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Some days of the year just seem custom made for activism. Easter, for example, is a great time to ask people not to give their children rabbits, ducks or chicks as gifts. And what better day than Thanksgiving to explain how friends and families can celebrate a holiday without contributing to the suffering of turkeys? Activists have many ways to get the word out, from letters to editors and leafleting, to bringing delicious vegan treats to the office and family gatherings.

To help consumers make the connection between Mother’s Day and dairy cows, Liberation BC is asking advocates to wear a special ribbon the group has created. With so many ribbons used to raise awareness these days, this eye-catching, cow-inspired accoutrement is both a simple memorial to millions of exploited cows and a wonderful conversation-starter.

Activists can explain that the dairy industry impregnates cows so they’ll “give” milk for human consumption. And to ensure as much milk as possible ends up in dairy cases, newborn calves are taken from their mothers less than a day after mama gives birth. Few sounds are as heart-wrenching as a mother cow bellowing for her calf after they’ve been forcibly separated. She searches for the baby she carried for nine months, plaintively calling for her lost calf. If the calf is a male, he will eventually be killed for meat, often ending up locked in an isolating veal crate until he’s slaughtered about six months later; if the calf is female, she’s taken away to become another in an endless chain of dairy cows.

Glenn Gaetz, who runs Liberation BC with his wife, Joanne Chang, says the Cow Ribbon campaign is a way to remind people of the suffering cows endure. “As a culture,” he says, “we seem to have forgotten that dairy cows are mothers ― over and over again ― but they never get to be mothers. In order to take their milk from them, we impregnate them and then take their babies away too. The cow ribbon is symbolic of the mothers of the dairy industry, but it can also be worn as a symbol of all the animal mothers whose reproductive systems have been hijacked for our use.”

Those other mothers, of course, include hens. The US produces 90 billion eggs and kills nine billion chickens each year, and every single one originates from a hen who has been denied the freedom to raise her young. Instead, the eggs are incubated in industrial hatcheries that breed chickens either for meat or eggs. Because they can’t lay eggs, 200 million male chicks in the American egg industry are killed shortly after hatching; many of these birds are ground up in large machines called macerators while still alive. The females, meanwhile, are born into a bleak life of intensive confinement and suffering; they will most likely spend up to 24 months crammed into a battery cage and laying eggs for human consumption until, their bodies depleted, the hens will be yanked out of their wire prisons and slaughtered for dog food or some other low-grade chicken product. Turkeys, ducks and other “food” birds may not be bred in the same high quantities as chickens, but these babies are also raised in artificial environments and never know their mothers.

Glenn says the response to this new campaign, which Joanne dreamed up, has been extremely positive. “We’ve gotten orders from all over Canada and the United States and from as far away as Singapore. This is just the first year of this campaign, and we’re hoping that it will spread. Maybe other groups will pick it up and promote it or make their own cow ribbons.”

The cow ribbons are available for a $5 donation, which goes to support Liberation BC’s work in the Vancouver area. To learn more about Liberation BC’s Cow Ribbon campaign, please visit http://cowribbon.com/, where you’ll also find e-cards, downloadable graphics, flyers and more.

Nettie, who was rescued from a cockfighting operation. Photo by Marji Beach

Nettie, who was rescued from a cockfighting operation. Photo by Marji Beach

Chickens. Intelligent, inquisitive, loving, loyal, courageous. They’re also victims of some of the worst abuses in animal agribusiness. From battery cages to the broiler shed, chickens suffer to feed humanity’s hunger for cheap animal protein. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, chicken flesh has become the most frequently consumed meat in the US, and consumption continues to increase every year, with nearly nine billion chickens slaughtered annually in the US. Egg producers, meanwhile, confine egg-laying hens in cages so small the birds cannot move a single wing. As you read these words, about 300 million hens are languishing in battery cages in the US. (For some idea of how a battery hen lives, please see this virtual battery cage.) Moreover, laying hens are forced to endure such painful mutilations as debeaking and detoeing. Chickens raised for meat (“broilers”) face brief but grim lives in which they pack on so much weight in 45 days that their legs and organs cannot properly support their bodies. Just six weeks old, these birds are still babies when they are slaughtered.

