Anatomy of a Chicken Rescue
The sky was just beginning to lighten when the plane touched down at 6:25 a.m., carrying 1100 white Leghorn chickens bound for Farm Sanctuary in Watkins Glen, New York. They had been travelling all night from California where they were part of an outsized flock of 3000 rescued by Animal Place from a factory farm egg facility.
With no commercial airline willing to carry the chickens, they had flown across the country in a private cargo plane paid for by an anonymous donor with deep pockets and a big heart. Now they had arrived at the Elmira airport, where about 20 of us had been waiting for them since 6 a.m. It was the first known cross-country flight of its kind and we were worried about what kind of state the hens would be in.
The crates holding the chickens had shifted during the flight, blocking internal access to the cargo door, so we had to unload from the front of the plane, a somewhat awkward process. We lined up in twos to take crate after crate of chickens, rushing them onto transport trailers to get them to Farm Sanctuary as quickly as possible. The birds were silent. As we took each crate, we could feel the heat emanating from them and knew the chickens needed water as soon as we could get it to them.
Within little more than half an hour, all the crates had been reloaded onto the trailers and we began the 40-minute drive back to the farm, a small convoy of cars carrying staff and volunteers, and a sprinter van and two trailers with the chickens. We arrived at the farm and worked together almost wordlessly, unloading the crates outside three separate small barns, and then opening the crates and quickly and carefully carrying each chicken into the barns. The water containers were filled and waiting, the barns were spotless, the air fresh. The chickens ran everywhere — to the corners of the barns, to the water containers, to the freedom of the enclosure outside each barn where they could scratch in the dirt and feel grass beneath their feet.
The hens, each about two years old, have lived in hell from birth. Born in a hatchery, never knowing their mothers, at one week old they were brutally debeaked with a hot blade. It’s a very painful process, as beaks are not like fingernails — they are filled with highly sensitive nerve endings. Chicks are routinely debeaked because soon they will live in battery cages, crammed in so tightly that aggression is inevitable; the debeaking lessens the damage they can do to each other. So these beautiful hens have known nothing but pain and deprivation from birth. With a wing-span of about 34 inches, they have been kept in 18-by-20-inch cages, not one hen to a cage, but five to ten.
Living naturally, hens will run, extend their wings, fly onto a perch, peck at the ground for bugs and worms, close their eyes to enjoy the warmth of the sun, and delight in taking dust baths. In a battery cage, they cannot move. They cannot stretch a single wing. The wire of the cages digs into their sensitive feet, causing pain and persistent infections. They never see nor feel the sun. They live in an atmosphere so fetid with their own waste that their eyes and throats and nostrils sting constantly from the ammonia in the air. The cages are stacked one atop the other, so that the urine and feces from the hens in one cage will fall onto the chickens below. Lice and mites crawl through their feathers and on their skin. Sick and dying hens live among the dead — not everyone can survive these conditions and many hens die. The dead ones are pulled from the cages, though not every day; it’s too time-consuming. There are no healthy hens. A trough that runs along the front of the cages collects the eggs they lay. ‘Cause, you know, people like eggs.
Imagine, just for a moment, living in a small wire cage with five or even ten other people, unable to stretch an arm or a leg. Everyone else in the cage is pressed against you. The wire digs into your feet. You are crawling with parasites and have no choice but to urinate and defecate where you stand, the smell of ammonia and feces stinging your eyes and nostrils. Really picture it for a sec. Now imagine living that way for two years, only to be gassed or slaughtered at the end of it.
Chickens are intelligent, feeling animals. They can solve puzzles, they want to nurture their young, they have — as all animals do — natural behaviours they like to engage in. They are empathetic and have relationships with other chickens, and indeed with other animals. It is unconscionable that we force any being to live in such total deprivation and misery. And yet we do, in numbers too high to truly fathom, every single day.
Triage began and continued for hours, from one barn to the next. Many of the hens were in bad shape. Some had extreme feather loss, bumblefoot (a painful infection of the feet) was common, many were severely debeaked — up to their nostrils, some girls even missing part of their tongues. Others suffer from painful neuromas, clusters of nerve endings where they were debeaked, which can make eating an excruciating experience for them. Many had swollen and inflamed tissue around their eyes, likely sinus infections. All the chickens had heavy lice infestations. Those suffering severe dehydration were given subcutaneous fluids on-site. Caregivers attached colour-coded, numbered bands to the birds’ legs to signify at a glance who needed what kind of care in the immediate future.
Infected feet were cleaned and wrapped, two-inch long nails were trimmed. Bellies were palpated for signs of cancer (which can be treated, though not cured, with Tamoxifen) or ovi-duct impaction, a serious condition that requires surgery: the chickens’ bodies produce eggs that are often soft-shelled or even too large to lay. These eggs remain in the reproductive tract where other eggs then back up and break. The result is layers of rotten egg that form into a large ball, sometimes weighing more than two pounds. The mass can sometimes be removed surgically but often has caused too much damage to be removed. Once a reproductive issue has been identified, the next step is to determine the cause and treat accordingly. More than 100 of the birds had abdominal masses and some had abdominal fluid, including one poor girl who had more than 700 ml (that’s nearly three cups) of cloudy fluids, complete with small chunks of rotting egg, removed from her abdomen.
