Farms Have Killed Off Millions Of Animals As Supply Chains Break. But These Hens Made It Out.

Farms have killed vast numbers of healthy pigs, chickens and other animals as supply chains break down amid the economic devastation of the coronavirus pandemic. But some hens from Iowa are getting a second chance at life.

In May, social media posts circulated saying an egg farm with 140,000 hens was closing and that the birds would be killed. But the farm’s owner made the unusual decision to allow people to come and take the birds at no cost.

“The farmer initially said he was closing because he could not afford to feed all of the birds,” Kelly Holt — executive director of the Michigan animal refuge Barn Sanctuary ― told HuffPost in an email. “We suspected it was because of the current health crisis. … This seemed like an urgent and last-minute closing.”

The farm declined to comment to HuffPost.

Farms across the United States have killed millions of animals by some estimates as the pandemic has disrupted supply chains. 

Slaughterhouse closures made it impossible for some farms to process meat, and even as plants reopen, backlogs mean animals continue to be killed and simply discarded. Reduced demand from the food service industry has also led some farmers to cull their herds and flocks ― including egg-laying chickens ― for financial reasons. 

Most of the animals were fated for slaughter anyway, but the current economic situation means that their carcasses are being discarded rather than used for food. And some farms have been accused of using cruel and drawn-out methods to kill their animals. 

To rescue the chickens, Barn Sanctuary coordinated with another rescue group, Iowa Farm Sanctuary, to take as many as they could.

On May 11, the groups went to the farm and were led into a large facility where workers were moving birds to boxes to be asphyxiated with carbon dioxide.

“Essentially on one end of the long row of birds, the farm’s crew had started killing hens, and on the other end of the row two rescue organizations were loading hens out of cages into our vans to bring them to sanctuary,” Holt said.

Kelly Holt carries a hen at an egg farm that was scaling down operations and killing many of its birds.

Kelly Holt carries a hen at an egg farm that was scaling down operations and killing many of its birds.

It was emotionally draining to make split-second decisions about which birds to save. 

“You have to make eye contact with some of the birds, and as soon as you make eye contact, that was the one I wanted to get,” Jered Camp, founder of Iowa Farm Sanctuary, told HuffPost. That wasn’t always possible because the frightened birds would clump together in hard-to-reach positions, and others would run off.

“We just had to reach in and grab whoever we could get,” Holt said.

The two groups ultimately rescued 61 hens. Some will be transferred to other sanctuaries.

Other activists also came to rescue the hens, including a California sanctuary, Animal Place, that sent two planes to pick up about a thousand of them.

Other people showed up to take birds back to their own farms or to keep as backyard chickens. The farmer also decided to keep about 10,000 out of his original flock, Holt said.

For the rescued birds, life is looking pretty good.

“They’ve perked up. They’re a lot more active. They roam around. They’re acting like real chickens. They’re taking dirt baths,” a favorite pastime of chickens, Camp said.

“They’ll just lay on the ground … to get that cool dirt all over themselves,” he said, adding, “It was really neat to see that with these birds … because they’ve never been in dirt before.”

Hens get used to their new digs at Barn Sanctuary.

Hens get used to their new digs at Barn Sanctuary.

But both Holt and Camp expressed sadness at the toll the pandemic has taken on animals.

“It’s heartbreaking,” Holt said. “We can’t save them all. There are not enough homes at sanctuaries to house all of the animals who are raised in confinement at these [concentrated animal feeding operations] and large facilities. They call it ‘depopulation’ but it’s hundreds of thousands of animals ― pigs, chickens, cows ― being killed.”

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