Black Eagle: An Organic Egg Farm Revisited

In the Winter 2010 issue of Poultry Press, we published “Black Eagle Farm: Story of an Organic Egg Scam.” In it we described the appalling cruelty to animals revealed at this farm in documents obtained by an attorney in the course of investigating malnourished dogs at Black Eagle, an operation owned by Dr. Ralph Glatt, a geneticist, in Piney River, Nelson County, Virginia. Located 100 miles from Richmond and 130 miles from Washington, DC, Black Eagle portrayed itself as a “traditional family farm with a long history of treating our animals and the environment with respect” and a “sustainable producer of USDA organic, animal-friendly natural livestock products.”

Documents obtained by the investigating attorney in 2009 uncovered an absentee owner, unpaid bills, and malnourished dogs, pigs and sheep. In addition, “25,000 organic laying hens” had no food, according to Staff Veterinarian for Animal Care and Health with the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, Daniel Kovich. A visit to Black Eagle on December 16, 2009 by VA staff veterinarian, Rachel Touroo, revealed thousands of unfed hens – “thin to emaciated,” dying and dead birds, who farm personnel said had been without food for 7 days in November, 5 days at the beginning of December, and for two full weeks 5 weeks earlier in a forced molting procedure.

Through December 2009, emails went back and forth among the state veterinarians about these birds. Though starving, they didn’t receive emergency rations until 8 days after the investigating attorney’s Complaint against Black Eagle was filed by the VA Office of Veterinary Services on December 1. (Excerpts from these emails can be read in the Winter 2010 Poultry Press.) The veterinarians told each other that no private practitioners were available to help the birds and that industry vets could not be bothered with smaller-type farms like Black Eagle. Discussion centered on “depop” – destroying the hens on December 27 and trucking their bodies to a North Carolina rendering company. New hens would be brought to the farm in 2010.

In phone interviews with UPC president Karen Davis on April 22, 2011 and Nov. 30, 2011, former Black Eagle Farm employee, John Dobbs, described the depopulation of the flock he witnessed at the farm in late December 2009.

“We gotta play baseball with these chickens?” – Black Eagle Farm owner Dr. Ralph Glatt during the destruction of 25,000 - 35,000 hens in late Dec. 2009.

“Burning the hell out of them with CO2” – John Dobbs to Karen Davis, April 22, 2011.

“I think it freezes their lungs.” – Ralph Glatt to Karen Davis, June 20, 2011.

Carbon Dioxide Gassing Procedure:
  • Shut the lights off. Grab the hens by their legs off the perches and floor, take them out of the house and stuff them in metal boxes 2 ft. wide x 5ft. long x 3 ft. deep. Put 200-500 hens in each box. Four or five metal boxes in all.
  • Stick a rubber hose attached to a CO2 tank inside the box and shoot cold CO2 into the box through the nozzle until the hens flop around. The birds on top burn and suffocate to death from the freezing CO2.
  • The birds on the bottom of the boxes won’t die. When the boxes were opened they ran around and employees whacked them with boards. One employee put a bird on the ground and another struck her with a board like he was hitting a baseball. Ralph Glatt said, “We gotta play baseball with these chickens?”
  • After this, if any hens were still alive, “you just pull their heads off. You’re not supposed to truck them if they’re still alive.”

John Dobbs worked for Black Eagle for three and a half years. He grew up on a hog farm where he said he shot cows and “knocked” piglets, but the killing of these hens was the worst cruelty he ever saw, he told UPC. He said the metal box-CO2 procedure for depopulating “spent” hens was developed by the caged-layer industry. He said, “I’m a big advocate of banning the boxes. Better to gas the whole house at once.”

Gassing Chickens to Death with Carbon Dioxide

CO2 is used to exterminate poultry flocks because it is cheap and readily available. CO2 is used in whole-house killings as well as pumped into containers filled with smaller groups of birds to destroy them. The types of containers include metal boxes, barrels, sealed dumpsters, and Modified Atmosphere Killing carts. With CO2, the birds experience freezing temperatures and painful injury caused by the high pressure jet stream of burning cold gas. In “Killing Poultry on Farms During Disease Outbreaks,” animal scientist Mohan Raj explains that the liquid CO2 hosed into houses and containment boxes to kill the chickens produces temperatures as low as -78.5 degrees C. The noise and painful temperatures of the liquid gas shooting through the hose panics the birds, and any bird in the way of the jet will experience “severe blow and injury” and being “frozen to death.”

UPC Visits Black Eagle Farm on June 20, 2011

big dutchman facility
Big Dutchman facility shows what Black Eagle's organic hen unit looked like when UPC visited in June 2011.

