United Poultry Concerns
12 April 2011
Gilly’s Story
By Marilee Geyer

From Ninety-Five: Meeting America’s Farmed Animals in Stories and Photographs
(published by No Voice Unheard,


She’s two and a half years old and has all the energy you’d expect of a toddler. She has two speeds: run and stop. All things new pique her curiosity and she’s inquisitive beyond reason. Her favorite activities are eating, lounging in the sun, bathing in dust, and more eating – she has a special affinity for watermelon, pasta and corn. She experiences a wide variety of emotions, but joy and contentment are the two she expresses most often. During the day she often sits on my lap or rests quietly at my feet while I work at the computer. At night she sleeps warm and secure on a bed of straw and shavings with her three other companions.

Gilly is a white Leghorn hen. Her life now is a world apart from the world into which she was born.

When animal advocates received word that a commercial egg facility in northern California was closing down and that the land owner was going to allow animal groups to take as many hens as they could find homes for, they jumped into action. Volunteers from all over the area networked, made phone calls, and sent emails, arranging crates and transportation and care for as many birds as they possibly could. When they got to the “farm,” prepared to rescue over 500 chickens, they were astonished to find one hundred and sixty thousand. One hundred and sixty thousand.

It was a beautiful, blue sky morning when the volunteers gathered. The egg factory consisted of one large, windowless building, the size of many football fields. As I walked to the door to go inside, I wondered what I would find. This particular facility held Leghorns, the most commonly-used breed in the egg industry. I’d seen pictures of these types of factory farms, but actually experiencing it firsthand was completely different. It’s hard to adequately describe the horror of the facility: the right words are difficult to find.

Inside, the warm and humid air was thick with dust, feathers and grime. The smell in the closed building was overwhelming: a putrid combination of feces, ammonia, dead birds and stale eggs. The sound was deafening: 160,000 birds squawked and screeched, and conveyor belts bringing food and taking away eggs roared. Row after row of metal cages, extending as far into the filth as I could see were stacked three high. Each cage was stuffed with seven to eight hens, their beaks cut off to prevent them from pecking each other and the birds on the bottom were brown and dirty – you’d never know their natural color was white. These hens were living lives of unimaginable misery and suffering.

As I approached the cages, I didn’t know which hens to take. How do you choose when surrounded by so many suffering animals? In the end I randomly chose a bank of cages and, as gently as I could, lifted hens out of cages and into waiting crates where they would be taken to a series of foster and permanent homes.

In the end, various animal organizations were able to rescue over 1,000 hens, but that meant that the rest would go to slaughter, and I cried as I watched the slaughter truck, packed with birds, drive away to its awful destination. And despite the fact that the hens rescued that day would now live in comfort, I could not forget the more than 159,000 that would soon die and the more than 300 million commercial egg-laying hens living in the United States under these deplorable conditions, with few laws to protect them. They live short, wretched lives: the poultry industry considers them “spent” within two years, after which they endure a terrifying trip to a slaughter plant where they have an even more terrifying and painful death.

I became guardian of 57 of the rescued hens and took them to a barn at a local animal shelter, where I would care for them until they were ready to move to permanent homes. As I unloaded the crates from my truck, I was shocked to find them filled with eggs. Throughout the rescue and the long trip to the shelter, their bodies were still laying eggs, testament to the genetic manipulation inflicted on them by humans, which programs them to lay eggs rapidly, no matter what the circumstances.

After unlatching the crate doors, I stood close by, waiting for the hens to come out into the stall I had prepared. They wouldn’t come out. I slowly removed the tops of the crates so that they could see where they were. Still they stood, afraid even to move their heads and look around. I gently lifted them out, setting them on the thick, soft bed of shavings laid out for them. Still they stood in place, not moving. Were they too scared? Stunned? In shock? Uncomfortable with the open space after being so confined? Was the quietness of the barn strange to them? Still they stood, some, heartbreakingly, laying more eggs.

I didn’t dare open the stall door to the outside area; I thought they’d be completely overwhelmed. Perches were set up for them to use, but they didn’t. Instead, I put some extra large crates in the stall for them to hide in, and eventually they did.

The next morning, they ventured out of the crates and explored their new surroundings. I opened the door to the corral, a grassy and dirt area in full sunlight. Some stood at the edge of the door and looked out. After an hour, a few brave birds stepped outside, tentatively. Over a period of days, most of the hens made their way outside. Some spent a lot of time outside, some only rarely; already, each was developing her own personal preferences.

Each day when I came to care for them, I spoke softly and moved slowly. After a few days, they stopped running to the other side of the stall when I came in. I would greet them, “Hey girls, hello you pretty girls” and after awhile, some chattered in response.

I brought them fresh watermelon. Only the braver birds approached this new and strange item. They stared at it, not knowing what to do. Finally, one pecked at it, unleashing a melon free-for-all. Watermelon became one of their favorite treats and their white feathers were often stained pink from excess juice running from their mouths down to their chests.

