Yesterday I joined Animal Place in rescuing 1,500 hens or "little potatoes" as another volunteer affectionately called them. "One potato, two potatoes, three potatoes..." as we were pulling the hens out of their cages and placing them in transport crates :)
We arrived at 1:30am at the farm. It was pitch dark and very quiet except for a barking dog. The owner opened the gate and led us to one of the sheds. He turned on the light in it and disappeared. The first thing I saw was white hens floating in midair like little ghosts in the shed. It looked surreal. Coming closer I saw the cages hanging from the ceiling with all the hens in it. The bright lights just above them. The shed was a roof with four open sides covered with rusted chicken wire. There were 3 long rows of cages in it.
A pungent odor was coming from the shed. The floor was covered with 12 to 18" of feces. Lots of 6 legged critters were crawling on the pile. This was truly disgusting. Later I learned that the shed gets cleaned only when the hens are replaced with a younger batch.
There were about 10 to 12 hens in a cage of approximately 5' by 18". The diagram on the left shows a section of the cage. The floor is slightly slanted so the eggs roll to the front for easy collection. The wire mesh on the front is bigger allowing the hens to pass their head through to eat in a sort of manger attached outside. This is the reason why the hens have very little feathers on their neck. The water comes in a PVC pipe at the back of the cage and has small holes to drink from.
This is the first battery cage I saw in person. It's quite an awful setup denying the hens their natural needs like perching, dustbathing, and nesting. The veteran rescuers told me that actually that this was better than previous rescues. Usually the cages are stacked on top of each other, making the hens at the bottom extremely dirty. Here the hens looked relatively healthy and we didn't find any dead ones.
We unloaded all the transport crates on both sides of the shed, and dressed up. I wore long pants, a long sleeves shirt, and tall rubber boots. I put on a disposable coverall and boot covers on top, as well as a face mask (mainly for the smell). It was 90F. We split in teams and started pulling out the hens from their cages. One person was catching the hen in the cage through a tiny door. We could barely put both our arms in it. To pull the hen out we had to turn her on her side, and make sure her feet didn't get caught in the wire. Our arms were bruised at the end of the operation. The hen was given to a second person who put her in the crate with the help of a third person who managed the door of the crate and made sure no hens escaped. Once a crate was filled with 10 little potatoes :) we brought it outside. Since it was dark, the hens immediately calmed down and felt asleep. We took turns. Adrenaline was running high emptying the cages. I was covered in sweat. We worked non-stop.
At one point, I went outside to get another crate. There weren't any empty crates anymore. I paused. This was it. We were done! Feelings of accomplishment and tiredness washed through me. But then I turned to the shed and saw the remaining hens. We emptied 2 of the 3 rows. About 700 hens remained and they will be killed. Suddenly I became very sad, tears started rolling on my face (they are now too as I write this). Somebody hugged me and I bursted into tears. "Think about all the lives we just saved. Don't look behind." she told me. It was hard, terribly hard. The hardest part of the rescue.
At 4:30am, all the crates were loaded into the vehicles, and we left driving directly back to the rescue ranch.
At the ranch, we immediately unloaded the crates into the barns and opened them. The hens got out of the crates, touched the soil, and stretched their wings for the first time. This is the best moment of the whole rescue.
Once all the hens were freed and settled in the barns, we finally took a break and ate some food. But we quickly went back in the barns to watch them. It was so rewarding. These hens are really young, only 1 year and 2 months. A few of them started testing their flying skills right away. It was fun. It was quite emotional too to see them dustbathing for the first time. They are full of lice and they have been itching to do that for so long. I was sitting on the ground with my back against a hay bale when a little hen came around me, she was looking for something. She went behind my back and sat there. When she left, there was an egg behind me. Without knowing, I had given her her first nesting place.
This rescue was a success, and I am really glad I was part of it. It was a roller coaster of emotions - and will be for a while. I saved 1,500 little potatoes :)
PS: Animal Place also uses these rescues to reach out and educate the public. There were several news outlets at the ranch and a documentary crew. - "In Vacaville, chickens learn the meaning of freedom", SF Chronicle