. 

Our work can be very demanding. We stay in very cheap accommodation, eat cheap (vegan) food and travel by land wherever possible to limit both the environmental impact as well as our costs. Regular twelve-hour night buses can take their toll! But animal photojournalism has become an integral part of my life and work. We can easily turn away from the industries that exploit animals, but that is how they thrive. Images encourage people to look closer, and can help start conversations around how we treat and view animals.

The journey so far has brought incredible highs - like documenting at animal sanctuaries, or connecting and collaborating with local activists - and achingly painful lows, like having to say goodbye to the animals that we have no choice but to leave behind. There is always a notion of risk in every investigation, but some feel more intense than others. As well as the physical risks, we’re also continually aware of the risks to our own freedom. Releasing an investigation against organisations, whether multi-billion-dollar agriculture companies or successful wildlife tourism operators, there’s always the fear of reprisal - legal, physical, or emotional. But ultimately it is only by witnessing, documenting and telling these stories that we can hope to create change.