Farm Sanctuary to the rescue
Hens saved from a Turlock egg factory getting back on their feet in Orland
Enter the large rabbit-barn-turned-chicken-coop at Orland’s Farm Sanctuary, and you are almost instantly approached by dozens of red hens, clucking softly with curiosity. Dozens of white hens sit nestled in the thick, clean straw covering the coop’s floor.
At first glance, it looks like the idyllic life of happy barnyard chickens. But upon closer inspection, you see that each of these 300-plus birds has been de-beaked—standard practice when it comes to factory-farm laying hens.
These are some of the survivors rescued Feb. 24 from a Turlock factory farm rented to an outfit called A&L Poultry. Two days earlier, authorities discovered more than 50,000 laying hens either dead or starving to death, trapped inside cramped battery cages housed in two long warehouse-like buildings. The hens’ owner, Andy Keung Cheung, had abandoned them approximately two weeks earlier without food or water, apparently because he could no longer afford to feed them.
Stanislaus County Animal Control Officer Annette Patton told Fresno’s KGPE-TV news that she “had never seen anything to this extreme, with the volume of animals being mistreated.”
Tara Oresick, Farm Sanctuary’s shelter director, was part of the rescue team.
“When we got out of the truck, we could smell feces and ammonia. The stench was really bad,” she said. “We weren’t allowed inside the facility, and the workers releasing the birds were dressed in full hazmat—masks, suits, boots and gloves. It looked like they were dressed for some kind of biohazard disaster.”
Oresick, three Farm Sanctuary staff members and 10 volunteers had driven in three vehicles, one pulling a trailer, to rescue more than 400 of the chickens deemed healthy enough to save. Two other California-based organizations—Animal Place and Harvest Home Animal Sanctuary—helped in the rescue of nearly 5,000 chickens in all.
“One-third of them were dead by the time animal control was called because a neighbor reported a really terrible smell,” Oresick said. Some of the chickens were “trapped in the manure pit. They wouldn’t let us in to get them, so they were going to die.”
Most of the rescued hens—the white ones—are Leghorns, Oresick said. The red ones, which are in better shape, are Red Star. She said the red hens appear to be about a year old; the Leghorns are approximately a year older.
The majority of the hens, she said, were greatly emaciated. Many weighed less than 1 pound, when they should have weighed closer to 4 pounds.
Fifty of the hens “went immediately to another home we had lined up,” Oresick said. “We lost about 30 hens in the first 72 hours, because they were so weak and so sick.”
The rescued chickens needed fluids and most needed to be tube-fed because they were too weak to eat. Of the 30 who died, most showed signs of renal failure—they took in fluids but couldn’t absorb them.
“[The Leghorns] were so weak they would just eat some and then just lay on their side,” she said. “They didn’t have the energy to do much more. … The red hens were able to go to the water bowl, and they were in the bowls—they were so excited to drink!”
As the Leghorns started to gain their strength back, “you would still find them laying on their side, but when you approached them, you would realize they were actually just sunbathing,” Oresick said. “And they would get up and move away, and find another beam of sunlight to lie down in. They had never been in the sun before.”
While held in the battery cages at the Turlock factory farm, the hens were denied the opportunity to express natural chicken behaviors, such as flapping their wings and taking dirt baths. When they were well enough to do so, the hens would run across the coop they now live in and flap their wings as they ran, Oresick said.
“It was amazing to see,” she said. “They went from living these lives that were totally foreign, totally unnatural, to now being able to go out in the sun and breathe fresh air, flap their wings, scratch in the dirt.”
While the story was gruesome enough to be splashed across news media far and wide, “the situation in Turlock isn’t rare,” said Oresick. “As soon as you get a situation where you view animals as commodities, there’s no way you’re going to see them as individuals and meet their individual needs.
“Even though the situation was obviously horrific, because these birds were starved for two weeks, their lives leading up to being abandoned in those warehouses were full of misery,” she said. “It’s not like they were living these really amazing lives and then they were abandoned. They were crammed into battery cages, they were debeaked so they couldn’t peck each other, and they were viewed as commodities.
“The chickens we rescued are considered ‘spent,’” Oresick said. “Even if they hadn’t been abandoned, their lives were going to come to an end very soon, because they weren’t productive. When you see them as commodities, it’s cheaper, most profitable, to get rid of them and get a new batch.”
While free-range chickens are known to live from 10 to 15 years, and even longer, factory-farm laying hens aren’t allowed to live beyond two or three years.
Farm Sanctuary’s rescued Turlock hens are still being treated for upper-respiratory infection, mites and coccidiosis, a common parasitic poultry disease.
“We’ll keep some, but we are in the process of finding homes for the majority of them,” said Oresick.
As for Cheung, the hens’ former owner, “We’re pushing, along with some other rescue groups, to have him prosecuted,” Oresick said.” But there aren’t a lot of laws that protect chickens.”