Before Hurricane Katrina made landfall in September 2005, businesses in the states of Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, and Mississippi were raising an estimated 635 million farm animals for food. The storm killed millions of them, and countless others remained in peril as Farm Sanctuary and other rescuers rushed to the scene. Animals confined to factory farm warehouses, especially poultry, were in the gravest danger. In many places, the hurricane destroyed the automated feed, water, and ventilation systems that these birds depended on, leaving the animals utterly helpless.
Information on imperiled farm animals was slow to come, as most reports on the agricultural damage focused almost exclusively on economic losses. Nonetheless, a Farm Sanctuary crew departed our New York Shelter and headed into the devastated areas. Once there, we worked with other groups to search for survivors and negotiate the release of animals from wrecked area farms. Rescuers reported demolished warehouses confining tens of thousands of birds, fields littered with dead chickens and teeming with living ones struggling to survive, and mass graves.
Large agribusiness companies with facilities in the area had dispatched clean-up crews to bulldoze damaged buildings with live animals still trapped inside. “We saw a massive open grave containing thousands of dead chickens crawling with maggots,” said Kate Walker, a Farm Sanctuary rescuer. “Shockingly, 21 were still alive, huddled in the corner of the pit.”
This was at a rural Mississippi poultry farm under contract with Tyson. A tornado spawned by the hurricane had completely destroyed one of its warehouses and severely damaged two others. Working tirelessly, our crew pulled trapped and injured chickens from the wreckage, examined them, and prepared them for transport to safety.
On September 12, the team arrived at our New York Shelter with 725 chickens rescued from the facility. Caregivers immediately began the monumental task of rehabilitating these birds, who were ailing with broken toes, gangrene, and joint infections, as well as malnutrition and dehydration from the days they had spent without food and water. Farm Sanctuary workers devoted hours and hours each day to administering antibiotics, painkillers, fluids, and special feeds. Farm Sanctuary supporters contributed to the effort, as well, donating enough funds for us to build a special nursery shed to house the weakest chickens.
In the weeks and months that followed, the fight for the birds’ lives continued. Even as they healed from their encounter with natural disaster, many of the chickens continued to suffer from the disaster of their breeding. Meat chickens, or “broilers,” are bred to grow rapidly, reaching slaughter weight just 42 days after hatching. These massive birds are prone to rickets, joint problems, torn ligaments, and a sudden death syndrome that the industry has dubbed “flip-over disease.” Genetically predisposed to voracity, many broilers will compulsively eat straw and other indigestible objects, which lodge in their crops and cause dangerous blockages and infections.
Keeping the birds on a carefully managed diet prevented or ameliorated some of these ailments, while others required ongoing care. Despite our best efforts, many of the birds died. Undaunted by their own difficulties, however, the tenacious survivors made great strides toward health and happiness. After lives in dim, crowded warehouses, they took to the airy barns and sunlit pastures of the shelter with relish.
One hen in particular impressed all who met her. Ginger was among the many thousands of chickens bulldozed into huge pits during the clean-up efforts. Rescuers found her in one of these pits, gamely fighting for her life despite a severe case of gangrene. Even after we were forced to amputate part of her foot, Ginger remained cheerful, active, and outgoing, exemplifying the resilience of so many of these birds.
One year after Katrina, hundreds of the chickens we rescued had been adopted into loving, permanent homes across the United States. More than 200 remained at our shelter and continued to receive expert care and all the comfort we could provide — and to inspire us with their indomitable zest for life.