Starving the hens is “standard”

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, May 2000:


SEATTLE––Rescuing more than 1,000 starving hens from Amberson’s Egg Farm near Lake Stevens, Washington, during the last two days in March, Pasado’s Safe Haven sanctuary cofounders Susan Michaels and Mark Steinway hope farmer Keith Amberson won’t walk this time.

Just 13 months earlier, in February 1999, Michaels and Steinway rescued 250 starving hens from the same facility, where Amberson reportedly was later to gas 20,000 hens with carbon monoxide in order to get manure discharges below legal limits.

Amberson had just been fined $21,000 by the Washington State Department of ecology, and was under orders from the federal Environmental Protection Agency to stop polluting tributaries to Lake Stevens within 10 days.

“But prosecutors refused to bring animal cruelty charges against Amberson,” the Pasado’s Safe Haven web site recounted, “when he claimed that the dead and dying hens” rescued by Michaels and volunteers on that occasion “were a result of forced molting, a standard egg production practice in which chickens are starved for up to 21 days to force them to begin laying eggs again.”

“What makes this case different,” Michaels added, “is that this time a fellow poultry farmer called us to report the horrid conditions.”

Farmer Brian Berg, of Arlington, Washington, “had heard that Keith Amberson was selling off his layers and was going out of business,” Michaels recounted. “When he entered the barns, he found thousands of dead chickens, even skeletonized in the cages. Live chickens were cannibalizing the dead chickens to stay alive.”

Fifty thousand hens had been “left to starve and die,” said Steinway.

Berg “signed an affidavit claiming what he witnessed at Amberson’s Egg Farm was not ‘acceptable animal husbandry,’” Michaels continued.

Rushing to the scene, Steinway “called the Snohomish County Sheriff and began videotaping the atrocities,” Michaels added. “Sheriff’s deputies arrived, and after examining the conditions, allowed us to remove all of the birds who were still alive.”

Perhaps the biggest confiscation of animals on record, the job took two days, with help from the nearby Pigs Peace Sanctuary. The Northwest Animal Rights Network furnished barn space for the 1,000-plus hens. Some, unfortunately, were so weak that they survived only hours after rescue. Almost all were in delicate condition.

“Many hens are blind or partially blind because layers are housed with no windows or light,” Michaels said. “The poultry industry believes that hens lay more eggs when kept in darkness. They never smell fresh air, and in fact live out their whole lives amid the rank and acrid smell of manure and ammonia.”

Despite the appalling conditions, Amberson may yet walk because of the broad exemptions given to farmers––especially poultry farmers––under anti-cruelty statutes. Some of the hens, even if they survive their ordeal, may never walk anywhere.

“Many have feet that resemble curled-up balls,” Michaels explained. “Because they lived entirely confined within small battery cages, they stood 24 hours a day on the wire floors. Their feet grew around the cage wire and their nails grew to incredible lengths. We clipped nails that were three inches long,” Michaels testified. “But their little feet remained so tightly balled that they just fall over when we put them on the ground.”

As soon as the hens are well enough to transport, 300 to 700 are to be transported to the Suwanna Ranch sanctuary operated by the Humane Farming Association in Elk Creek, California. About 200 will stay at Pasado’s Save Haven, located in Sultan, Washington. Pigs Peace may take some, and the balance are to go to the Farm Sanctuary facility in Orlands, California. The exact numbers taken by each sanctuary will depend on how many of the hens pull through.

[Donations to help with the rescue may be sent to Pasado’s Safe Haven c/o P.O. Box 171, Sultan, WA 98294; Pigs Peace c/o P.O. Box 155, Arlington, WA 98223; and the Humane Farming Association, P.O. Box 3577, San Rafael, CA 94912.]

Forced molt

California state assembly member Ted Lempert (D-Palo Alto) in March moved to close the “forced molt” excuse for farmers who starve hens by introducing AB 2141, a bill which would make it “Unlawful to intentionally deprive any bird used for egg laying purposes of water or food or both on a daily basis or otherwise cause an induced or forced molt that results in harm to the bird.”

Explains United Poultry Concerns founder Karen Davis, “California egg producers currently remove all food from hens for an average of 10 to 14 days,” after their first egglaying cycle, to introduce changes in body chemistry which bring on a second egg-laying cycle. At the end of the second cycle, the hens are considered “spent,” as their bodies are too depleted of essential minerals to continue to produce eggs.

“The practice disrupts the hens’ immune systems, predisposing them to salmonella infection,” Davis continues. “Ninety percent of the more than 25 million laying hens in California are subjected to this practice, which is illegal in Europe and Britain.”

Endorsed by both UPC and HFA, after an HFA-recommended change to ensure that the penalty for violation would be no less than a criminal misdemeanor, AB 2141 is “the first legislative step toward banning forced molting in the U.S.,” said Davis.

The human safety issue is more likely to advance the prohibition of forced molts than concern for hens––and the safety issue is a big one. Farmers for decades have fought infectious disease among poultry and other factory-farmed livestock by lacing their feed with antibiotics. But many of the bacteria that the antibiotics are meant to kill have evolved resistance. A Food and Drug Administration study estimated in December 1999 that as many as 5,000 Americans suffered from antibiotic-resistant campylobacter infections during the year, usually contracted by handling raw chicken parts. The usual treatment for campylobacter is fluoroquin––which has apparently lost potency through agricultural use.