I left bales of pine shavings, letting them take the bales apart. They kicked the shavings to loosen them, and carved caves into the bales. They seemed to enjoy building their own nests to lay their eggs. Initially, they continued to lay eggs at a frantic pace, then the pace slowed down. They began to use the perches.

When I cleaned crates, water flowed, creating mud puddles which proved an irresistible attraction. They marched in, stomped their feet, dug in the mud. Clearly, they were enjoying themselves.

I loved sitting quietly in the stall, not only to help them get used to people, but to just be present with them and communicate with my voice and hands and eyes: you’re safe now. I began to recognize who was who. I saw physical differences, and differences in personalities. Some of the hens were more curious than others. Some were shy, and some were very bold. Some were energetic. Some had beaks that were more mutilated than others, and had more difficulty eating. Some had legs that were more yellow than others. Each was her own individual, yet they all had a resiliency that was humbling to witness. And although every small step they took toward life was challenging, they took those steps, they healed… they wanted to live.

Two weeks after rescue, the change in the hens was enormous. Having never been outside, having never walked on the ground, they now scratched the earth looking for insects, reveled in the pleasure of dust baths, and napped in the warm sun. Their beautiful white feathers slowly began to grow back and their combs and wattles became healthy and pink. They enthusiastically accepted treats of fresh greens, blueberries, and tomatoes. They began to trust and became more confident each day. They experienced, for the first time, peace and comfort.

Eventually they ran to me when I came in. Gilly was one of the first to run up to me. And when I left the stall doors open, she followed me out. I started leaving the doors open while doing my chores, so that she could follow me around the barn. When the hens were ready to be adopted out to permanent homes, Gilly came home with me.

I already shared my backyard with three hens, and wanted to introduce Gilly gradually to the already-established group, but she would have none of that. She squawked at the gate of the enclosure I put her in. When I let her out, she ran straight to the other hens and settled in, as if to say “Here I am.” Gilly was exuberant to the extreme, running and crashing into the others, who accepted her with patience and grace.

Gilly investigated every square inch of her new quarter acre yard, and found the areas with the most plentiful bugs and tender grass (unfortunately, both in my garden beds!). She chattered constantly, schooling me in chicken language: the big squawking bwak-bwak-bwak that accompanies egg laying; the kkkk-ka-kkkk muttering of happily patrolling the back yard; the friendly bu-buuu-bu hello that greeted me each morning.

Like everyone who loves animals and shares a home with them, I know what my dog wants by the look in his eyes, or how my cat feels from her body language. When I adopted my first two chickens from a local rescue group, I had little experience living with birds, much less chickens. Of course, many people have birds as companions: parakeets, cockatoos and parrots. But our culture has trained us to think of “poultry,” of farmed animals, as entirely different. We learn from an early age that some animals are “pets;” others are “food.” We are purposely kept from knowing the truth about the nature of these animals and the conditions in which they live and die. The animal agriculture industry likes it that way because if you knew the truth, if you made a connection, you’d know there’s no reason at all to assume that a chicken could be any less endearing than a parakeet, a retriever or a tabby cat. Drawing that distinction in language certainly helps us in distinguishing a potential pet from a potential dinner, however, and maybe that’s what it all boils down to. But a linguistic distinction is just a theoretical construct, and theory meant nothing to Gilly. She had as much depth and personality and life as any of my canine and feline companions. Which makes it all the more heartbreaking to think of them – hundreds of millions of them a year – living the way Gilly did. The enormity of the suffering is unimaginable.

The photograph of Gilly at the beginning of this story is the best one I have. I didn’t take many pictures of her; I always thought there was plenty of time to do that. But I was wrong. The human beings who bred her, who genetically manipulated her to produce lots of eggs, and to produce and produce and produce, didn’t intend her to live very long. The body that was designed to turn out an unnatural amount of eggs at an unnatural rate finally failed her, and when she could no longer keep up with the physical demands of such production, she fell ill, and then, just like that – in a breath, in a heartbeat – she was gone. She died in my hands. Gilly shared her joyful spirit and her life with me. I will always be grateful for the glorious spark of life in her eyes, the quiet peaceful moments we shared and all the times I looked out my kitchen window to see her in the backyard. Happy. Safe. Now I share Gilly’s life with you. I share it in honor of Glynda, Gilda and Wilhelmia who were rescued along with Gilly from the egg factory that day. And I share it in memory of the one hundred and fifty-nine thousand hens who were left behind.


Marilee Geyer is a co-founder of No Voice Unheard and lives in northern California with her husband Bob and a variety of rescued animals. She dreams of one day expanding her animal family to include more chickens, some liberated turkeys and goats and maybe even a cow or two (or three or four), or whomever else needs safe sanctuary.

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