For one rich instant, we luxuriated in the sweetness of those one hundred happy endings. Then, we embraced anew the toil of rising, standing, bearing, shouldering, suffering, nurturing one hundred new beginnings.
The one hundred birds who were now gazing at the open sky for the first time in their lives, were industry trash, "spent" hens rescued from a "free-range" egg facility where they had endured a lifetime of physical, social and psychological deprivation, females whose depleted bodies were no longer able to churn out eggs at the unnaturally high rate of production they had been forced to sustain all of their young lives, and were being sent to slaughter, to be replaced with a new generation of victims whose bodies would be used up in a fraction of their life span, and then mass killed, erased, scrubbed from existence, not a trace of their earthly existence left over, not a feather, not a song, not a child, not a dream.
Nothing in their captive lives had prepared them for freedom. Born in incubators and raised by machines in isolation from mothers, families, and communities who could teach them the skills and strengths that living requires, they had no social skills that would gain them acceptance in a free bird community, no language that was comprehensible to chickens outside their gulag and, after a lifetime of systematic abuse, most had lost even the ability to nurture themselves. Yet there they were. Asked to live and be free.
For the first few minutes, they were eerily silent. No one peeped, no one one moved. They just watched us with the breath of frail creatures. Some lengthened their bare necks and peered at the sun-filled world with silent, briny eyes, blinking, looking at the great outdoors with eyes unaccustomed to daylight, open spaces, or any other sight except the bareness of the windowless shed they had been confined to since infancy. Others slumped with infinite fatigue, caving within themselves – shoulders sinking, wings dragging, heads drooping, too weak and weary to even look up. A couple were dead, their cooling bodies wilted over their still warm eggs, their feathers stirring hauntingly in the living breeze, their eyes lidded so completely that they seemed to have never existed, to have never illuminated that face, shut with such finality, as though determined to keep the horrors of the world finally, safely, irreversibly out.
Everyone remained still and silent until Chris climbed into the van and started gently lifting one by one into Michele's cupped hands. Then, in one instant, the entire group went into a blind panic. They ran to the back of the van screaming, swarming, climbing on each other's backs, trying frantically to hide or escape, huddling together for a shred of comfort, an extra millimeter of protection, an extra millisecond of existence, still attached to the mockery we'd made of their lives, still trying to save them, still hoping (for what?).
As gently as we handled them, held them, cradled them before putting them on the straw-covered ground, they still cried out in fear for their pathetic only lives. That was the only sound we heard them utter that day and for many days to come – the sound of fear, pain, despair – the tragic record of a life of torment. And, with each rebirth, with each new bird lifted from the bleakness of her past onto a free future, we felt both the giddiness of life that was released at last, finally free to become, and the weight, the call, the tug, the stab in the heart of the lives left behind, still trembling in fear, still stirring faintly with absurd, irrepressible hope.
When they first touched the straw-covered ground, most of them just stood there, motionless for a minute or two, looking around, bewildered, exhausted, rocking from foot to foot as though rehearsing a walk they were about to take for the first time in their lives – the first astonished steps into a life that was finally free to begin – stepping in place for a few beats, then staggering to one of the corners of the barn and joining one of the two huddles that were quickly forming there. And that's where they stayed. For a long while, none of them ventured out in the middle of the open barn. They remained hidden in their corner huddles, still and silent except to stir or sound in fear.
It was painful to watch. They didn't seem to know the simplest, most natural of all things: how to be in their own bodies, how to inhabit their own lives. They were moved by a peculiar sort of alertness, an alertness I'd never seen before. They were keenly aware of everything around them, reacting to the slightest move, faintest rustle, softest sound – the drop of a leaf making the entire flock cower as if struck by a physical blow to the body. But, at the same time, they seemed strangely disconnected from everything including, or especially, their own battered selves, inhabiting their mournful, bedraggled, besmirched lives with a sort of eerie, forlorn detachment, a sort of sorrowful resignation, most of them making no attempt to preen their filth-encrusted feathers, mend their wounds, protect their frail bones, or replenish their starved and parched bodies. Each, dragging into this new life the devastated landscape of her past – the amputated beaks, the hunched backs, the slumping shoulders, the brittle bones, the featherless patches covered in bruises and abrasions, the defeated gaze, the uncertain gait.
