U.S. factory farms, where an estimated 99 percent of farmed animals are kept, are almost as inaccessible to the public as they are inescapable for the animals locked inside. When I started getting more involved in discussions about animal farming, I knew I had to see the inside of one of these facilities for myself. I finally got my opportunity with a rescue team from a California farmed animal sanctuary.
The sanctuary was able to convince a handful of farmers to allow them to rescue some of the chickens in their spent flocks. The industry term "spent" is used to describe hens whose reproductive systems are too worn out to be profitable, at which time the animals are killed. These hens were bred to lay eggs, not produce meat, so they cant be sent to the slaughterhouse. Farmers would have to spend money killing the hens and disposing of their bodies; relinquishing them to the rescuers spares the farmers that cost.
The rescue took place at a battery-cage farm in the Central Valley of California in early 2016. Battery cages are thin wire enclosures that are typically so small the hens can't even spread their wings. They're named for the way identical units are stacked end to end, like electrical batteries.
In 2008, California residents passed Proposition 2, a ballot measure in California that added this section to the California Health and Safety Code: "In addition to other applicable provisions of law, a person shall not tether or confine any covered animal, on a farm, for all or the majority of any day, in a manner that prevents such animal from: (a) lying down, standing up, and fully extending his or her limbs; and (b) turning around freely''
More than eight million California residents turned out in favor of Proposition 2, the highest positive turnout for a citizen initiative in the state's history. Many thought this would end the cruel confinement of egg-laying hens in the state. But despite the overwhelming public support for the bill, reform can be slow, and these dreadful cages are still common.
In order to comply with the new law, the farm I visited had simply taken out the walls separating the batteries. This means that each hen has more total space in her "cell," but she has more cellmates. Recent investigations have shown that some California farms haven't even made these changes, and there has been only one recorded enforcement of the law in the entire state, which was home to an estimated twelve million egg-laying hens in 2017.
We entered the farm before sunrise so the sleepy birds would be less anxious and easier to handle. We drove through a large metal gate with signs warning keep out and biohazard, and passed a dozen sheds with metal roofs and walls of plastic netting. The stench of ammonia was burning our mouths and throats, even outside the barns. We unloaded our transport crates, donned our disposable coveralls, sanitized our boots, and entered the designated shed.
From the entrance, we...