In June 2011, United Poultry Concerns arranged to visit Black Eagle Farm with egg-industry businessman Bob Pike. His business, GCB Foods based in North Carolina, markets eggs to retailers (such as Whole Foods) from Black Eagle and other farms that are said to have met inspection standards. In the case of Black Eagle, “humane” standards are set by Humane Farm Animal Care (HFAC), which in 2010 decertified Black Eagle as a “humane” operation based partly on the abuses revealed in the public records obtained by attorney Gina Schaecher in 2009. Currently, HFAC told United Poultry Concerns on December 2, 2011, “Black Eagle does not have Humane Farm Animal Care Certification. Black Eagle passed our inspection and at the time of the audit met our standards so they can sell eggs to GCB” (who in turn sells the eggs to retail chains and outlets to be sold to customers as “cage free,” “organic,” or whatever).

For our tour of Black Eagle, we were accompanied by Bob Pike, Ralph Glatt, a Nelson County Animal Control officer, and a farm employee. Of the four units housed in a single building (two “cage-free,” two “organic”), two were said to be empty at the time of our visit. Each unit is designed to hold 12,500 hens making 50,000 hens in all. We viewed a unit holding 12,500 “organic” brown hens through glass. These hens filled every bit of space on the floor and on the platforms above the floor. The crowding we saw was total. Each hen supposedly gets 1.4 square foot of living space for herself under organic and “humane” standards for aviary units, Bob Pike told UPC.

Next we visited the “cage-free” brown hens in a unit holding 9,000 hens including what Bob Pike called “salvage” hens diverted from other egg farms in the process of depopulating their own flocks. Moving “salvage” flocks from one farm to another appears to be common practice. Since the cage-free unit we visited was 3,500 hens short of its 12,500 hen capacity, the hens we saw and walked among had some space to move about on the floor and on the platforms which included sloping strips of plastic for laying their eggs behind little flapping curtains the length of the building. (These plastic strips are what they called “nests.”) On the floor was a thin layer of musty wood chips, and overhead fans were running in the “winter garden,” although former farm employee John Dobbs warned that “when you visit these places, they’ll be sure to turn the fans on right before your visit.” So we don’t know if the fans ran regularly or not.

The noise of the hens in the cage-free unit was loud and continuous. It was not the contented clucking of happy chickens. The ongoing volume of vocalizations in chicken confinement buildings is a cruelty in itself, as there is no basis in the natural experience of chickens for such unremitting noise among themselves. (Hens in battery cage buildings become dead silent after several months in the cages representing the defeated mental condition scientists call Learned Helplessness.)

A long passageway in the cage-free unit was called the winter garden. Separated by glass from the green vegetation visible outside, the floor of this area was covered with hens. (John Dobbs told UPC, “They like the winter garden because they gravitate naturally toward sunlight.”) We petted and talked to these hens, crouched down and gently picked up a few, holding them and trying to impart to their spirits that we cared about them and were sorry, SORRY. They were a little shy but mostly friendly and interested, but we had to go. We asked if we could please take some hens back to United Poultry Concerns to live in our sanctuary, but the answer was No. We would have to leave them behind except in our memories. How were these innocent and defenseless creatures, so young and full of unexpressed life, “depopulated”? Were they gassed in the metal boxes, burned and frozen and kicked around like footballs? Whatever the means, their death was a bad one. Bob Pike informed us their time was almost up.

black eagle
Black Eagle's organic pasture for hens courtesy of Bob Pike.

December 2011

On December 2, UPC talked with Bob Pike of GCB Foods on the phone. He said Black Eagle Farm, also called Piney River Farms LLC, is “all organic now.” The farm “grows its own pullets to 16 weeks, then transfers them to the laying facility.” Each of the four units has its own “isolated pasture area” for the hens to go outside sometimes, as required by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Organic Standards Program. A company called A Bee Organic in California is Black Eagle’s organic certifier. When the hens are depopulated, they go to slaughter facilities in Pennsylvania, Georgia, and Virginia. Some are “salvage flocks.” They’re trucked to other egg-laying facilities.

Postscript: Virginia Lawmakers Abolish Farmed Animal Cruelty Penalties

In February 2011, the Virginia General Assembly quietly passed legislation demoting state animal cruelty penalties from a Class 1 misdemeanor to a Class 4 misdemeanor to “ensure accommodation for customary farming activities” including withholding food and water from farmed animals to the point of emaciation and dehydration. An amendment that would have allowed “prosecution of a person for depriving an agricultural animal of necessary food, drink, shelter or emergency veterinary treatment” was withdrawn by VA Senator McEashin, who proposed it. When UPC learned about the legislation in February, we conducted a vigorous Internet campaign urging Gov. Robert McDonnell to veto the bills, but he signed them into law.

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