You could see, in the mutilated face of each bird, the record of her struggle to escape the hot knife that seared off her beak in a cloud of acrid smoke: The beak was cut all the way to the root, or severed at an angle, or the jaw had splintered and protruded from under the shattered upper part, or there's was a lump at the end of the beak, a strange, botched attempt at self healing, or a tumor had developed in response to the trauma and obstructed the nostrils. You could see in what direction each bird had desperately yanked her head to escape the blade – down, or up, or sideways – you could see how violently she had writhed and how wide the scream had opened her beak as the knife cut through bone, cartilage and soft tissue – the beak is severed straight or at an angle, its tip is rounded or flat, or the lower jaw forks and splinters, or the upper part is missing altogether, or the tips are melted into a round opening, frozen into a permanent expression of bewilderment, a grotesque semblance of lips puckered in a kiss.
But you could also see, with infinite gratitude and sadness, the inner light of each bird's life, her golden beauty, her intense yearning to live and become still glowing through the darkness.
That day, and for weeks to come, many stayed huddled together, seeking a meager measure of warmth and solace under the battered wings of another. They refused to leave the barn, keeping themselves tucked in an out-of-the-way corner and gazing at the great, big, happening world outdoors from inside the shed. Others focused exclusively on the patch of world immediately in front of them and air-pecked neurotically, for hours on end, at invisible targets.
Some, tried to make themselves invisible, squeezing themselves in the nearest, smallest nook, even if the space was barely large enough to mask their faces. You could see them trying to disappear inside these absurd bunkers, their bodies and scraggly tails sticking out, but their faces hidden, their eyes covered, protected from the unbearable, overwhelming, frightening sights and sounds of life. They stood frozen in their meager, pathetic hiding places, heart racing, body trembling, wishing for nothing but an end to the terror, a sliver of comfort and peace.
A few bold souls ventured out in the open middle of the barn, seemingly certain that herein lied the thing they had yearned for all of their young lives – whatever that thing was to a person condemned to a desolate environment – mind nourishment? knowledge? a sense of possibility? Their curiosity, their need to feed their starved minds, was stronger than caution.
One intrepid young hen jumped into a grain bowl not because she wanted to eat – nourishment could wait – but because she wanted to do something she had been denied her entire life: take a dustbath. You could hear her fluttering and scuttling inside the bowl, burrowing in the grain, covering herself in it, throwing it in the air like confetti and, as the beads scrubbed and cleansed her scab-encrusted skin, what was left of her feathers fluffed like a ragged rose, her brittle wings and legs went akimbo in ecstatic abandonment, her eyes rolled up dreamily, lids weighed down with the sweet weight of delight. The first dustbath of her life.
Next to her, at a nearby water bowl, three hens gathered around and drank, unhurriedly, as though they had all the time in the world – they did! – dipping their mutilated beaks in fresh water, letting the cool mirth of each sip roll down the tongue, one glittering drop always hanging at the tip, eyes closed, heads thrown back, chins lifted to high heaven, beak parted as if in a silent song to the open sky.
And then there was the young hen who hadn't moved from the spot where she was first laid down. Who was still leaning against the perch ladder, one wing draped over the lowest rung, the other hanging down to the ground as though trying to hold herself up, keep her balance or regain it.
