I called the farm to ask if I could come by and see the birds, and I told the woman who answered exactly why I wanted to visit. She assured me the chickens are treated well, and I could stop by some time the next week. I had some spare time on a Saturday, so I followed the address listed in the phone book to find the farm.
When I reached the property, I saw one metal chicken "house/shed" with no windows and some circular fans along the outside, and in front was a home, the home of the woman who answered. This was a small, family run, free-range, egg facility, but the chicken shed looked cold – nothing family like about it. I approached the door of the shed where I saw a window with an open sign posted. I opened the door and entered the building to see who was working. No one was around. I was standing in a room with egg sorting equipment, cement and some scattered feathers, and I could hear the sound of chickens in the distance. Maybe the people running this business were taking care of the chickens?
I walked towards the sound, approached a filthy, beat up door, and opened it slowly. Upon opening the door – it was dark. Only one bulb was on in the very far off distance. It must have been 60 watts – and not enough to light up this metal Quonset hut used to house the birds, the ten thousand birds that were crying inside. The floor under my feet was cement, and the building was freezing cold with no heat in early April. I couldn’t see much for hens at all down the shed… it was just too dark. All I could see was black, all I could hear was crying of hens, all I could smell was ammonia – it was a cold, black cement hell.
I looked down before taking a step to find a sick bird hunched down with her face on the floor. Her neck was dangling down as if she was in sorrow. I scooped her up and head out of the building. I looked around for anyone to let them know they had a sick bird, to find no one. I took her to my certified avian veterinarian to see what we could do for her. She was severely dehydrated and emaciated. Her beak was clipped short and it looked raw, leading me to believe she was just unable to eat due to the mutilation of beak clipping from the hatchery she came from. I begged my vet to do anything to help her. She could just teach me anything, and I would surely do it once we left. My veterinarian taught me how to inject saline to hydrate her, and she also provided us with some ground up feed for her as well. $230 later for veterinary care of a starving chicken, we left the vet clinic to head home. At this time I named her Mazzy.
Mazzy and I were two miles from the clinic, when she let out a cry in pain, pulling her neck back pressing her neck against her back. I pulled over to hold her sobbing, "you're not alone, you're not alone." This happened two more times before we reached my house. She died in my arms shortly after.
This was my first experience into a small, family run, free-range/cage-free egg laying facility.
The next week, I called that same farm back to get more information. That shipment of birds came from the hatchery just in the recent month. Mazzy was just a young girl, and her sisters in that farm were doomed to spend the next year in that place. The woman on the phone let me know that they would be "spent" about the same time next year, and to call her then if I want to pick up some spent hens.
I arrived to meet the woman out front a year later, and she led me into the building. She already sent most of the birds to slaughter. She told me she has to pay a company to take these unprofitable birds off her hands to turn them into soup and dog food. She told me about a rooster who accidentally arrived with the previous order of birds. He was killed when his head was rolled into the egg collecting conveyor belt that all birds have access to in the shed. He was one of how many who died that way? He stood out, because he was the only boy.
I got a good look inside the building this time, because she left the big front doors open to let in the light. The place smelled much worse than it had with all the birds, and that's because they're unable to clean until the birds are sent off to slaughter. They hadn't cleaned yet. No windows, the place was still dark, and the roosts were placed above a conveyer belt to immediately take the eggs away from the birds. She walked me to the small confinement area where the surviving hens were, and she let me pick out two – Libby and Maude - Libby and Maude were coming out of a forced molt where food is withheld for up to fourteen days. Their appearance was heart wrenching.
In my spare room, Libby and Maude ate their first bites of feed in who knows how long. They were terrified. After two weeks they began to grow back in some feathers, and that is when I took them to spend the rest of their lives at Peaceful Prairie Sanctuary.
The Second Free Range Farm
Again, I looked in the phone book for any kind of farm, because I wanted to do my own research. I found a hatchery to go to. I found the hatchery, and I set about the property to locate the owner. To my surprise, this was no longer a hatchery; it was now a well known Free- Range Organic Egg farm.
Outside were several, long, metal buildings one story high with fans along the outside and huge round canisters at each building. Each large shed had a conveyor belt kind of contraption coming out of one side to pulley out eggs from within the building. No signs of life were outside the buildings, and if it wasn’t for the faint sound of panicking hens from within the metal buildings the place would seem deserted. There was a strong stench coming from the buildings. I had smelled it before, but it was like a chicken coop times 10,000 instantly sticking to my clothes and in my hair. I was standing about 35 feet from one of the large metal buildings when the stench engulfed me.
