This week, a team from Animal Place saved 1,500 hens from an egg production facility, where they had lived their lives in cages so small they could not spread their wings.
A rescue of this magnitude is intense and detailed. For Operation Love-a-Hen, 22 trained volunteers staffed the rescue, and another team of 13 stayed at the sanctuary to receive all the incoming animals. Marji Beach, our education director, coordinates all the rescues. Ciara Fiack, Animal Place animal care director, assists with all the new arrivals. Jan Galeazzi, animal care manager at Animal Place's Rescue Ranch shelter, cares for all the birds until they are healthy and happy, then adoption coordinator Jacinda Virgin finds them forever homes. Dozens more employees, volunteers, and interns play key roles.
It takes a village to manage a rescue like this, and Animal Place is the only sanctuary in the country doing it. In the four years since we began large-scale rescues, we have saved more than 17,500 lives – and here's how we do it.
Hens from factory-scale facilities are bred for their laying prowess, but once their egg production slows down, around 12-24 months, producers typically kill them and replace them with new ones – even though they have many years of life ahead of them. After arrangements are made with the facility, the planning begins. Volunteers are contacted and scheduled, transport vehicles and a bank of hotel rooms reserved, rescue supplies inventoried, equipment collected, and a timeline developed.
Our convoy of seven transport vehicles is loaded with empty poultry crates, enough to handle 1,500 birds. Commercial crates are the safest way to transport a large number of hens since they have adequate ventilation and prevent the birds from climbing on top of one another.
The rescue will take us at least two full days and one night. We leave in the morning and head south for several hours. We check into an inexpensive roadside motel near the facility. In anticipation of our 4:30 a.m. departure, we hit the sack early.
It's still dark out when we wake up. We're tired but eager as Marji gives the team of rescuers our final directions and instructions. We caravan to the facility. The stench alerts us that we are near. We see a row of sheds with dim lights in the distance.
We pull in and identify the shed with the birds that will go home with us. There is a stunned silence as everyone peeks inside the sheds and sees thousands of birds in rusty, cramped cages above a pile of feces three feet high. The team must remember to focus on those we can save.
The 150 transport crates are unloaded from the vehicles and staged near the shed. Each crate can carry 10 chickens.
And now the work everybody has been waiting for begins.
The stench of the facility is almost unbearable. More than a year's worth of manure is piled up beneath the cages, oozing toxic fumes into our lungs. It is hard to fathom how these hens endured more than a year trapped in this prison.
Volunteers are shown how to gently, but quickly, remove birds from the cages. The cage door opening is only eight inches wide, making it difficult to reach both hands inside. We bang and bruise our arms from scraping against the metal, but the birds are battered worse, suffering from lost feathers, abrasions, and wounds.
Working in teams, one person reaches inside the cage and cups their palms over each bird's back to make sure her wings are protected. The hen is handed over to another volunteer who places the newly liberated bird into a transport crate.
The birds are scared and vocalize loudly while we catch them. Some attempt to hang onto the cage with their overgrown nails. They don't know we are the rescuers, not the people working at the neighboring shed, who pull the birds out by their legs to be gassed and then trashed.
And then there are the dead and dying. One of our interns comes up to me, sobbing. In her arms is a dead bird. She apologizes for her tears as she hands the bird over – not knowing what else to do with the body – only that she does not want to leave her inside the cage.
After all 1,500 birds are rescued and secured in transport crates, we load them into our vehicles to make the long drive to Animal Place's rescue, rehabilitation, and adoption site in Vacaville, CA.
A new team of volunteers welcomes the hens' arrival. Each vehicle is directed to a different barn, crates are unloaded, and carried to the appropriate stall. The crates are then opened, welcoming these freshly liberated hens to a new world.
Some birds jump out, flapping their wings for the first time in their lives. Others try to jump out but do not have the strength, as their muscles have atrophied from lack of use. Some are too frightened to explore. As their feet touch the ground, you see their surprise at the sensation – earth and straw instead of wire. A few actually try to take a dust bath in the straw. Many of them peck and scratch their feet on the ground – something they have never done before.
While we all want to relax and watch the birds discover their new liberation, we still have hours of work ahead of us. The vehicles and crates have to be power-sprayed and scrubbed clean before they can be returned. More importantly, we have to identify those birds in a weakened state – those needing special attention who we isolate inside a smaller enclosure for observation and treatment.
When the rescue crew leaves, the evening crew takes over the work of declumping. Declumping is grueling.
Hens from cages have spent their entire lives crammed inside small wire cages, and hens from cage-free facilities have been stuffed into overcrowded sheds. Space is confusing and frightening to them, and the birds are physically weak and unable to perch. Recently rescued hens tend to go to the barn corners, and pile up on top of one another. Those on the bottom of the pile can suffocate.
Declumping entails removing the birds under the pile until the flock issues a beautiful bedtime call – a song repeated by hundreds of hens to "go to sleep."
Going to farms and rescuing is physical and emotionally draining work, but it doesn't end after the birds are saved. For the first month, it will take 10-15 volunteers and staff 90 minutes each night to declump, protecting the hens from themselves. Also during the first month, all the birds will be health checked, treated for parasites, their overgrown nails will be trimmed, and other signs of neglect will be smoothed away by love and care as they acclimate to a life of freedom and enjoy many "firsts." First time off a wire floor. First time experiencing fresh air, spreading wings, running, pecking the ground, going into a nest box, and perching.
Once the hens have completed their rehabilitation, they will be made available for adoption and placed into screened forever homes.
These hens have known nothing but cruelty, and now they will know kindness. We see these hens as unique individuals, not as commodities. We hope their story inspires you to do the same. To apply to adopt, volunteer, or donate, please visit www.henrescuers.org or www.animalplace.org.