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Nick-of-Time Help for Hens Left to Starve on Abandoned Calif. Farm

  • Ariana Huemer was one of the volunteers helping to rescue and transport the abandoned chickens. The HSUS

  • Many hens desperately needed help, and volunteers performed triage. The HSUS

  • Veterinary technician Nat Smith gave fluids to the dehydrated hens. The HSUS

by Ariana Huemer

He left 50,000 animals to starve to death, according to reports. An egg producer in Stanislaus County, Calif., allegedly walked away, leaving tens of thousands of hens trapped inside tiny cages with no food or water.

It took two weeks for the situation to come to the attention of authorities, after a citizen—alerted by the stench of tens of thousands of rotting corpses—lodged a report.

Although huge numbers of hens had already died, thousands clung to life. The county originally planned to euthanize the remaining survivors, but the persistence of animal rescuers opened a window to save as many as they could.

Working under pressure

For two days, volunteers from across California answered the calls from Animal Place, Harvest Home Animal Sanctuary, and Farm Sanctuary. Volunteers raced against the clock to load the emaciated birds into hundreds of animal carriers, makeshift crates, and cardboard boxes, hoisting them onto trailers and truck beds, bound for better lives at sanctuaries.

Like many rescues, it was a bittersweet task: the relief that comes from saving thousands of lives, tempered by the thought of those we were too late to reach. Most of the rescued birds have shown remarkable resilience. Even with their painfully bony frames, they are already engaging in normal hen behaviors like walking, spreading their wings, and scratching at the earth—basic instincts that had been denied to them for their entire lives.

Coordinated effort

Animal Place and Harvest Home both learned of the abandonment from a local news story. The two groups connected and headed straight there. Kim Sturla of Animal Place called in other groups to help with the rescue, and the Sacramento SPCA, El Dorado Animal Services, and Farm Sanctuary quickly responded, driving in from hours away to help with rescue and transport assistance. The HSUS's Animal Rescue Team pledged $3,000 for transport and care for the neglected chickens. HSUS staffer Eric Sakach will help with any criminal charges brought against the farmer.

Animal Place's Vacaville-based Rescue Ranch is now caring for more than 4,000 rescued birds. Harvest Home Sanctuary, Farm Sanctuary, and Marin Humane Society are among others providing care for hens. All told, an estimated 4,460 chickens—all of whom otherwise would have perished—were saved.

Although their suffering has been unimaginable, and they face many more weeks of rehabilitation, fate has dealt these hens a luckier hand than most.

Evolving attitudes on farm animals

It used to be standard procedure on huge egg farms to starve hens periodically to force them into another laying cycle. Burger King, McDonald's, Safeway, and others demanded an end to this starvation-induced "forced molting," and the practice was ended by most—though not all—egg producers in the United States.

Many agricultural techniques may be standard today and unforgiveable tomorrow, like gestation crates. Rather than reassuring itself that today's procedures are the best, animal agribusiness should make improvements in animal welfare now, or face the judgment of history.

Helping the helpers

You can help these abandoned animals, too. Click on a link above and make a donation to one of the sanctuaries that took in the hens.

Ariana Huemer is a content manager at The Humane Society of the United States.

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