Faye and Friends: Survivors of Airline Cargo Disaster Find Refuge

On August 3, 2006 Farm Sanctuary welcomed 11 baby turkeys to its Orland, CA shelter. They spent their first day exploring the surroundings of their new home with wide eyes, picking at the straw bales, and scratching at the floor. Their curiosity was in full force when they first arrived, as they attempted to hop on top of the bales, only to realize that they were still too young and small for these athletic maneuvers. They ate and drank heartily and spent their first night huddled together cozily in our hospital. By their curious and active demeanors, one would never assume the harrowing events that led them to our Orland Shelter.

These turkeys were among over 11,500 birds transported from Detroit to San Francisco via Northwest Airlines. Upon arrival at San Francisco International Airport (SFO) on July 13, Northwest employees discovered that over 9,000 of the birds had perished in transit from Detroit to SFO. According to the Peninsula Humane Society & SPCA (PHS/SPCA), which was the first to take in some of the surviving birds, said they “believe the massive loss was due to overcrowding. The turkeys couldn’t breathe, became overheated, dehydrated and died.” Approximately 1,900 surviving birds were sent to their final destination to become “breeder” birds, whose offspring would be sold for food.

One week after this initial disaster, Northwest Airlines again called the PHS/SPCA to pick up more birds who were found dead and dying in a subsequent shipment that was apparently meant to replace the original shipment. Zacky Farms, the recipient of the birds from both shipments, left behind boxes containing an estimated 3,240 dead and dying birds at the San Francisco airport. By the time PHS/SPCA investigators arrived on the scene, Northwest Airlines cargo workers had already thrown 26 of the 28 boxes into a trash compactor. Of the two remaining boxes, investigators found 22 of 62 chicks still alive. Sadly, however, all but one died.

The bird-shipping industry has a poor track record of ensuring animal welfare. It ships millions of birds across the country via postal mail and as cargo aboard airlines, and countless numbers perish from heat extremes, overcrowding and deprivation of food and water. Last year Farm Sanctuary rescued over 100 baby chicks who were found dying during a cross-country shipment in the postal mail.

Sadly, if these birds had not suffered the way they did at the hands of careless cargo workers, they would surely have been sent to work as “breeders” within an industry that only regards them as a means to produce more turkeys for cold-cuts and holiday meals. To meet consumer demand for breast meat, commercial turkeys have been bred to have abnormally large breasts. As a result, the birds cannot mount and reproduce naturally, and the industry now relies on artificial insemination as the sole means of reproduction. The 1,900 turkeys that survived only to be shipped to their destination, Zacky Farms, will endure a constant cycle of forced “milking” of the toms and artificial insemination of the hens, until their bodies give out and they are sent to slaughter.

These 11 tiny survivors are the lucky ones. They’ve escaped death at the hands of a shipping industry that regards them as basic cargo, and they’re free from a life forced into unnatural breeding practices.