Agribriz isn’t the only abuser of these sensitive birds, however. Cockfighting, though illegal throughout the US, still goes on, pitting one rooster against another so their exploiters can gamble on the outcome. The outcome is often death for one or both of the birds. To maintain their supply of fighting birds, called gamecocks, cockfighters keep breeding hens and raise the male chicks to become fighters.

Fortunately, activists around the world are not only campaigning against the cruelties inherent in agribusiness and animal fighting ― they’re helping to provide loving homes to birds rescued from these enterprises. Here are a few of their stories and the birds who have touched their hearts.

Apricot – Rescued from a Broiler Shed

“We did a broiler rescue on April 20,” says Patty Mark, founder of Animal Liberation Victoria, “and one of the birds had what I refer to as ‘splayed legs,’ meaning both legs are not able to function at all, and the legs just sit out in front of the bird, and she or he can’t stand or bear weight or walk. The vet always puts these birds down, and I’ve lost count of how many of them we’ve rescued over the years who are basically fairly healthy; they just can’t bear weight or walk and tragically, they get put down.

“This splayed-leg bird from April 20th I called Apricot. I felt so sorry for Apricot, as the other 13 birds were all in pretty poor condition but all mobile, including the three with badly twisted and crippled legs who couldn’t and still can’t use their one crippled leg ― they hop around on their other leg. And poor Apricot just sat in her basket watching the others every day. I had to hand feed and water her and clean her bottom daily. She was always so grateful and made such sweet little noises. So I started to get attached to her and put off taking her to the vet.

“On about day 12 after the rescue when I got up one morning she wasn’t sitting in her basket. I freaked and thought, ‘Where’s Apricot?’ I looked about and noticed her amongst the others, and she was standing! Only for a few seconds, but she stood up and held her weight. I got teary eyed. Anyway, as the days have passed, she is walking about with a hobble, but walking around, and right now she’s outside enjoying a mild autumn day with the others in the sunshine. I’m overjoyed.”

Nettie Rescued from a Cockfighting Operation

“Her plight became public after police broke up a large cockfighting operation,” says Marji Beach of Animal Place, a sanctuary and education center in California. “Hundreds of roosters from across the state were pitted against one another in deadly fights. She wasn’t a fighter but a breeder; her existence served to create more fighters.

“All the roosters were euthanized ― an unfair end for such beautiful birds. Animal Place was given custody of the hens and chicks remaining at the property. It was with sadness and hope that we arrived, nets in hand, to capture more than a hundred birds. The going was rough: exposed wires, broken fencing, sharp metal and glass all posed serious hazards to us and the birds.  

“Toward the end of the second night, I spotted her in the corner of a barn stall. She was white with brown speckles. I stayed silent and watched her, knowing that she associated human voices with terror and fear. As I approached, she made deep growling sounds and fluffed her feathers. She wouldn’t move, rooted there by a deep, maternal drive to protect the three babies cheeping beneath her. It was easy to pick her up, but not so easy to remove her beak from my hand!

“Chickens from fight busts are different than the hens we’ve rescued from egg-laying operations. They aren’t petrified of the world, they have their beaks, they know how to survive. But they have also been exposed to more disease and parasites. We lost half the chicks to respiratory diseases and several of the adults

“The birds have never known that they could have a constant supply of good food and clean water. They’ve never known people to be nice to them. It was just as miraculous watching these hens learn to trust as it was watching former egg-laying hens learn to dust bathe for the first time. It was harder finding homes for these hens. They are normal chickens who produce a normal number of eggs per year, maybe 40 or 50. Adopters who picked these hens did so out of a desire to save a life, not because they wanted eggs.

“I named the white hen Nettie. She liked to perch on my shoulder or knee but wouldn’t let me touch her. All her chicks died and she mourned them like any mother. It took months for her to become a healthy, thriving hen. When she did, she found a wonderful home with other hens and a beautiful rooster. Selfishly, I wish she had stayed at Animal Place, but I’m so glad that she and all the other birds found permanent homes. It means we can rescue more.”

Fanny – Rescued from a Battery-Egg Farm

“Fanny came to the sanctuary after an 18-month term in a North Carolina egg factory,” says pattrice jones, co-founder of the Eastern Shore Sanctuary. “Usually, so-called ‘spent hens’ who can no longer lay eggs every day are slaughtered for low-grade meat or simply buried alive in landfills. Fanny and 19 others were saved from that fate by a kind woman who brought them here.

