Wednesday, 18 September 2013

When Will the Caged Bird Sing?

It was the silence that got to me first of all.
Standing there, in the sudden dark of an autumn evening, chilled through from the north westerly gale, I was stopped in my tracks by the silence.

I stood and looked into the back of the horsebox, at the exhausted girl who had voluntarily driven it for 7 hours that day, at the handful of people gathered with me in the cold, dark car park.
I suppose I had expected a healthy amount of noise, once the tailgate was let down.

Katja, Ronya and Fionnghuala - still smiling at 2am after an endless day. Little Oisin had fallen asleep in the car

I hadn't expected towering stacks of cardboard boxes.
I don't know what I had expected, I hadn't really thought that one through, but when I heard the silence and saw the piles, some collapsed at angles that boded nothing but ill, I knew time was of the essence.

I think everyone felt the same, because without a word, we all set-to with grim determination to help unload as fast as possible.
The cartons, as we lifted them down, were hot in my hands. Too hot.
'I didn't know what to do,' Katja said. She was distraught. Exhausted and distraught. It was her second Great Escape run in a week, bless her. 'I wanted to stop half-way to check on them, but I couldn't have re-stacked them on my own - I thought I'd just better get here.'
'You did the right thing,' I said, but the tension in the car park had gone up a notch at the sight of so many faceless boxes, everyone silently wondering what we would find inside.

Involuntarily I thought of those desperate transports that had fled as many Jewish children out of Germany before the last war as possible. It was perhaps an inappropriate analogy - these were not children - but in animal terms, it was a similar situation.
In this case, 7000 one-year-old hens about to be slaughtered for no reason other than their age.

I was in the car park that evening because a friend of mine had posted a picture on the Internet of the birds she had adopted several days earlier. From her I learned that LittleHill Animal Rescue & Sanctuary, hearing of the hens' impending doom, had frantically rallied volunteers and support wherever possible to try and save as many as they could.
3500 had already been homed (my mind boggles at the amount of work that must have been), and now they were doing it all over again in an attempt to snatch the rest from the inevitable. They had been given a few extra days grace.

Even her wing feathers are bare

Everyone pitched in, even Katja's small children who had endured an endless day shut in the car, poor loves.

Inside the boxes, hens were crammed together, sometimes two in a box that I wouldn't have put one hen in for half an hour, let alone a day. Needs must, they say, when the devil drives, and the Sanctuary hadn't packed  the cartons, the farm had.
In the half-collapsed pile we found a sorry mass of feathers at a train-crash angle, and gently, carefully lifted them out one by one. The poor little creature at the bottom was dead. The hen the box had caved onto was dead too, another - unable to move - lay gaping silently. But sad as it was, it was only two fatalities against so many saved.

Everyone was shocked beyond words at the condition the birds were in. Not from their long, unavoidable drive to freedom, but from their brief year spent entirely in caged captivity.
No daylight. No space. No dignity.
I'd fondly thought that caged egg production was now illegal in Ireland. But it seems that's only on paper. It still exists, they've just changed the parameters. It's legal because they are now 'Enriched cages'. Enriched with what, I wonder? Extra birds?
By law, laying hens now have 750 sq cm of space each. EACH - oh joy! All that room to spend their entire lives in. It used to be 550 sq cm each, less than the size of an A4 sheet of paper.
So now it's a page and a half - nearly.
But it's not just Ireland. In much of the world - and large parts of Europe (France, Spain and Poland included) nothing has changed at all.

There was no conversation in the car park after that. It was just: 'There are two in this one,'
'Six in here,'
'I'll move these four.'

The children collected up the sad little eggs that, despite all, had been laid in some of the boxes.
Nature's unstoppable process adding an unavoidable stress to the day. Most birds like to sit quietly and calmly to lay their eggs.

Was she supposed to be an oven-ready chicken, or a laying hen?