When gently nudged, she staggered as far as the nearest water bowl and parked herself there, went no further. She just stood there, the angle of her folded comb pointing to a frightened, dazed eye. Many of them froze this way when they first set foot on free ground, unsure what to do, where to go, unsure what to do with the fact that there WAS somewhere to go, a horizon that stretched farther than the prison wall they'd seen all of their barren lives, a space that was filled with something they had never experienced in their entire lives – open sky, sunlight, birdsong, the scents of a living earth – and a floor that cushioned the foot, rustled, murmured and yielded sweetly under each step, a floor that did not punish every step like the wire mesh floors they'd walked on all their lives – a floor covered in straw!
But this little hen never moved. She stood frozen in the same spot for hours, unable or unwilling to eat or drink even though food and water was only a few inches away.
While the others were busy experiencing their very first moments of bewildered freedom however they could, staggering in a daze, or clumsily searching for a vague something, or hiding away, or huddling together, she just stood there alone in her soiled, bedraggled feathers, her belly down encrusted with the filth she had been forced to live in all her life, her featherless neck rubbed raw, the stump of her upper beak barely long enough to cover her tongue, her lower jaw splintered and extending pathetically in mid air like a begging hand. She didn't even look around, as though the effort of seeing, of absorbing anything more, was too much. As though she had no reason to anticipate anything but more anguish, more pain, more abuse, more of the bleakness she'd experienced growing up in the line of egg production.
Hours later, she was still in the same spot, inert, stunned, disconnected, barely alive. But now she had laid an egg and was standing over it as though over something completely foreign, something that had never been part of her body. There she was, barely able to sustain her own life but still churning out the eggs that were draining her. There she was, surrounded by a world that finally, incredibly, improbably, wished her life, but still unable to return to full life, still depleting herself by retching more eggs, still standing dazed and alone in the middle of the open barn.
I don't know what she felt as she stood there, defeated on her first day of life and freedom, but I know that what we felt even more intensely than sorrow for her wounded life, was searing shame. Shame for the devastation that we – the moral animals, the only animals with a choice, the absolute power holders of the animal kingdom – inflict daily, intentionally, unnecessarily on the weak, the downtrodden, the hapless innocents of the world. Shame for the fact that we do it for something as frivolous as a taste, a taste that can be so easily, so elegantly, so abundantly replicated from cruelty-free sources. Shame for our depraved appetites. Shame for our perverted humanity. Shame for our absolute corruption.
By morning, she took her first stiff, self-willed steps, her first astonished steps into life that was finally free to begin. She stepped into her free life quietly, easily, the way we step into our vegan lives – not as though entering a new and foreign world, but as though returning to a deeply familiar one, as though coming home.
© 2007 Joanna Lucas
Egg production on ANY scale, from hobby farms to factory farms, is predicated on the mass killing of "unproductive" birds—the male chicks (roosters), who do not lay eggs, and the hens themselves when they become "spent" (unable to lay eggs at a profitable rate), at 1.5 to 2.5 years of age, a fraction of a chicken's lifespan. The day-old roosters are killed by suffocation or maceration at the very hatcheries that supply backyard egg enthusiasts and big producers alike with laying hens. If the roosters are hatched on the farm, they are killed on the farm, usually as adolescents.
For more information about the cruelty and injustice inherent in ALL egg production, from backyard farms to factory farms, please see these links:
What's Wrong With Backyard Eggs?
Why There is No Such Thing as Humane Eggs—in a Nutshell
What Happens to the Roosters?
What Happens to the "Spent" Hens of Backyard Egg Farms?
The Faces of "Free-Range" Farming
Their Eggs, Not Ours
The Humane Egg
If living ethically is important to you, please remember that there is nothing humane about “humane” animal farming, just as there is nothing ethical or defensible about consuming its products. When confronted with the fundamental injustice inherent in all animal agriculture—a system that is predicated on inflicting massive, intentional and unnecessary suffering and death on billions of sentient individuals—the only ethical response is to strive to end it, by becoming vegan, not to regulate it by supporting “improved” methods of producing dairy, eggs, meat, wool, leather, silk, honey, and other animal products. For more information, please read The Humane Farming Myth. Live vegan and educate others to do the same.