Almost simultaneous with the release of the FDA study, Roche Vitamins took the antibiotic Avoparcin off the market worldwide, under international pressure. Used as a growth promoter in chickens, Avoparcin may have been the most widely used antibiotic in the world, though never approved for use in the U.S., and was believed responsible for causing the evolution of bacteria resistant to Vancomycin. Before 1994, Vancomycin-resistant bacteria were unknown. It was therefore considered the antibiotic of last resort. Between 1994 and 1998, however, at least 71 people contracted Vancomycinresistant enterococcus, a potentially fatal disease in which bacteria literally eat their victims alive. The only known cure is amputation of infected body parts.

Battery caging

Banning forced molts will spare hens much misery. So will banning battery caging, not yet legislatively addressed in the U.S., but supposed to be phased out in Europe by European Union decree between 2007 and 2012. Already, free-range egg producers have captured about a third of the British market. Battery caging may also be phased out on a similar timetable in New Zealand and Australia. New Zealand as of January 1, 2000 has a new Animal Welfare Act which is expected to encourage conversions to freerange egg production, currently claiming 6% to 8% of the market, while on March 6 the eight Australian state and territorial ministers for agriculture and primary industries agreed to review battery caging phase-out strategies.

Disposal of spent hens will remain a source of cruelty on a mind-boggling scale.

“They have no real value,” explains Canadian Farm Animal Care Trust president Tom Hughes. “They are not even worth enough money to go through the normal process of slaughtering and packing.”

Currently, Hughes continues, “The simplest method of disposal is to pack the birds, alive, into containers, and bulldoze them into the ground. Euphemistically called ‘composting,’ it still amounts to being buried alive. Another method is to pack the birds into a closed truck and connect the exhaust to the body of the truck. Some 26 million spent hens are imported into Canada from the U.S. each year,” because disposing of them in Canada is cheaper, “and upon arrival, are gassed in the trucks which imported them.”

Less cruel, in Hughes’ opinion, but still problematic, is live maceration in a device resembling a kitchen waste pulverizer.

This is also one of the standard ways of killing male chicks of layer breeds, who have too little meat value compared to modern broiler breeds for farmers to want to raise them. The other common method is simply dumping them into trash bags alive to suffocate, stomping down the pile occasionally to fit more into each bag.

Rare conviction

That Amberson escaped cruelty charges in 1999 was no surprise. ANIMAL PEOPLE is aware of only one recent conviction of a commercial chicken producer in a cruelty case––and the charge in that case was not cruelty per se. On February 20, 2000, La Cooperative Federee de Quebec pleaded guilty to three counts of violating the Canadian Health of Animals Act, actually meant to protect human health, while hauling 30,000 chickens to slaughter in New Minas, Nova Scotia, during November 1998 when all three major Quebec chicken slaughtering plants were on strike. Crates meant to hold 10 chickens each were stuffed with 18 apiece. More than 6,000 chickens died en route.

Chickens have a 230-million-year lineage, are cousins to the dinosaurs, and when allowed to live long enough in a seminatural environment, are more intelligent than most mammals. Yet chickens, along with all other birds, are exempted from protection under the federal Animal Welfare Act and Humane Slaughter Act. Commercially raised chickens, along with most other farm animals, are also exempted from the cruelty statutes of at least 29 states.

On April 11, Iowa state representative Teresa Garman (R-Ames) succeeded in amending a pending felony cruelty bill–– applying only to deliberate torture of animals––to insure that the exemptions will hold no matter what anyone does to livestock.

Cattle, hogs, sheep, goats, horses, and other poultry are also commonly unprotected, but chickens do more than 95% of all human-caused animal suffering and dying. Americans alone kill more than nine billion chickens per year; the global toll may be about 36 billion.

Chickens’ lives mean so little that as many as 22 million chickens died, along with seven million turkeys, in a recent pathogenic outbreak in northern Italy, before even poultry trade publications took notice. Four hundred thousand chickens died in an August 1999 heat wave that hit Mississippi without the story moving past the Associated Press farm wire.

Pain is no joke

Humans are so willing to believe that chickens are not really animals, contrary to all evidence, that one of the most successful of all Internet hoaxes in December 1999 and January 2000 convinced millions of people that Kentucky Fried Chicken had changed its name to KFC because the chickens the restaurant chain serves have been so extensively genetically modified that the U.S. government no longer allows them to be called chickens.

Boston Globe correspondent Karen Hsu exploded the hoax with a January 11 expose, but as late as the end of March ANIMAL PEOPLE was still receiving frequent inquiries as to whether the story might be true.

A true chicken story treated as a joke by some media broke in March in the Veterinary Record: researchers at Briston University in England and Massey University in New Zealand discovered that if lame broiler chickens are given a choice between conventional feed and feed containing a pain reliever, they consistently choose the drugged feed.

Lameness commonly occurs in broilers as result of gaining too much weight, too quickly, according to a new report by the European Union Scientific Committee on Animal Health and Welfare. Through selective breeding, farmers have learned to bring broilers to slaughter weight in only 41 days, half the time required circa 1965.

Broiler breeding stock are made to lay enough eggs to keep the cycle going through use of “chronic quantitative food restriction,” the EU committee report noted––technojargon for “forced molt.”

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