I don't know how long it took us to unload all the hens, to distribute them as gently as possible into the various cages and pet carriers that people had brought with them, counting them out between the vehicles - 48 for this van, 25 for another.
'Please take some more,' Katja begged. She sounded close to tears. 
Nearly 300 birds had been brought up in the horsebox that day.
They were the lucky ones. It was only possible to rescue birds if people had offered them them sanctuary amongst their own small flocks, and three and a half thousand had already been homed the previous week.
I took an extra 10, anxious that the temporary pens at home wouldn't be big enough.
'Don't worry,' the In-Charge said gruffly. 'It'll be The Shelbourne after what they're used to.'

Driving home in the cold, windy darkness, rain skirling against the windscreen, we were still silent.
I - a wordsmith by trade - devoid of words to exorcise my horror.
I was grateful beyond expression that the In-Charge - without needing to be asked - had driven me there,  was driving us back, as slowly as possible through the narrow, winding roads while still trying to hurry our pathetic cargo to a safe haven.

My birds don't even look like this when they're moulting

At home, we carried the cages up into the hens' paddock. The tail-end of some far-away tropical storm was lashing gusts of 80kph at us, and the rain was horizontal, but they weren't out in it for long. Carefully we placed each bird into the freshly-strawed pens I had prepared earlier, cuddling them up together in the low stone sheds that have stood, backs braced against the north west wind for nigh on two hundred years.
31 traumatized, many featherless, sad and hopeless little creatures.
I went back an hour or two later, before falling into my own bed, to check that all was well.

They were exactly where I'd placed them, huddled together, heads under their scratchy, frayed, tattered wings. Sleep was doing it's magic, and what they didn't know was that tomorrow would be the start of a whole new life.
A life! Up until now they'd only had an existence.
I went to bed warmed by the knowledge that up and down the country, thousands of hens had been similarly welcomed into homes where they would be treated as hens, not egg-laying machines with a sell-by date.

In the days since then, I've spent a lot of time moving in slow motion.
They are easily alarmed, and aren't used to people, even people scattering food.
They aren't used to food for that matter, unless it is delivered in pellet form, under their noses. They looked at the lettuce I put into their pens as if it might attack them. Green is not a colour they recognise. How sad is that for a hen?
I've taught them how to drink out of water bowls. They have only ever pecked at a drinker to get water, never had the pleasure of dipping their wattles into a full bowl of fresh water, never gone from puddle to puddle in the rain to see which one tasted best. Jil, my lovely wwoofer, and I spent an hour that first morning, gently holding each one and dipping its beak into the bowl to show them how - to try and overcome the inevitable dehydration of the day before.
They have started to scratch about in their pens to see what lies beneath the straw - with claws that are far, far too long because they've never been worn down by normal living.
They've started to realise that there is space to move about in.
And when the rain ever stops, they will discover that there is a whole world beyond their window - a world that contains grass and small beetles, flies to chase, dogs and cats to stare at, sunshine to bask in, dust for delicious baths, morning and night to shape their days, and shelters to rush under when it rains. 

Wondering if the lettuce will attack

In the days that they've been here, I've spent a fair amount of time in tears too.

Some of the hens - none of mine by the luck of the draw - have had to be destroyed because their skeletons were so deformed from living in a cage that they couldn't stand or walk. Some because their rear ends were torn open, possibly by the hens squashed into the cage with them. 
Some because the rescue was just too late.
But the little hen that got squashed on the journey is slowly making a recovery, it seems. She doesn't plan to miss out on her new, gift-wrapped life!
There is hope everywhere.

The emergency refugee tents have a slightly Heath-Robinson appearance

For me, there are few things as upsetting as the eyes of an animal or bird that has no reason to live.  
Those were the eyes that greeted me that first morning as Jil and I set out to help them learn what are, after all, only the basics of survival. But already, just a few days later, their eyes are different - eager, anticipating, anxious sometimes too, but interested - alive.

Life begins at 15 months!

Their new lives will soon envelop them and, being hens, they will probably forget how they spent their first year. With luck they might live to be nine or ten. We don't cull our birds because they no longer produce eggs - I believe in retirement for the animals on this property at least, even if the owners haven't a hope in hell of getting there! We've had hens who'd no longer recognise an egg if it hatched in front of her and danced the hokey-cokey.