“Like all hens from egg factories, Fanny had been subjected to debeaking. The painful operation burns off the tip of their beaks to prevent bored and hungry hens, crowded into cages so small that they cannot spread their wings or even lie down comfortably, from pecking themselves or each other to death in frustration. Fanny’s injured beak gave her face a blunted look that always reminded me of what she had been through.

“When Fanny arrived at the sanctuary, she was shockingly skinny and had very few of her lovely red feathers. She and her peers bore little resemblance to birds. Years spent perched on wire in cramped cages meant they could hardly walk. They had never seen sunshine or grass, and weren’t at all sure what to do. Some were frantic while others seemed to be in a numb state of shock.

“To help the birds become less fearful, I sat very still on the ground and spread food around me. After the birds came close enough to eat that food, I put food on my shoes and pants. Very gingerly, some of the birds began eating that food too. One bold bird jumped right into my lap. The Band song instantly popped into my head and I began singing to her:

Take a load off, Fanny,

Take a load for free.

Take a load off, Fanny,

And put the load right on me.

The name stuck. From that moment, this bold bird became ‘Fanny.’

“Fanny loved to hear her song ― or, to be honest, any song. She would come if we called her name, not because she was being summoned but because she wanted to see what was going on. Unlike many of the birds, whose feathers get ruffled by any departure from their favored routines, Fanny liked visitors and excitement and changes of pace. She expected to be greeted whenever we saw her and, just like any friend, would feel snubbed if ignored. We made sure to say ‘hello’ to Fanny every morning and several times each day before saying ‘goodnight’ every night.

“When she got too old to deal with the hustle and bustle and randy roosters of the main chicken yard, Fanny began to greet visitors from our front yard, where she spent her days. She was joined by her friend Carmen, who had been with her in the egg factory; a younger hen called Darwin, who had lost a wing in a freak accident; and a delicate but tenacious half-blind hen called Felicia. Carmen and Darwin were gregarious red hens like Fanny, so the three of them hung out together. Felicia, a shy white hen, spent much of her time alone until a feral hen had chicks and decided to let Felicia help out with them. The mother hen wouldn’t let any other chicken near her chicks, so that was quite a compliment to Felicia, who became very attached to her new family. Eventually, the chicks grew up, and Darwin and then Carmen died.

“Fanny then became fast friends with Felicia. They were like next-door neighbors who don’t have a lot in common at first but become close over time due to shared experiences. Felicia had once been so sick that we were sure she would die. But she recovered and went on to enjoy two more times around the seasons. When the cold weather came again this past winter, her little body finally gave out. That was very sad for us and for Fanny, who had lived to see all of her closest friends die. She kept up her usual routine but just didn’t seem herself anymore. Sometimes we would see her standing out in the yard alone. She spent some time with the elderly roosters and a juvenile rooster named Dizzy, but didn’t seem to have the same bond with them that she had had with her hen friends. Luckily, a red hen named Rosalita moved in from Washington, DC, and she and Fanny hit it off right away. Fanny’s mood improved overnight.

“On the morning of what would be her last day, Fanny had a slow start but came running when my partner mixed up her favorite treat for breakfast. Later in the day, I noticed Fanny drooping and brought her some mulberries. She ate one berry eagerly but dropped the next and couldn’t find the rest. Seeing that she was slipping into a stupor, I gathered her into my arms and reclined with her resting on my chest. She fell asleep as the life began to ebb from her body. Just before she died, her wings began to flap, as birds’ wings often do when they go into their death throes. I wanted to say ‘No, don’t go,’ but instead I said, ‘Go, fly away with the wild birds. You’re free.’

“Fanny had almost five years here after two years in an egg factory. She survived all of her original hen and rooster friends, and the cats with whom she used to huddle in a dog house when waiting out rainstorms. Fanny was one in a million, literally and figuratively. She was just one of millions of hens crowded into tiny cages in egg factories. And, like every one of them, she was unique in the sense of having her own characteristics, her own likes and dislikes, and her own way of looking at the world. If, by speaking and writing about Fanny, we can help people to see hens as individuals and stop treating them like objects, then Fanny really will live forever. Still, she leaves two deeply grieving people and a host of human admirers.”

Rescue Groups

There are a number of groups around the world that rescue chickens. If you can help one or more of these nonprofits, I know they’d appreciate it. And I’ll bet you’ll feel great knowing you’re helping birds like Apricot, Nettie and Fanny.

