Grenada, Mississippi • March 1995
If only I were a writer that could evoke imagery that would seat you on this side of my eyes. I had been to town for supplies. Before I even turned the ignition off, my husband, Louis, stepped out the door and was beside my truck. "Do you want to save some chickens?" he said. "Because I've been out there. They've already started killing and there's only about four hundred left."
We set out. Louis told me that earlier in the week the egg plant had pulled 300,000 chickens to be trucked to slaughter at the Tyson plant in Arkansas. During the pull many hens escaped their battery cages, or were loose. Hurried hands pulling them three or four to a hand had lost the grip on many.
We watched vigilantly to be certain we did not pass the road we were to turn on to get to the plant. We found it. As we drew near the first house (there are about 18), I could see the light of two flashlights. Louis rolled the window down, "Where's _______ [our informant]?" A voice yelled back, "He's in the fourth house down." We had let him think we loved eggs and chickens. He figured, what the heck, the chickens were just going to be trashed.
We found _______. Without words we simply set to work. Louis asked me to move our truck to the end of the building we were working while he began the search. I rushed through the dark building as quietly as possible. I did not want to alarm the hens. I hurriedly started the truck and headed for the other side of the plant. Most of the buildings I passed gave evidence of death. The ones with open doors showed some scattering of dead hens. As I rounded the corner I saw a larger pile and the next corner astounded me. A dump truck piled as high as would allow without pouring bodies over the sides stood readied to deliver the multi-thousands of hens to what Louis was told was a dog food company (the destination is not given to protect our ongoing investigation).
Back with Louis, I transferred hens he was reaching on the tops of the cages to our truck. Then I started a search of the floors and pits, and we separated. The first hens I found had huddled together in a section of the wall that protruded to accommodate electrical equipment. I feared hurting their legs, but if I did not carry them two to each hand I would lose one or more of them. I left my flashlight so that I could rush them to the back of my camper-covered pick-up. The building seemed a mile long. I rushed back to search for more. Again I found a group of four hens, only this time one panicked as I picked up her neighbor, and she ran into the pit. I could not save her. I would not see her again. I would only lie awake that night knowing that her scream would fall on uncaring ears as she struggled to escape her death. I tell myself it just goes that way, you're not responsible for not having saved her, but it doesn't matter. It's not about ego, not because I enjoy beating myself up, but simply because she could have been saved, she will always be a reflection in my mind.
Now we were working the pits. Almost beyond my reach hens stood as if not breathing to avoid being noticed. Nearly featherless and covered in excrement, each precious creature I could reach I pulled to my side. I whispered words that at least comforted me, "We're here, we're going to save you. Don't be afraid, little angel."
Somehow I felt we had just arrived and that we would be there all night if need be, when Louis approached and said we must leave in order to save the chickens we already had in the truck. They were panicking and it was clear they would suffocate each other if we did not soon move them to where they could be spread out and calmed.
As I turned to be witness to the brutal death of another hen I dared not spare myself her struggle. While Louis and I had removed birds to our truck the workers continued their methodical and callous extermination. This bird had her head wrenched to her right side between the thumb and index finger of _______ as he held her body with his other hand. She screamed and he tossed her still writhing body to the edge of the pile he was mounting at the east end of the building. As he pulled another hen from the pit I rushed forward and took her from his hands. I knew we would lose the other hens if we did not leave and that at that point I had crossed the line in _______'s mind from simple gatherer to subtle accuser.
I hurried to the truck and once inside focused on saving the hens who still fluttered and voiced their fear. When we arrived home, we backed the truck up to our fenced-in hen house. I passed the hens gently to Louis and he lay them on the ground; the ground they had never before touched. Counting as I passed the hens along, I finally gloated, "78! we saved 78."
I didn't speak my heart, a heart laden with sorrow for the hens left behind. I was so grateful to have a husband who would act as Louis had. It was unfair to bemoan what we could not achieve. Understandably, abuses I suffered as a child were mirrored in my feelings of hopelessness for the hens who were left behind. There would be no back-up, no calvary. They would die unmercifully, pulled from the dark waste pits they had sought for safety.
Humane Slaughter Act, what a joke. Necessary evil, there is NO SUCH THING. There is simply a social code that insures that the public not see or hear of "the unpleasant side of business" and that images of happy spokeschickens appear in every arena of advertising. Try to ask a TV station that regularly transmits violence to air a documentary on what really is going on down on the farm. It won't happen.
UPDATE: March 29, 1995
It will be a week today since we rescued 78 "spent laying" hens. Yesterday one of the hens lay down by the water provided for her and relaxed her wings. I prepared a small animal taxi with soft bedding, attached a container with food and water, and placed her in the warm utility building which is home to our small rescued animals. I stroked her and tried to warm her comb and feet. Then I left her to the calm she needed. This morning I found her dead.
I grieved, and wanted to share my grief; but I didn't. I did not want to hear, "She's better off now. She won't suffer anymore." While we say these things to console ourselves, and it is true she is not suffering, she died needlessly. She lived a miserable life and she died a miserable death. She was cold and covered with excrement when we found her in the waste pit beneath the battery cages. Her body temperature had dropped and she had not recovered.
The six days she had in the fresh air and sun were not days spent flexing her feet and stretching her wings. These days were likely hazy. Yes, she was warm, food was available to her and she ate and drank, but she died last night after a very, very long short life of suffering, And It's Not Okay. May she burn in the forefront of our minds; may we resolve to expose her life and death.
Written immediately following the burial.
Doll Stanley Branscum is coordinator of the Mid-South Office of In Defense of Animals, Route 1, Box 122A, Grenada, MS 38901. Ph: 601/237-4382.
What Can I Do?
- Purchase and eat egg-free products only. So-called "free-range" hens are treated just as harshly as battery-caged hens when the commercial laying period is over. The male chicks are trashed at birth. Egg production is not humane.
- Order Raw Footage, Raw Pain: Inside a Battery Hen Operation by Rocky Mountain Animal Defense. This powerful 12-min. video takes you inside Boulder Valley Poultry Farms in CO. Order from UPC. $10.