But I will not forget. I will find myself constantly wondering how it's possible to call ourselves civilized when we allow our food to be produced in this way. 
Wondering how many more battery hens there are, living their miserable existence, in this country alone? There shouldn't be a need for the LittleHill Sanctuaries, the Bryonys and Katjas of this world to spend their days and nights helping hens escape. They should be at home with their kids.
I never have to buy eggs, but if you do, next time - please question where it came from.
And inform yourself what some of the terminology means. 'Barn Eggs' for example sounds so nice - but is it? Barn eggs means industrial sized sheds in which the birds - not in cages, admittedly - are packed in 9 to the square metre. Space? Daylight? Fresh air? What are those?
Act. Do something. Vote. For God's sake, vote in the way that really counts. With your decisions, with your wallet, with your feet.

What a difference a day makes


  1. Wow, Lorely, just wow - the thing with the Jewish was the first that came to my mind when I went there to pick up the first load... how very sad and disturbing. You have written a brilliant articel here and I hope it will be read up and down the country - or even better everywhere in the world! xxx

    1. Thanks for your lovely comment, K. I think well done to you and to everyone who has worked so hard to save these hens. What an achievement!

  2. I can usually frame my thoughts into words, but this saga does leave one feeling that most any phrasing falls short of the simple cruelty you have described.
    I've never kept hens, for a variety of reasons, although my grandparents, my late MIL and now my SIL have raised them and seen in them recognizable differences in personality.
    My neighbor trades me eggs from her free-range flock for my baked goods during the seasons when egg production is in high gear.
    So many things in this world don't bear thinking about--and yet, we should.

    1. Hi there! Nice to see you. I agree with you totally. I felt just lost for words that night, seeing these poor creatures - and not much snatches my voice away!
      You are so right - we all turn away from things we can't bear, but sometimes we have to force ourselves not to. I saw only the other day a quote that I grew up with from my mother: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” Edmund Burke

  3. Please look to have this piece published . Something needs to be made public . I also rescued 55 hens between both rescue runs . I lost one bird, I had thought it would be many more . They are now coming out of their shocked state, and two out of fifty five are roosting, just like hens should . They are starting to come to their feed tray when i call them, i am feeding them three times a day .

    1. Thank you for your comment. I guess it is sort of published by being out there on this blog, and people passing the link on to others.
      I agree with you, people ought to know the consequences of how they choose to spend their money.
      Yes, my girls are taking more of an interest in life every day, and are even starting to rush for the chopped raw spinach leaves! Can't wait for them to grow a few more feathers and for their combs to turn red!
      Good luck with yours too.

  4. Oh wow.... This just encompasses all the horror, sadness and anger I have felt while following this great escape that my daughters got involved in. I cannot understand how in this civilised country we can allow this awful trade to carry on. If an individual allowed their cats, dogs, chickens, horses to be kept like this we would be prosecuted for cruelty.... so how can we allow these so called farms to carry on. I now want to fight for all those other poor birds kept in this way... and fight I will in whatever way I can.... Thank you for giving me such a marvellous tool with which to begin my fight, which with your permission I would like to print out and pass around to people and to share online. Well done Lorely.

    1. Hi Joy-Elizabeth. Thank you for the compliment. Yes, I'd be very happy for you to print it out and pass it around. Please could you ensure that the printed copies have the link to my blog, 'Writing from the Edge' and my name - Lorely Forrester - on them? If it helps to make people think before they buy battery eggs, then I would be very happy indeed.
      Your daughters have done a wonderful job along with LittleHill and Katja! Well done to them all. They must be exhausted.

  5. Wow I'm so glad you have the words to get this across because I certainly don't. I'm speechless and full of tears from your wonderful writing.

    1. Thank you Bryony - what a nice thing to say. I'm glad you liked the piece, and thank you so much for sharing it. Well done with the massive amount of work you have put in, rehoming so many poor wee hens. They might not remember you, but lots of other people will!

