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August 2005 Bay Area Hen Rescue

A massive rescue effort by local animal protection groups initially hoping to save 300 hens from an egg farm has freed 1,800 lucky birds. While that's only a little more than one percent of the 160,000 white leghorn hens who populated the egg factory farm in Santa Clara County, California, it is still a substantial number. Moreover, this may be the first time in California that agribusiness has allowed groups to come onto a factory farm to save as many animals as they can carry while documenting the process.

Leading the weeklong liberation that began on August 13 was Animal Place, a farmed-animal sanctuary in Vacaville, about 45 miles northeast of San Francisco. Kim Sturla, Animal Place's director, worked with other local organizations to coordinate the rescue and find homes for the hens. Sturla says those groups included the Center for Animal Protection and Education (CAPE) of Santa Cruz, East Bay Animal Advocates of Oakland, the Marin Humane Society, Viva!USA of Davis, United Animal Nations of Sacramento, and many others.

The land's new owner had contacted Animal Place last spring when he discovered the property included tens of thousands of hens, all living in dimly lit sheds in filthy conditions. Sturla negotiated with the landowner and egg producer to remove as many birds as possible once they were "spent." The egg industry deems a hen "spent" when her egg production has dropped and it's no longer economically viable to continue feeding her, typically after two years. (Today's hens are bred and raised to lay 260 eggs a year ' many times more than what is natural for them.)

"This is really the first rescue of its kind," said Sturla. "We had permission to go in and bring out as many hens as we possibly could. To accomplish this, we had some amazing cooperation among local sanctuaries and humane societies. And now we're getting tremendous support from the public. Because of this rescue, many people are just learning about the horrors these birds suffer, and they are opening their hearts and homes to them."

More than a dozen volunteers removed the Santa Clara County hens from battery cages, some of which held as many as eleven birds. All the hens had endured a standard industry practice called debeaking in which a hot blade is used to sear off the tips of their beaks in an effort to prevent them from harming one another amid the stressful, confined conditions. No painkiller is used during this procedure, which leaves the hen unable to eat or groom properly, and it is just one of the many miseries hens suffer in the egg industry. The steel-wire cages inside the factory farm's immense shed were stacked in three tiers, so that excrement from the top rained down on those below. Not able to venture outdoors to enjoy the ground and sunshine and spending almost their entire lives packed into cages so tightly they could not spread a single wing, these hens were denied every natural instinct.

Not even death for egg-laying hens is humane. While federal laws and the California Humane Slaughter Act govern the methods to slaughter animals, these regulations do not apply to spent hens or small game birds. Thus, when spent hens go to slaughter, they are packed into a crate even more tightly confined than their battery cage. Assuming they survive the trip to the processing plant, each hen is then hung upside down and her head is dipped into an electrified tank of water intended to immobilize her. This method does not render every hen unconscious, however, and others simply hold their heads above the water. The birds continue to move along a conveyor belt system where, immobilized or not, their throats are cut. (Although it is not required in California, most processing plants make an attempt to stun the hens.)

Today, the 18-month-old hens lucky enough to be rescued are enjoying a variety of new surroundings. Many went to humane societies in Marin and San Mateo, and several hundred are adjusting to freedom at Animal Place. Sturla describes the hens, who previously spent every moment in confinement, as relishing the open space, fresh air, and sunshine. "They were tentative at first, not quite sure about things," she said. "But now they are basking in the sun and enjoying their first dust baths. It's joyful to all of us at the sanctuary to watch them just be hens!"

Anyone interested in adopting the hens can contact:

Animal Place, (707) 449-4814; http://www.animalplace.org
Marin Humane Society, (415) 506-6225; http://www.marinhumanesociety.org

It began with a phone call from PETA's Bruce Friedrich. An egg farmer in California's Central Valley had 160,000 "spent" hens he was about to send to slaughter. In other words, they'd been exploited to the point where their eggs were no longer valuable, so, after less than two years of life, it was time to move them out. Since he'd only get a penny each for them (they'd end up as dog and cat food), the farmer had told PETA they could take as many as they wanted. Bruce immediately contacted Kim Sturla of Animal Place http://www.animalplace.org in Vacaville. Kim got in touch with the farmer, whom she'd met previously, and coordinated Sunday, August 14, as the day she could come down and save as many chickens as possible. Kim called me on Friday, asking if I could contact the media. I told her I would see what publicity we could garner on short notice, and volunteered my help in rescuing the hens.

We left Animal Place on Sunday morning. Kim and Moncho Camblor, an Animal Place volunteer fluent in Spanish, drove down with a stock trailer, while I followed in my pickup truck with Christine Morrissey of East Bay Animal Advocates http://www.eastbayanimaladvocates.org. I had spent part of Friday contacting news outlets, and I was pleased that a number of them, including television stations and newspapers, had agreed this was a worthwhile story; indeed, they were still calling Kim's cell phone as we were en route to the farm. (The farmer had requested that the name and exact location of the farm not be divulged to the media.)

