August 20, 2005


JP Novic shows off a pair of the chickens she’s boarding at the Center for Animal Protection’s facility in Ben Lomond. The birds will remain in their foster homes for two weeks or more, Novic said, until they become acclimated and begin to show signs that they are fully healthy, after which they can be adopted. (Bill Lovejoy / Sentinel)

Hens rescued from foul egg farm in Gilroy

By NANCY PASTERNACK
 

BEN LOMOND — Their combs hung down over their faces, their feathers were matted, and when introduced to sunlight, they weren’t sure what to do.

Two newcomer hens joined seven others who recently arrived at the Center for Animal Protection and Education. The birds were among 1,200 recently rescued from a Gilroy egg farm that is closing.

Workers and volunteers from a dozen animal shelters, including the Center for Animal Protection in Ben Lomond, were involved in the rescue.

About 300 of the birds are in foster care or permanent homes in Santa Cruz County, including the nine in Ben Lomond.

There had been 160,000 chickens in all at the factory-type facility, most headed for a slaughterhouse Friday.

"It was like a concentration camp in there," JP Novic, the center’s director, said of the egg farm.

The white leghorn hens, bred for laying eggs, had been kept five to 12 per cage and stacked one on top of another in rows three or four cages high.

The birds in the lower cages had been pooped on constantly for a year and a half," Novic said. "Those at the top were healthiest, so those were the ones we took."

Circumstances under which the birds were taken, said Kim Sturla, director of Animal Place in Vacaville, were highly unusual. Sturla led the multiagency effort to evacuate the birds before slaughter.

The landowner where the egg farm operates contacted animal rights activists several months ago, Sturla said. He told Sturla he did not want to renew the farm owner’s lease.

"He was astonished at how the animals were being kept," Sturla said.

Late last week he asked her to make whatever rescue effort was possible.

"He did a very brave thing, I think," Novic said. "He let us in, he let us rescue, he let us take photos. My sense is he’s got a real conscience."

Dozens of workers and volunteers from San Francisco Bay Area shelters participated in the transport and fostering of the animals.

Seeing the conditions the birds were kept in was a shock, said center employee Marilee Geyer.

"The noise, the smell, the filth of that place," she said, "it was just pure suffering."

"You never really know how horrible it is until you’re actually there," said Novic’s 13-year-old daughter, Zoe.

Within a few minutes of being released into the Center for Animal Protection and Education’s large outdoor pen, the newcomer hens got their introductory cleaning, courtesy of resident chickens and their truncated beaks.

The residents had been there only a few days. But they were beginning to strut, and their combs were starting to stand up straight.

The facility from which the chickens had been taken, Spurla said, was "no worse and no better than your average egg farm."

A few days after being hatched on an egg farm, she said, a chick’s sex is determined, and the males are killed. Workers cut the females’ beaks and confine them to cages. After a year and a half of laying eggs, the birds are considered "spent" and are exterminated.

Santa Cruz Animal Services, and SPCA of Santa Cruz collaborated to house 60 of the rescued chickens.

The birds will remain in their foster homes for two weeks or more, Novic said, until they become acclimated and begin to show signs that they are fully healthy, after which they can be adopted.

Contact Nancy Pasternack at npasternack@santacruzsentinel.com.

Want a chicken?
More than 100 chickens rescued this week in Gilroy will be available for adoption in Santa Cruz in September. Adopted birds should be isolated from other birds. Call 336-4695.