  6. It never gets better. I rescued some ex batts from littlehill a few years ago and some of them are still with me and thriving. If other animals were kept in these kind of conditions there would be uproar but for some reason chickens don't seem to have the appeal and I cant understand why. Since I have had hens I have got so much respect for them. They are little miracle workers providing food for us that is so rich in minerals and iron and yet we are barbaric, cruel and treat them so badly and have done for so long. How long will it be for the governments of the world who do nothing to stop this practice, wake up with a new conscience and some decent morals.

    1. That is what makes me so angry. We are all actively led to believe that it has got better, but you are right. It hasn't. And the individual who allowed these birds to live like this and get into this condition will do it all over again, and probably doesn't see that he's doing anything wrong.
      We need a fundamental mind-shift in how we see animals. To so many people they are just a disposable utility. It shocks me more and more the older I get.
      I don't think any government is going to change things. The bottom line for so many, especially politicians, is always money, not morals.

  7. I had hens when I lived abroad with lots of room for them, I kept a super friendly cockerel and would watch him shepherding his ladies first to the old hay pile for a look at the day, then to the hedge where the insects were, later to the trees to keep out of the sun and at the end of the day he brought them back and watched as each one hopped into the shed, checked there were no stragglers and hopped up after them, these lovely creatures would crouch down for a stroke and would chase me dragging a cabbage on a string, legs shooting out sideways as they ran as fast as a hen can to grab bits of the delicious green brassica, this is how every hen should live,...../ as soon as my shed arrives I will be the proud owner of a few[ but better than none,] of littlehills rescued hens.

    1. I loved reading your comment - thank you for leaving it! I've had lots of cockerels over the years (they aren't very long lived in general!) and - with only one exception - have been very fond of them all. There are quite a few posts on this blog about my hens because I love them. So many have such character, and they are hilarious when they run eagerly towards something. I can't wait for these new rescue girls to get the hang of the great outdoors, and start to look a bit more like hens and a bit less like scarecrows!
      If you feel like, you can read some of the posts by clicking on 'Napoleon' (my favourite cockerel), 'Mrs Smith', 'chickens', 'Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall' etc in my word cloud. Thanks for dropping by.

  8. A very moving and thought provoking piece. I am so glad I buy 'free range' although even then, I sometimes wonder, just how free range they are.
    You really should look into getting this published or at least alerting some papers to the rescue - it's a story which deserves to be covered as I don't think people realise what appalling conditions hens are still kept in.

    1. Hi Mairead - you are right to wonder. A lot of egg labelling can be very misleading. Lots of shed (industrial sized, containing thousands of hens) have 'popholes' along the side, and a stretch of pasture, or land outside. My friend DodoWoman has been watching just such a one on a route she regularly takes, and has never yet seen the popholes open. Also, even if they are open, the only hens who ever get to go out are the ones who 'live' near the door. This has been verified by all kinds of official bodies. The only way you can know that your eggs are honestly what it says on the box is to buy them locally from someone you know, or a Country Market, possibly your butcher - somewhere where you can easily find out what the hens' lives are really like. Eggs that you buy in your local Country Market will have come from hens that really are free range.

  9. This is wonderful writing, I've shared in the hope that my friends will be as moved as I was.
    There is a rescue scheme near me and it has made me determined to seek it out.
    Love to your little flock.

    1. Hi Skippy - thank you for your compliment and also for sharing.
      Yes - seek it out. That pen of yours need not be empty for long, and think how happy you would be to have hens again.

  10. What an article and written from the heart it made me cry.

  11. A wonderful, heartwrenching blog post. Well done to all involved, bless you all.

  12. Very glad you were able to take some of these poor creatures. I hope they thrive and discover the joys of lettuce soon. I feel that both you and they are going to enjoy the experience!
    Caged birds is such a horrid practice. we should all check in restaurants where eggs come from. The current definitions for free range are misleading, but anything is better than keeping birds crammed into tiny cages. We have to keep pushing.
    Not only farm animals are regarded as a commodity. Pets people have bought and tired of, pets that don't fit in with holidays, these are abandoned all the time.

  13. Great piece of writing, blessings on all who helped. I only buy free-range, though one wonders sometimes how free 'free' is.

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