752 Lucky Hens
28th December 2012
Hearing the words, ‘Can you please save my hens? I don’t want them to go to slaughter,’ coming from a one-time battery hen farmer is something I would never have thought possible. But that is just what happened six months ago and so began Australia’s largest rescue of farmed animals. And in the dying days of 2012 I again heard those words. With assurances the cages would never again see another hen, we swung into action. While the number of hens involved in this instance paled against the dizzy number of our first rescue, it was going to take some effort to pull this one off. With the festive season claiming many would be helpers and battling against the rising temperatures that would make transporting the fragile hens prohibitive we somehow made it happen.
Each of us involved in this rescue has a story to tell and this is mine. For me it was certainly not the first time I had walked into a shed of despair and no doubt it won’t be my last. Taking a deep breath, not only to savour my last gasp of fresh air for some time, but to prepare myself for the heart wrenching sight and smell of pitiful creatures eking out an existence in tiny wire prisons amidst the dust and build-up of 18 months’ worth of excrement, I entered the shed. At this point in time I was struck with great empathy as heads bobbed up and down, squawks rang out and curious gazes descended upon me. But any thoughts racing through my head were brought to an abrupt halt as I had to deal with the issue at hand of removing hens from cages as expediently and gently as I could.
My task, as in previous rescues, has been to remove the hens from the cages and pass them to others who would then ferry the liberated hens to the awaiting straw lined carriers and vehicles. When needed I would also advise which hens required placement in our many hospital cages due to her thinness, respiratory problems, eye infection or uterus condition to name a few. This then entailed me remaining in the sheds for almost two hours whilst the rescue was completed and one by one an innocent creature was granted a new lease on life. Now one may think the hens would be most appreciative of getting out of such a hellhole but to see it from their point of view puts another spin on things. For the past 18 months- the ‘productive’ lifespan of a battery hen- a human such as me had walked the sheds, barely taking any notice of the chickens, every now and then removing a dead hen from a cage, disposing of a near dead one here and there and no doubt tossing about a few cursed words also. I truly believe it has to affect one in some way, day in day out being a part of such cruelty. But this day, well this day was different. On this fateful day, hands gently reached inside the cages whilst kind voices cooed, ‘Come here beautiful, I will save you.’ Many of the hapless hens pitifully attempted to flee whilst others froze in fear – and they just about broke my heart. Moments later, the hen would blink in the sunshine for the first time in her life as she found her ‘sea legs’ tilting back and forth on solid ground- a much welcomed change from the sloping wire floor she had only ever known.
Whilst overall the hens appeared in much better health than our first rescue, one thing that quickly became creepily apparent was the fact that the hens were riddled with lice. Rarely have I seen such bad infestations. Unprepared for this, each hen would need to be treated immediately on arrival at our sanctuary, prior to exiting the vehicle. This task that added an extra few of hours to our already long day, however it was most essential all the same to ensure our biosecurity would be maintained. Our subsequent return the next day to complete the rescue saw us much better prepared and meant we almost made it to bed before midnight. Almost. This is something that still eludes me each night.
At one point in time whilst I was removing hens from cages a person behind me swore and as I quickly turned my head, my heart sank as I saw my beautiful friend and EM worker Paula clasping a dying hen in her trembling hands. “She was in there, flapping about, her body spasming uncontrollably. I had to get her out.” My eyes filled with tears as Paula cradled the limp bird in her arms. This was Paula’s first time in the sheds and I felt so responsible for the sorrow she was enduring. But there was no way Paula’s big heart was going to let us undertake this rescue without her, knowing how strapped I was for manpower. We brought the hen home with us and she, along with all the other hens spent their first night of freedom at Edgar’s Mission. While it may seem odd to some, it was very important to Paula and I that this girl, even though she didn’t make it out alive, her body did. I believe sometimes it is very important that we grant ourselves such selfish indulgences in a world in which we witness such soul destroying heartache. The hen is now buried here at Edgar’s Mission and Paula has named her Frida, for the peace she has now found, albeit far too late.
If what I have just described sounds like a scene from a war zone, a Red Cross worker cradling a dying innocent victim in their arms, it is. While I’m not quite sure when man first declared war on the animal kingdom it is one that has been raging for centuries in the hearts, minds and deeds of many. A war of which animals never signed up for and sadly many of us have been the unwitting accomplices to. And history will surely tell that factory farming will be our darkest chapter in this sorry tale.
My stomach became scratched and bloodied, a legacy of the hideously overgrown toenails of the hens. But any feelings of pain would quickly melt away once I saw those same nails meticulously combing through golden straw. Comfort I do take in knowing that they will slowly morph into the finely trimmed claws nature intended. But sadly, despite their rescue, I know all too well that these gentle birds will not live the ten years or so their wild cousins will. The toll of the genetic selection man has imposed upon these creatures will see many succumbing to the debilitating condition of caged layer fatigue or the associated uterus problems.
And as the last hen was gently lifted from her cage a part of me that wasn’t worn out and exhausted gave a little happy leap knowing that the tide is slowly turning. But in a glass half empty moment, I realised that over the last two days while 752 hens got lucky, 752 baby roosters never would. Killed before just 24 hours of age, they will remain the forgotten victims in this war.
Fast forward to today and just now I have come down from checking the glorious hens in their new home. Some busily scratch about in the straw as others steal away moments of sheer bliss when their dishevelled feathers catch the all too unfamiliar feeling of the sun’s rays. Touching it is to see a little hen fastidiously grabbing pieces of straw and tossing them onto her back while others have made fast work of finding a secretive nest. While the joy of watermelon still awaits, the girls are quickly learning that grains are delicious as too is our special mushy mash. An incredible feeling wells inside you, gazing out on a sea of feathers and straw, not a cage in sight. You can almost breathe in the euphoria the hens feel, which I must say is a welcome change from the ammonia filled blackness of the last couple of days. If I felt empathy when rescuing the hens, at this point in time I feel unity. We are indeed one in spirit, we are indeed one in this world. To believe any less will come at our peril as worlds collide and we hurtle down a path of self-destruction. For what we do to them, we do to our spirit. But the wonderful thing about our life is that there is never a point in time where one cannot say, ‘I am not going to be a part of this anymore.’ This hen farmer has done just that and perhaps on the eve of a New Year, we too can echo his words.
“We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals. Remote from universal nature and living by complicated artifice, man in civilization surveys the creature through the glass of his knowledge and sees thereby a feather magnified and the whole image in distortion. We patronize them for their incompleteness, for their tragic fate for having taken form so far below ourselves. And therein do we err. For the animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours, they move finished and complete, gifted with the extension of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings: they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the earth.”
― Henry Beston