Posted on Fri, Aug. 19, 2005
RUSHING TO RESCUE OF HOMELESS HENS
Groups save chickens, offer them for adoption
By Gary Bogue
CONTRA COSTA TIMES
You first notice the smell when you walk into the huge warehouse housing a commercial egg farm in Gilroy. It's awful.
About 160,000 white leghorn hens fill a building roughly the length of two football fields. They have been debeaked, their beaks cut in half, so they can't peck each other.
They are crammed in tiny wire cages, five to seven to a cage, squeezed so tightly together they can barely move, so they just pile on top of one another.
This is standard California egg farm operation as seen by a group that arrived Thursday to save some of the birds after the sale of the farm.
No one cleans the birds. Their cages sit on metal racks with three levels. They defecate through the wire bottoms of the cages onto the birds beneath them.
The chickens in the top level cages are white. The birds on the next level are dirty own, and the birds on the bottom level are absolutely filthy. Dried feces fills the air in gray clouds whenever they move.
The place is fully automated. Food is on a narrow belt that moves through a trough in front of the cages. Eggs roll down the slanted bottoms of the cages and land on another moving belt. Dim bulbs hang amid six-foot-long prehistoric streamers of dirty gray cobwebs.
Capt. Cindy Machado, animal services director at the Marin Humane Society was taking hens from cages to load in a large horse trailer.
"If people saw this, they'd never eat a single egg again," she said.
At 11 a.m. Thursday, a caravan of personal vehicles from Animal Place in Vacaville and animal control trucks from the Marin Humane Society in Novato descended on the commercial egg farm. Their job was to rescue a few of the hens, clean them up physically and mentally, and find them homes in the real world.
Kim Sturla, executive director of Animal Place, a nonprofit organization that rescues farm animals, says egg production starts to drop when laying hens are between 11/2 and 2 years of age. The birds at the Gilroy farm are 18 months old and Sturla had learned the owner was preparing to send the whole lot to slaughter and then move his operation to a new area.
A few months ago she persuaded the egg farm owner to let her take some of the hens and find them homes. And then the fun began.
On Aug. 14, Animal Place staffers and volunteers rescued about 700 hens. They kept some and placed the others with the Marin Humane Society and Peninsula Humane Society & SPCA in San Mateo. The groups offered the chickens for adoption.
"The response from the public was tremendous," said Sturla. "So we decided to come down and pick up some more. I don't even want to go there, it makes my heart eak, but I can stomach seeing those sights if I can just save some of them."
The volunteers carefully filled their dog carriers with scrawny hens and carried them out through the doors at one end of the building to their vehicles. At the other end of the building, workers loaded thousands of them destined for the slaughterhouse.
The irony is not lost on the rescuers.
"Every single bird that gets out is out of the suffering," sighed Lauren Ornelas, with Viva! USA, an organization that investigates factory farms to see how they treat animals. She's also volunteers at Animal Place.
Once the rescuers drive the hens back to their own facilities, they start cleaning them up. They wash the months of dried feces from their feathers and trim their massively overgrown toenails.
Then the birds go into large pens, where they can move about without bumping into each other, and feel the warm sun for the first time in their lives.
And then they go about learning how to be normal chickens.
"Everyone has a different rate of learning," said Sturla. "Learning how to perch takes weeks and even months because it takes strength, which they have to develop."
Meanwhile, the first day, one hen will sunbathe. And on the second day, more will feel the sun, until soon they all will be doing it.
"Can you believe that? They've never felt the sun!" she said, shaking her head in dismay.
Each day the birds rediscover reflexes. They start to preen each other. At first they are afraid of the humans, and then slowly, they learn not to be afraid.
"It's incredibly joyful to take something out of that horrible environment and let them explore life," Sturla said with a smile.
The small group of caring people rescued more than 600 hens Thursday to go with the 700 hens from Sunday, for a grand total of between 1,300 and 1,400 birds.
It's hard to get a more accurate count with all those hens running all over the place to soak up the sun.
HOW TO ADOPT A HEN
If you'd like to help by adopting a hen (or hens), contact one of these organizations:
• Animal Place, Vacaville, 707-449-4814; www.animalplace.org .
• Marin Humane Society, Novato, 415-883-4621; www.marinhumanesociety.org .
• Sacramento SPCA, Sacramento, 916-383-7387; www.sspca.org .
United Poultry Concerns, Inc.|
PO Box 150
Machipongo, VA 23405-0150