This spring, we learned that an egg factory was in the process of closing, and we arrived just hours before its residents were transported to a processing plant. We were able to save 200 of the hens from slaughter. But, the fight for their lives had just begun. We’ve spent the months since that rescue treating these birds for a slew of health problems, all common to hens in industrial egg production.
The many hens who arrived with egg yolk peritonitis and eye infections have received extensive treatment, and the majority of them now feel much better. One girl, Miriam, will undergo surgery for eye removal, but otherwise she is a very happy girl. Butterscotch even surprised us by regaining vision in her left eye, which we feared had been completely destroyed by infection when she arrived. The several hens diagnosed with reproductive-tract cancer are faring well, too. With the help of the medication Tamoxifen, they are active and enjoying life. Others have been or will be spayed, which can give them years and years of life with us once they are out of the cycle of egg production.
All of the hens arrived infested with mites, which took several rounds of treatment to eradicate. These parasites can be tenacious, but the healthier and stronger the birds became, the more their own bodies were able to help fight off the infestation. Good food, fresh air, sunshine, and individual care have all contributed to the well-being of these survivors. These are things that animals in factory farms never experience.
Now healed, many of the hens have received permanent homes through our Farm Animal Adoption Network. We are thrilled to have so many adoptive homes for laying hens; adopters enable us to keep performing large rescues when opportunities arise.
Meanwhile, fifty hens who will need specialized, life-long care for reproductive-tract ailments remain at our New York Shelter, where they have settled into flocks. Some have made themselves at home amidst our turkeys, while others are living it up in the sheep barn with their new rooster friend, Parry. After the anguished monotony of industrial confinement, these birds are now reveling in lives of comfort and peace.
Original rescue story published in April 2013:
Butterscotch arrived at our New York Shelter with a swollen mass on her face, which had destroyed her left eye. She had one good eye left, however, and with it she saw something for the very first time: sunshine.
Butterscotch was among a group of hens we rescued from a factory egg farm this spring. This facility was forced to close when it could not afford legally mandatory upgrades. As a result, no more birds would languish in cramped cages, but the hens who were confined there would be sent to slaughter.
News of this closure reached us just in the nick of time. Our rescue team arrived mere hours before the chickens were to be transported to a processing plant. Thankfully, they allowed us to take 200 of the birds. The rest were being sold by the pound to make up for the financial losses incurred by the owners of the facility.
All of the birds had horribly overgrown toenails and were crawling with mites. Most had pale, limp combs, and all were very stressed. We saw some cases of prolapsed oviducts and of vents so stretched out from excessive egg laying that the resulting incontinence had given the hens urine-scald. Like Butterscotch, many other hens had eye infections; some were even missing eyes.
Many of the hens had distended, fluid-filled abdomens from egg yolk peritonitis. We drained nearly 20 ounces from the belly of one hen; after the procedure, she weighed only two pounds. Another hen, Peppermint, was afflicted with egg impaction too severe for treatment to make a difference, making euthanasia the only humane option. Peppermint probably suffered unnoticed for months as egg after egg became lodged in her reproductive system. Yet, this was not a cruelty case. No laws had been broken because none exist to protect most farm animals. Chickens are the least protected of all. Sadly, cruel conditions and the ailments the hens endured are typical on the factory farms that produce 99% of the eggs consumed each year.
Inside the factory
At battery-cage facilities like the one from which these hens were rescued, producers crowd birds by fours or fives into wire cages so small that the hens can’t even stretch their limbs. Hens at “cage-free” facilities live in large flocks on the ground, but they too are intensely crowded. In both cases, these animals never get to see the sky or sun, feel grass under their feet, or breathe fresh air. The atmosphere inside an egg factory is thick with dust and rank with ammonia from the birds’ excrement.
Bred to produce more than 280 eggs per year, the tiny hens are prone to a slew of reproductive-tract ailments, weakened skeletal systems, and nutritional deficiencies. Yet none of them receives individual care, no matter what her condition might be. At industrial farms, hens are handled individually only when they die and workers remove their bodies — if they remove their bodies. It is not uncommon for hens to live atop a decomposing cage mate.
An egg-laying hen is born in a factory; she lives in a factory; and she dies in a factory. She hatches in a plastic or metal tray and is dumped onto a conveyor belt that carries her to sorting, sexing, and de-beaking stations before she is shipped off to live in a cage. She later dies on a conveyer belt, hung by her feet from it as she bleeds out. In between, she endures a few years of relentless stress, frustration, and boredom in a windowless barracks. She is never seen as someone. She is treated, instead, as a commodity —something to be used or sold or discarded at will.
Refuge and recovery
Finally, as these hens recover at our shelter, Butterscotch and her friends are seen as individuals worthy of kindness and care. For the first several nights, the hens slept piled on each other, not yet realizing that is was possible, or would feel good, to spread out. Slowly, however, they are discovering the joys of space. They stretch their wings with a few experimental flaps. In the coming days and weeks, they will learn to perch, roost in nesting boxes, scavenge for insects, and run.
There have been a few minor confrontations between the hens, and that’s a good thing. These scuffles are how chickens establish the pecking order that allows them to function as a flock. For the first time, they are forming social identities and relationships, something that is natural for chickens but is impossible when they are aggressively confined in factory farms.
Meanwhile, treatment and rehabilitation continues apace. Just after the hens arrived, our avian vet performed sonograms on the 25 with distended bellies. In some hens’ abdomens, fluid or layers of rotten egg had built up. Others were diagnosed with cancer. Although we cannot cure their cancer, we use medication to slow its spread, stave off discomfort, and prolong their lives. Instead of weeks or months, they can have years to relish the comforts now surrounding them. Other hens with infections caused by egg production were started on treatments with antibiotics.
The hens with eye problems will receive treatment from a veterinary ophthalmologist at Cornell University Hospital for Animals. All are currently receiving pain medications and topical treatments. Butterscotch’s eye mass has been diagnosed as a tumor, and is most likely cancer. She has had surgery to remove the large mass, which also was taking over her sinus. She is now home and recovering while we await the results. We are hopeful that she will make a full recovery and live the free and happy life that all hens deserve.
At Farm Sanctuary, each of these hens receives individual attention. Each has a name, a health chart, and a recorded history. It’s fair to say that their lives are just beginning because what an animal experiences on a factory farm is no life at all.