This past summer, I entered a place most Americans - especially those in urban areas - can barely even fathom: a place that sounds innocent, but when you step foot in it, you realize it’s one of the darkest places on the planet. I entered a modern farm.
This farm was different from most other farms. Though farms across America are shifting away from holding hens in what are known as “battery cages,” this was the rare farm that had both caged and cage-free barns. With a small team of other activists, we carried out two birds—Mia from a cage-free barn and Ava from a cage. Mia was a beautiful Rhode Island Red chicken, and as I carried her through dark fields and passed her over barbed wire fences to save her from hell, I was closely followed by a friend carrying Ava. Ava was a white leghorn chicken with deformed feet caught in the wire of her cage. Her feet were painful to see and the skeletal structure of her feathers was exposed. Ava was older than Mia, so her slaughter was more imminent, and her appearance was more ragged. In between fences, we alternated between carrying supplies and carrying one of our rescues, passing each bird carefully over the barbed wire fences into the arms of another activist. While I carried first Mia and later Ava, I tensed my arms painfully knowing that they were all there was between a lifetime of freedom and certain death.
Sadly, Mia was already too sick to survive. Bred to lay an egg every 30 hours—ten times as many eggs as they lay naturally—egg laying chickens have shocking rates of reproductive cancers and infections from excessive egg laying. Mia had a deadly internal infection, and although our veterinarian treated her as soon as Mia arrived, the intervention was too late to save her life. The farm never would have treated her, as the cost of treating an individual bird is generally more than that bird’s body is worth. The wire walls of the cages may have been removed, but Mia was still trapped in a cage of flesh, disease, and death. Had Mia stayed in the cage-free barn, she would have suffered even more. When we found Mia, she was sitting alone in the dirty litter, too weak to join her sisters in crowding onto roosting platforms. Having grown unable to fight off other birds who lashed out from stress, Mia was on the verge of being cannibalized or trampled.
On the same farm where Mia lived almost the entirety of her short life, Ava sat in another barn - a barn full of cages despite those cages’ having been banned beginning in January 2015 by California’s Prop 2, an animal welfare regulation applauded for improving the lives of factory farmed birds. With zero enforcement actions under Prop 2 to date, this was not a surprise to us—but likely would be to most consumers and voters. As we walked with our flashlights through the rows of cages, we woke the birds with a start. The birds flapped their wings and squawked as we approached, sending plumes of dust into the air we breathed. In the chaos, we saw birds fight each other, pecking and screaming, with nowhere to retreat in the tiny cages. One chicken had lodged herself between the wires and was stuck with her head and neck outside the cage. She hung there perfectly still for several minutes before managing to release herself suddenly and disappearing into the chaotic motion of birds in the cage. We saw dead birds on the ground outside of the cages, evidently tossed aside by workers who remove dead bodies from the living as a regular part of their job duties.
There, in one crowded cage among thousands, we found Ava. Due to a congenital foot deformity that was worsened by a lifetime of standing on wire, Ava, too, had difficulty moving and vulnerable to other birds’ aggression. But despite her ragged and deformed appearance, Ava survived. Today, Ava lives in a sanctuary where she gets to exhibit a host of natural behaviors never afforded to her in the farm where she was born. She experiences sunlight, dust bathing, and friendly interactions with other birds. Despite her mangled feet, she loves to run in spacious fields. She spends most of her time on a perch, with a watchful eye over other sanctuary residents—pigs, turkeys, and other chickens.
In the quiet of the early morning hours leaving the farm, and even more so when learning that Mia had died, it was clear that the lives of these cage free birds are far from humane. The lives of the two birds we rescued, one from a cage and the other from a cage free barn, had more in common than different before their rescue. Mia’s early death was a tragedy and an injustice, but Ava’s ongoing life is one deserved by every bird on that farm and beyond.