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Leitten says she believes the personal anxiety she experienced was worth it in the cause of protecting animals.
Lisa Leitten is finished living her double life. For the past three years, the soft-spoken, 30-year old moved from Missouri to Texas to Virginia, applying for jobs at businesses dealing with animals. She gave her real name, and some real details about herself: a master's degree in animal psychology and prior work at a primate sanctuary in Florida.
What she didn't reveal was that she was also working for an animal welfare organization, and that she wore a hidden camera to document instances in which animals were treated with what she calls horrific neglect and cruelty.
Leitten called her last assignment for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals her most wrenching: nine months in a Virginia lab owned by Princeton, N.J.-based biomedical firm Covance Co. There, she says, monkeys were denied medical care and abused by technicians. The company denies the claims, says it treats the animals properly and has accused Leitten of illegally working under cover.
Two weeks ago, PETA presented Leitten's assertions about Covance in video footage and a massive report to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Food and Drug Administration, and Virginia prosecutors, calling for regulators to shutter the company's Vienna, Va., lab.
"This was my third assignment, and my final one,"' Leitten said in a recent interview with The Press, the first time she has publicly revealed her identity. "You never forget the things that you've seen."
Leitten grew up an animal lover in a middle-class family in Buffalo, N.Y. While in college in Ohio, a psychology class took her to a zoo to study chimpanzee behavior.
"My love of primates grew from that," she said. "They are such intelligent, feeling animals, so like us."
She earned her graduate degree at Central Washington University's Chimpanzee and Human Communication Institute, famously home in the late 1960s to a chimpanzee who learned sign language.
While in college, Leitten had become a vegetarian and found herself increasingly concerned about animal welfare. PETA was a natural fit.
But she was more comfortable working behind the scenes than marching in rallies. The intrigue of undercover work outweighed her initial worries.
"At first I thought, 'There's no way.' The fear of everything, of having to wear covert equipment and move around. But then it sounded sort of exciting at the same time," she said.
Her first job began in May 2002, a nine-month stint at a Missouri lab that produced pet food for Proctor & Gamble's Iams label. There, she claimed she found animals that were injured, had untended wounds and receiving unnecessary surgeries. Leitten documented her findings, quietly left the job and let PETA make her allegations public.
"You never forget the things that you've seen."
Retailer PetSmart and Iams severed contracts with the lab, which laid off nearly half of its workers. Its owner accused PETA of playing on corporations' fear of negative publicity rather than exposing legitimate concerns.
By July of 2003, Leitten resurfaced at her next assignment, a wildlife refuge in Amarillo, Texas. PETA said it had received complaints of tigers and monkeys housed in waste-laden cages and being fed spoiled food.
Six months later, Leitten slipped out of Texas, and PETA held another news conference with another damning video. A subsequent USDA review backed up the group's assertions.
For what she says was her final assignment, Leitten was hired as a primate technician for Covance.
Leitten's camera work, and the report issued by PETA, depict frightened monkeys being yanked from their cages and handled roughly by aggressive, often cursing technicians.
She says she watched animals suffer with festering wounds, and that tubes were forced into their sinuses for research medicine to be administered, causing them to scream, bleed and vomit. Monkeys were housed alone in cages that were hosed down with the animals still inside, dripping and shivering, she said.
Laurene Isip, a Covance spokeswoman, says the company has complied with animal welfare regulations for its half-century in business, and doubted the credibility of PETA's charges.
The company called Leitten's actions illegal. Legal experts agree.
"As an employee she has a legal right to be there, but she's there to fulfill and execute on the tasks and responsibilities give to her by her employer. She's not there to fulfill her own private agenda," said Scott Vernick, a Philadelphia lawyer specializing in professional responsibility and legal ethics.
Bruce Weinstein, who has written four books on ethics, said even noble ends do not justify deceptive means.
"The question is, can those perhaps noble ends be achieved legally and ethically? Can one legitimately document abuses that occur without pretending to be someone one is not, or breaking the law, or videotaping things surreptitiously?"
Mary Beth Sweetland, PETA's research and investigations director, said she now has two staffers working covertly, the latest of dozens of investigations conducted by the group's over 25 years.
In some instances, as at Covance, PETA says its moles have signed nondisclosure forms and claim to try to stay within the law by never removing anything from work sites or by revealing proprietary information.
So far only one company that's been infiltrated has sued: product-testing lab Huntingdon Life Sciences. The Somerset County-based company dropped its case in return for PETA promising to not infiltrate it again for at least five years.
"It's a risk we're willing to take," Sweetland said. "If it weren't for these investigations, no one would no what was going on."
For her part, Leitten says her time as a spy was spent worrying about the animals, not about being caught. She said she spent nights at home with her two dogs, weeping and writing up what she had seen during the day.
"That's why people only last in this job a couple of years,'' said Leitten, who asked that her current residence not be revealed. "I get migraines, a lot of anxiety. But if something can change for the animals, and their lives will be better in some way, then all those sleepless nights and crying at home will be worth it."