Animal Liberation Victoria (Australia)

Animal Place (US)

Battery Hen Welfare Trust (UK)

Befreite Tiere (Germany)

Cambridgeshire Hen Rescue (UK)

Eastern Shore Sanctuary (US)

Farm Sanctuary (US)

Harvest Home (US)

Hillside Animal Sanctuary (UK)

Little Hen Rescue (UK)

Peaceful Prairie (US)

United Poultry Concerns (US)

Woodstock Farm Animal Sanctuary (US)

As documentaries such as Meet Your Meat and Earthlings illustrate, there’s nothing quite as jarring as seeing animal cruelty with your own eyes. Because few people are able to venture inside a battery egg farm, slaughterhouse or other animal factory (nor, frankly, would most people want to), activists are using hidden cameras as a tool to confront consumers with the suffering animals endure behind closed doors. These videos could also lead to animal-cruelty charges against those perpetrating abuse.

 

The latest example of this is Mercy For Animals’ investigation into Quality Egg of New England. From December 16, 2008, to February 1, 2009, an MFA investigator worked undercover at Quality Egg in Maine documenting such abuses as management and workers callously kicking live hens into manure pits, where they either drowned in liquid feces or likely died slow and painful deaths from illness, injury or starvation; employees killing birds by grabbing their necks and swinging them around in circles; and hens suffering from broken bones, bloody open wounds and untreated infections.

 

Nathan Runkle

Nathan Runkle

MFA turned their video over to authorities, and yesterday policed raided Quality Egg, spending eight hours gathering additional evidence. Eggs from Quality Egg, one of the largest producers of brown eggs in the United States, are sold primarily under the label of “Eggland’s Best” and are distributed in Shaw’s, Stop & Shop, Wal-Mart, Hannaford and other stores.

 

I caught up with Nathan Runkle, Mercy For Animals’ executive director, as he was changing flights today, and we chatted about this new investigation and what it takes to be an undercover investigator.

 

First of all, Nathan, can you describe what your investigator found?

 

The birds at Quality Egg are kept in battery cages that are stacked three tiers high. Each cage, as you know, is the size of a file-cabinet drawer. At this facility, they confine four to six birds per cage, so each bird has less space than a notebook-size piece of paper on which to live. We found birds suffering from broken bones, uterine prolapse, untreated infections. There were birds who were trapped under the wires of their cages, many of them left to die of starvation or dehydration; dead birds left to rot and decompose with birds still producing eggs for human consumption. Our investigator documented 49 separate incidents of live birds being thrown away into trash cans and left to suffer there, sometimes for three days. He also witnessed employees dumping dead birds on top of live birds in trash cans so that these birds were left buried, sometimes two feet under the bodies of dead birds, to suffocate or to be crushed by the corpses.

 

Did the investigator tell management at the egg facility about the abuse?

 

Yes, he brought this to the attention of other workers and supervisors, including Jay DeCoster, the son of Jack DeCoster, who is infamous for violating environmental laws, workers’ safety laws, not only in the state of Maine but in Iowa and Ohio, where he has facilities. Whenever our investigator brought this to the attention of upper management and other employees, they told him it was not a big deal and that he should just leave the birds there. They showed a callous attitude and complete disregard for even the most basic animal care.

The investigator also documented numerous cases of employees ripping birds out of their cages, holding them by their necks and swinging them around in circles, tossing them into shed aisles and then kicking them into manure pits while the birds were still flapping, struggling and clearly alive. He found cages with large holes in the flooring, most of these cages still confining live birds. There was sharp wire protruding into the cages with the majority of floor missing, which puts the birds at risk of either getting impaled by the wire, falling into the manure pits or having difficulty accessing food in the front of the cages. He also witnessed a large hole in one of the ceilings for the entire six weeks that he worked there, even though it was in the dead of winter and exposed a lot of the birds to extreme temperatures. Again, this was something he brought to the attention of management, and they failed to take any action.

 

Why is it necessary for an investigator to work at a facility for six weeks to collect evidence? Is that a long time?