The healthiest hens were marked with a special coloured crayon that looks like a glue stick — a blue streak on her back meant that a hen would be moving on to another sanctuary, one of nine other sanctuaries taking some of the 1100 rescued girls.
The chickens were stressed, but also excited to be able to run free. There was the odd chicken who was held willingly, enjoying the comfort and attention; some, I swear, knew we were there to help them. Animals do tend to figure that out very quickly. But many were very nervous and understandably did not want to be caught again — after all, they have never known kindness from humans before. Some seemed downright terrified, though this will pass.
Anyone who thinks chickens aren’t smart has never tried to catch one…or several hundred. You can have your eye on one out of a possible 40 surrounding you, and she knows. And she will out-manoeuvre you 16 times before you get her. You have to be gentle when catching these hens: their bones are so fragile. Egg-laying hens in particular are prone to osteoporosis from producing eggs so prolifically, even at two years old. Given the natural life-span of a chicken, this is akin to a teenager having the disease.
Many hens took quickly to the nesting boxes, but after a lifetime of being so closely confined, they would huddle together three or four in one box. We had to separate them, in part to prevent the suffocation of hens at the back, and show them they could have their own nesting boxes. These so-called spent hens were laying eggs all over the barn almost as fast as we could collect them, but it was particularly sweet collecting eggs from underneath the girls in the nesting boxes — just to see them behaving naturally. (The eggs are unfertilized and will never hatch, so they are collected, hard-boiled and mashed, shell and all, into the girls’ feed. It’s not cannibalism and gives the hens’ precious calcium back to them.)
This past weekend, Happy Trails Sanctuary, Woodstock Farm Animal Sanctuary, and Catskill Farm Animal Sanctuary each took 200 of the hens. Sasha Farm in Michigan took another 100. More sanctuaries will be taking many of the others in the near future. The least healthy will remain at Farm Sanctuary for medical treatment and recuperation rather than enduring the stress of further travel. Over the next few weeks, many will be placed in adoptive vegan and vegetarian homes, but some will stay at the farm for life, where they will be cared for and allowed to live out their natural lives doing all the things chickens love: spending time with their friends, dust bathing and sun bathing, perching, searching the earth for bugs and worms, and just being chickens, free from harm. They are now ambassadors for the billions of chickens (just in North America) who will not be as lucky.
Many people think egg production is harmless. In fact, it is one of the cruelest industries within animal agriculture. For every egg-laying hen, there was a male chick who was ground alive in a macerator or suffocated or left to starve in a garbage bag, because male chicks have no use in egg production. The females are raised under heat lamps, mutilated, neglected, and live in total deprivation, treated as “units of production” — a farm industry term for animals. They also receive weekly (sometimes daily) vaccinations until they begin egg production, mostly for diseases caused by unsanitary, overcrowded conditions with poor air circulation. In other words, they are vaccinated this frequently (often repeatedly for the same virus) so that they can survive the atmosphere in which they are forced to live.
To buy free-range eggs is buy into the humane myth. “Free-range” is a meaningless term and even if you get your eggs from your neighbour in the city or a farmer up the road, the chickens come from the same hatcheries the factory farmed chickens come from. They will also go to the same slaughterhouses, where the “line” runs so fast that humane slaughter is impossible. Their suffering will be nearly unimaginable.
Many people tell me that they hardly eat red meat anymore, just chicken — as though chickens somehow don’t count. They seem to feel that it’s not as bad as eating the flesh of a cow…except it takes 250 chickens to equal the amount of meat you would get from one cow, so 249 more animals are suffering for this choice. And to paraphrase Kathy Stevens of Catskill Sanctuary, if you have 10 chickens, you have 10 different individuals: the cranky one, the bossy one, the needy one, the shy one, the show-off, and on and on. That can be hard for a lot of people to relate to, but when you spend time with these birds, you can see that in all the ways that matter, they are the same as the cats and dogs most of us love.
Nine billion chickens are killed a year in the U.S. alone, and this does not include the 2% — about 90 million — who die before they ever go to slaughter. Those numbers do include egg-laying hens.
If you’re interested in adopting any of the rescued chickens, please contact one of the sanctuaries linked to in this article, or get in touch with Animal Place in California, who so compassionately facilitated this rescue. And if you visit the websites of the sanctuaries named here, you can see video of the girls settling in to their new homes! Some have already begun forming bonds. Every one of these rescued chickens is someone, not something — just like the 47,000 of their cagemates who were gassed the day these hens were rescued.
** Special note: Thank you to Susie Coston and the staff of Farm Sanctuary for allowing me to assist with and document this rescue. It was an unforgettable experience and an honour to work with you.