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At first they move slowly, taking giant steps, stretching their legs in a way they’ve never been allowed to before.
When hens who’ve spent their entire lives in battery cages take their first steps as free birds, says Jenny Brown, co-founder and director of Woodstock Farm Animal Sanctuary in New York, “it’s as if they’re walking on the moon.”
The 1,150 factory farm hens who were part of a historic rescue in early September didn’t travel quite that far, but they did log some serious air miles. Pulled from a massive factory farm in California, they took a nine-hour flight in a prop-engine cargo plane to upstate New York—the first-ever cross-country airplane trip for adult birds, according to the organizers. In the East, a network of nine sanctuaries and shelters waited to take in the chickens and find them new homes.
“It was a little scary, but also really exciting,” says Marji Beach, advocacy and education director for Animal Place, the sanctuary outside Sacramento that coordinated the operation. Beach, who remained in California, was nervous about the flight, wondering how the hens would react. She stayed up late to hear how it went, and felt enormously relieved when a 3 a.m. text from Animal Place animal care director Jamie London let her know that, despite a bumpy ride, all the hens survived.The hens were met and unloaded at the airport by about 20 staff and volunteers from Farm Sanctuary in Watkins Glen, N.Y., who then took them to the refuge for some recovery time before they went on to the other sanctuaries.
At Farm Sanctuary, staff examined every hen, pulling the ones who needed immediate medical attention for problems such as egg masses and abdominal issues, says Susie Coston, national shelter director for the organization. Staff checked the rest over the next two days, cutting their overgrown nails and getting rid of their lice—which were plentiful. Another sign of their history on an industrial farm: They’d all had a part of their beaks sliced off to prevent pecking among cage-mates.The hens would typically have been gassed to death and dumped in landfills in California by age 2, when the industry considers them “spent” as egg layers. To give freedom to such animals, Coston says, is nothing short of amazing.
Hatching an Idea
The unusual rescue grew from Animal Place’s Rescue Ranch program, an initiative the sanctuary started in 2010 to reach egg farmers. Animal Place had distributed information about the program and worked with about a half dozen small farms in California, Beach says, but out of the blue in early 2013, a battery-cage operation with about 50,000 hens invited the organization to take as many “spent” laying hens as it wanted. After considering space and staff limitations, Animal Place planned to take 2,000 hens and place them over a period of 10 to 12 months in California, Oregon, and Washington.
When the sanctuary shared the good news with top donors, one of them wondered if the rescue operation could save even more hens, and staff proposed working with sanctuaries in the East. Cross-country truck transport wasn’t an option because it would have been too labor-intensive and stressful on the birds. Animal Place had considered flying hens from previous rescues across the country, but it had been too expensive. In this case, the donor offered to pay for it. The donor’s generosity made it possible for Animal Place to pull an additional 1,000 birds from the farm, for a total of 3,000, which it did on July 29 and 30. Even after the 1,150 hens flew to the East on Sept. 4-5, Animal Place, which already had 650 hens from a prior battery-cage egg farm rescue, was left with 2,000-plus birds to adopt out in the coming months.
As for the 1,150 hens who took the plane ride, “The easiest part was getting placement,” Beach says, explaining that she reached out to sanctuaries in the East and quickly found homes for them.
The 200 hens taken in by Catskill Animal Sanctuary in New York “looked like they’d been through hell,” says founder and director Kathy Stevens—which is understandable, considering that they’d spent their entire lives in tiny cages stacked in a warehouse, breathing the ammonia fumes from their own waste, and getting showered with feces if they had a bottom cage. The birds looked skinny, with big bald patches and combs that were pale and floppy rather than bright red and upright.Hens rescued from factory farms are initially “a little weirded out” by the idea of walking on the ground, says Coston. But it’s heartening to see them get acclimated within a couple of days and start acting like chickens. “When we open up the barns now, they run outside, and they dust bathe, and they lay in the sun, and they stretch out their wings. They do all of the things that all chickens love to do. They’re really having a great time.”
The rescue generated extensive coverage in both traditional and social media (including USA Today, The New York Times, and several TV stations), calling attention to inhumane factory farming practices that are often hidden from public view. “It was a rare opportunity to unite with other sanctuaries as a bigger voice than any of us would be alone,” Stevens says, “to say to the world, ‘Look what’s happening.’”
At Catskill Animal Sanctuary, only about one in 10 hens was initially willing to wade into the big, scary outdoors, Stevens says. Happily, that changed within weeks. “Every day now, a bunch more get braver,” she says. “So by now most of them are venturing outside, which is so nice. … Seeing a hen peck at the dirt for the first time in her life is really just a lovely thing to see.”
Animal Place, which has sanctuaries in Grass Valley and Vacaville, Calif., took in 2,000 hens and expected that some of them would still be available for adoption in January. For information, visit animalplace.org.