Kim had worked the phones throughout Friday and Saturday, setting up homes for the chickens, gathering volunteers and coordinating with the Marin Humane Society, which would be the adoption center. So, by the time we arrived there were already several volunteers from CAPE ' the Center for Animal Protection and Education http://www.capeanimals.org. There was some mild confusion at the farm as the Spanish-speaking workers tried to figure out what all these people were hoping to do, but after Moncho spoke with a couple of them, we began our work.

We each grabbed a plastic dog carrier and headed into an avian nightmare. I had been inside only one other factory farm ' a broiler ranch ' but it was practically a resort compared to this house of horrors. Inside a massive shed were row upon row of battery cages stacked three high, and within each cage were crammed eight to ten hens. It is impossible to convey in mere words the degree of filth, stench of ammonia, crowding and neglect these animals must endure. All natural light is shut out, and only some dim light bulbs illuminated the shed. Still, the massive cobwebs hanging above the chickens were clear enough, as were the bodies of birds left dead throughout the shed. Most consumers imagine that eggs come from bucolic farms where the chickens can wander outdoors and enjoy their lives. Nothing could be further from the truth. With razor-thin profit margins in animal agriculture, the majority of eggs and egg products are the result of mechanized processes and industrialized abuse. As is standard practice in this country, each battery cage at the farm was made completely of wire, so that waste dropped down onto the floor below the bottom cage. Consequently, hens on the top level looked relatively clean, hens on the middle level were spotted with excrement, and the unfortunate hens at the lowest level were among the saddest sights I've ever seen. With as many as twenty hens living above them, these poor creatures were entirely encrusted with waste material. They hadn't the room to spread a single wing, let alone escape the constant barrage of feces and urine from above.

We worked in great haste, knowing we had only a few hours to save as many as we could. When we ran out of dog carriers, we cut ventilation holes in cardboard boxes and filled them with hens. Each time I had to climb the stairs back into that hell I reminded myself it was for the chickens. Yet I grew wearier with each step, knowing I had to choose from among many thousands of hens. Our actions decided who would live and who would be killed.

That's not to say that all those we removed were assured a happy future. I was outside when Christine brought out two sick birds, and I helped her place them inside a large dog carrier in the shade. When I checked on them a few minutes later, they appeared lifeless. I could not bear the thought of these hens dying without knowing at least a tiny bit of kindness in their brief lives, so I filled a small container with bottled water and then carefully cradled each hen in turn and made sure she drank a little. One turned her head slightly to look up at me, her eyes adjusting to the unfamiliar light. I wept as I held them, and I weep for them still. I weep at the senseless pain they had to suffer, and I weep in shame at my membership in a species that visits this misery upon defenseless souls.

By 3:30 the farm hands were removing hens for slaughter, yanking them out of battery cages and stuffing them into even smaller wire crates, where they sat in stacks outside. Christine shot video and still pictures of this, images that will find their way onto the Internet soon. The frantic pace continued, with two groups working in the filthy darkness ' one group pulling out birds for dog food, while another removed them for rescue. It was a grotesque lottery: slaughter or sanctuary. Late in the day two volunteers from an animal-rescue group in San Diego arrived with a moving van. Lorri Bauston had agreed to take in fifty hens at her new Los Angeles sanctuary Animal Acres http://www.animalacres.org, and these two women were going to drop off the birds on their way back. CAPE also loaded their truck with hens destined for their sanctuary in Santa Cruz. In the end, we could not possibly remove them all, and we had to be satisfied with 700 or so hens ' $7.00 worth of animals by the farmer's reckoning.

Thankfully, the media waited well after dark for the rescued hens, and camera crews got footage of birds being offloaded and entering a temporary haven at Animal Place. I wandered the large pen with other volunteers, happy to see the hens enjoying their first taste of liberty, while sanctuary supervisor Varina Heilman, working with a flashlight, began the seemingly impossible task of trimming nails and checking the health of each bird.

We had promised to deliver twenty-five hens to the Marin Humane Society that evening, so I continued on to Novato with several boxes of birds. I pulled into the shelter after 11:00 p.m., but as exhausted as I was, I was euphoric as I carried the hens into a beautiful barn complete with a clean floor, fresh water and plenty of food. After spending their entire lives in cramped quarters, egg hens ' or "layers," as the industry refers to them ' are bewildered by sudden freedom and large spaces. Many stayed huddled in their boxes, afraid to move. The shelter worker turned a box over and two hens lay motionless. "Are they dead?" he asked.

I watched their still bodies for signs of life, then bent down to stroke their feathers. "No," I answered, "just scared." Sure enough, they began to stir. "You're going to be all right now, girls," I said. "Enjoy."


Anyone interested in adopting a hen may contact the Marin Humane Society at (415) 883-4621.

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