 

We don’t consider six weeks to be a long time. When we handed our footage over to some of the news stations, they asked, “How long did the investigator work there?” and we told them six weeks, and they were like, “Really? That’s it? We would have thought he’d have to work there for a year to get all this evidence.” So this is really just a snapshot of what’s taking place there. It just scratches the surface of the abuse against these animals. But for these places, it’s important for us to show that this abuse is systemic and widespread, and it’s important to document numerous conditions because the industry always tries to say a plant is a bad apple, an isolated case or say it’s just a few employees, when the truth is much of this abuse is inherent in factory farm systems and it runs rampant and largely unchecked. So for us, it was important to show a pattern of disregard and cruelty.

 

Bob Leclerc, the safety and compliance manager at Quality Egg, said what was in the video is not general or acceptable practice. Yet it seems every time MFA goes into an egg farm we see this kind of cruelty.

 

Exactly. Egg producers know that the public does not accept these conditions. We know that they are standard practices within the egg industry and that these abuses take place across the country at egg factory farms. This is the seventh undercover investigation at an egg farm that Mercy For Animals has conducted, and every single time that we enter these facilities we find a laundry list of horrific abuses to animals. The best that the egg industry can do once they’re caught red-handed on video abusing animals is to try to isolate the abuse and distance themselves from it as much as possible. We see this time and again with investigations at factory farms and slaughterhouses. They try to say they had no idea this abuse was taking place, which is usually a bold-faced lie, as is documented in our investigation; as I said, our investigator brought it to the attention of supervisors time and again. So we know they were aware of this.

          When the public is watching, the egg farm’s strategy is to try to paint it as a picture of a few bad employees. But in reality, most of the abuse that the employees are engaged in is the way in which they were instructed to handle or kill birds. I don’t believe this is a case of sadistic abuse; I believe this is how most of those employees were trained to kill birds.

 

You mean swinging hens around by their necks?

 

This is a common technique used to kill birds who are potentially injured or were trapped in their cages. The employees are attempting to use cervical dislocation, but this is certainly not an appropriate way of doing that. Investigators in our last three investigations have been told that is the way to kill birds. This is what’s taught.

 

What are the qualities you look for in an investigator?

 

Well, they have to be someone that can be a chameleon and blend in with their environment. They need to have nerves of steel, be quick-thinking and have a sense of adventure. Most of all, they need to be willing to give up their personal comfort and many of the luxuries of safety and being around like-minded people. They need to be willing to submerge themselves into cultures of cruelty and be around people who simply don’t care about animals the same way they do and be able to stomach it while documenting the conditions and understand that that’s what’s needed to ultimately expose and end the cruelty.

          People have a false notion that being an undercover investigator is somehow glamorous, and that is certainly not the case. It’s very depressing work. You have to witness egregious cruelty on a daily basis. It’s very isolating. Our investigators are working in facilities that are located in very rural areas and they’re not able to have the same sort of friendships and support system that most activists have because they have to work undercover in secluded areas for extended periods of time.

 

How much contact do they have with you while they’re working undercover?

 

Our investigators check in and give us daily reports on what’s taking place, which allows us to make judgments on how much longer the investigation needs to continue and what evidence has been gathered.

 

How do you decide when you have enough evidence in a particular case?

 

The goal is to document enough instances of abuse to show there is a pattern. For example, in this case, we documented 49 different live birds being thrown into trash cans. This happened 70 percent of the time he was there, so seven out of 10 days live birds were being thrown away. Our investigator documented 150 cases of birds trapped in the wire of their cages without access to food or water. Certainly, if he had stayed there longer, he would have documented 300 instances of that. There are sometimes key points of information we need to obtain, such as what the corporate structure is or who the suppliers are, and sometimes it takes time to get that information.

 

How can activists and consumers help?

 

The very best thing that anyone can do to stop this abuse is to eliminate eggs from their diet. Behind the abuse of animals in agriculture is consumer demand for the product, and we can choose kindness over cruelty every time that we eat.

We’ll certainly keep people posted on this case. If it gets to the point where we’re calling on people to contact the district attorney or contact some of these grocery chains to take action, activists can get involved that way, but right now we are optimistic that cruelty charges will be filed. The Maine Department of Agriculture has been extremely proactive and receptive to this ever since we brought it to their attention ― gaining the warrant, executing the raid ― so we would like for them to have the time they need to go through the evidence and file charges.

 

Mercy For Animals is a nonprofit organization, funded by contributions from supporters. If you’d like to help MFA continue their investigative work ― or any of their other outstanding efforts ― please consider making a tax-deductible donation.


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