Back in my truck, I drove down to the last building to locate someone to speak to. I saw one skinny chicken with very few feathers running out near one of the buildings among several large white drums scattered about the area.
I found one building with the front door open, a pickup truck and a woman with a gas mask on was in front. As I approached the woman, I saw her dropping a dead chicken onto the top of a mound of other dead birds just outside the door. I asked her a question, and she pointed me to someone inside the building – she couldn’t speak English. I walked past the dead pile, and then past another dead pile on the inside of the door– also a few feet high and stopping at a smaller dead pile on the right to face the elevated prison. Behind the gate inside was a man standing in with the birds. He had a gas mask on and a shovel in his hand.
He was standing on a grill with the birds about three feet above the cement floor covered in excrement from the birds. The chickens were frightened, but to look at just one was impossible. It was truly a racking sight to look beyond that man all the way down the building where I saw no end, but the sound of all the birds told me how endless that shed was. The birds had room to squeeze between each other to reach wall to wall with no access to the outside. Some birds were up against the ceiling high gate from one wall to the other.
Their beaks were chopped off at the end. Their necks were featherless. Their combs were pale skin color untouched by the sun. Their toes were able to curl into the grate accommodating their overgrown toe nails. These birds only had the grate they were standing on and the metal walls surrounding them until they died.
Looking past the hens at the gate I saw endless chaos. The sound of screaming birds was never ending, and the building was so long I couldn’t see anywhere near to the end. There was no straw, and there was no wood to perch on. There was nothing natural in that building other than death and suffering. There were no windows to see a world other than this. The only roost was a metal one designed to collect eggs and take them away from the birds. There was NOTHING to build a nest with unless the birds used their feces and lost feathers as building material.
That man didn't know where the owner was, but that the owner should be back shortly. I decided to wait and to maybe have a conversation with this fellow. He was young, early 20's. I wanted to build a rapport saying, "Chickens are my favorite animal, it must be fun working with them all day long!!". At that point he told me he was just a contractor, and it's messy work. They had to wear gas masks because the stench would damage his lungs if they did not. Birds have much more sensitive respiratory systems than humans.
The owner finally rolled up. He was also a young man, maybe in his late 20's or early 30's. I introduced myself to him, and I let him know I was there for my love of chickens, and I wanted to add on to my flock I had at home. He wanted to get a better idea of what I was all about. I described what I do. I rescue parrots, and I rescue chickens when I can, and it's against my ethics to pay for chickens or to purchase them from a hatchery or any store. After some peaceful conversation, he said he would give me some birds. I just had to pull my truck around to the building towards the end of the row of buildings, because those hens were no longer producing enough eggs for profit.
Just outside that building I asked him what he does with these birds after they are no longer useful to him. He told me he gasses them in 50 gallon drums. It takes him four days to gas thousands and thousands of hens. He hates to do this. At that point he estimated about 80,000 hens. I asked why he doesn't send them to slaughter for soup or dog food. To that he said no company would take them, so they have to be gassed.
He told me about his first shipment of chicks. In order to be certified organic, he has them shipped in when they are just one day old. This man was doing the best job that could possibly be done to raise egg laying hens for profit. I personally do not think anyone could do better.
The fact is, I walked into piles of dead birds, in a ghastly, endless shed filled with screaming hens, a contractor with a gas mask on, and a smell to knock you off your feet to come face to face with the best job Free Range Factory Faming could possibly do. It wasn't pretty.
This man provided these hens with literally tons of organic grains he grew on site each day. He raised them from babies, but they were still terrified, their beaks were chopped off, their brothers were killed just after birth, the chicks never met their mothers to experience the gentle protection for her wings, the chickens did not have nests, they did not have roosts, they did not have any dirt to dust-bathe, they did not have straw, they were not outside, they were not happy, and they were dying left and right – because it simply is not possible to provide veterinary care for 80,000 hens.
It is not possible to know who is sick, and it is not possible to find all the birds who were suffering like Mazzy to tell her she is not alone, and she IS loved.
Jewel Johnson, © 2007