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Life was on our side: The hens who got a second chance

by | May 27, 2024

Rescuer Avery Laing carries a young laying hen out of a barn at an organic and cage-free egg-laying farm that is closing its operations. Oregon, USA, 2024.

Diana Hulet / We Animals

Empowering our capacity for Compassion and Change

In April 2024, a cage-free, organic egg farm in Oregon, US posted on Craigslist that it was shutting down and selling all of its 4,000 hens for USD$10 (CAN$13.60) each – but with not enough takers, the farm owner eventually left the barn door open and invited people to take as many birds as they could catch, with no money changing hands.

Local animal advocates, including We Animals Photography Masterclass graduate Diana Hulet, swiftly organized a rescue effort to save as many hens as possible. This large-scale rescue operation involved numerous individuals and sanctuaries from multiple states with one shared goal – to save as many birds as possible from further exploitation or slaughter. After approximately three weeks of dedicated efforts, 435 hens were rescued.

Diana shares the full story with us in this guest blog post.

Photographer: Diana Hulet
Authors: Diana Hulet, We Animals

First things first

Ten days of preparation. One shared spreadsheet. 107 hens already had placement. 

A small group arrived at the parking lot at dawn, ready for what the day might bring. A surprise Craigslist post had brought us together – some of us meeting for the first time as we steadied ourselves in the drift of uncertainty. The post announced that a local egg-laying operation was shutting down and they were selling over 4,000 hens for USD$10 each.

The listing had caught the attention of local animal advocates, especially due to the nature of its language, which called the birds “laying machines.” This led to outrage among many people who view animals as inherently worthy of care and love, not as mechanical producers. I eventually discovered that the person who wrote the post had to use language that would prevent Craigslist from flagging it, which had already happened on Facebook Marketplace. The use of the words “laying machines” was intentional for this reason.

Maxine

Rescuer Avery Laing carries a young laying hen out of a barn at an organic and cage-free egg-laying farm that is closing its operations. The bird is one of more than 400 hens rescued over a two-week period that involves numerous individuals and sanctuaries to save as many birds as possible from further exploitation or slaughter. Oregon, USA, 2024.

Diana Hulet / We Animals

Within days, a support network emerged and created a lifeline for a flock of hens who had spent most of their lives in a dark and cramped barn, walking around on metal shelving and concrete. This is the reality of “cage-free.” What you may not know is that “cage-free” simply means that the cage is essentially one enormous cage the size of the interior of a barn, rather than the small battery cages often seen in factory farms. Both situations are horrendous. In a facility like the one we would enter later that day, the birds compete for food, water, space and safety. One worker told me, “you know the phrase “pecking order?” That’s what happens here.” Because this is an organic farm, any health issues or injuries that present with the hens cannot be treated, so suffering persists until they succumb, like the few dead and gravely injured birds rescuers saw inside the barn.

I had heard through multiple sources that we needed “all hands on deck” for this effort and although I had never been directly part of a large-scale rescue, my photojournalism work had brought me into conversations with a handful of animal farmers. I understood our chances and the intricacies of our approach. I had also seen how these animals live such limited lives, and if there was any hope we could rescue a few of them out, I was ready to do whatever I could. The hens were only about a year and a half old, and like most birds when their bodies get too exhausted from continuous laying and lack of care, they are sent to slaughter.

Sweeper at the beach in Canada. Photo credit: Cindy Hughes.

Rescuers in PPE suits discuss logistics and set up crates as they prepare for the active rescue of laying hens. Over 4,000 hens live in dark and cramped conditions within this cage-free, organic farm that is closing its operations. Oregon, USA, 2024.

Diana Hulet / We Animals

Rescuer Avery Laing carries crates to a van in the early morning on the first day of rescuing laying hens from a cage-free, organic farm. Oregon, USA, 2024.

Diana Hulet / We Animals

Please do not be fooled by the words “organic and cage-free.” It’s a common misconception that hens on these farms have access to the outdoors and spend their days in grassy fields. The reality is often quite different.

Who we can save

We knew we had quarantine spaces and adopters for 107 hens, and as the sun shimmered over the horizon, two of us went to negotiate with the farm workers. There are details I will not share here, due to the sensitivity of rescue. What I will share is that persistence and compassion worked their magic, and after being told that the remainder of the flock was already sold, we rescued fifty hens. Amidst our negotiations, I got the sense that the person who posted the Craigslist ad offering the chickens for sale was somewhat relieved that at least some of the hens were going to live much better lives from that day onward.

He made sure I knew what usually happened to hens at the end of their season, and said that he didn’t want that outcome. Maybe it’s a stretch, but I also wondered if he was exhausted from the exploitative industry of animal agriculture, and ready to be done. So often, activists speak out against animal farmers, and while I also get fired up about the ongoing suffering of animals trapped in the system, I wonder what would happen if we occasionally opened ourselves up to a dialogue, one that might enable more animals to be rescued.

Maxine

Rescuer Anastasia Sloan checks on young rescued laying hens in crates, each crate labeled for their sanctuary destination. The birds appear curious about the new world they are experiencing outside of the overcrowded conditions they are leaving behind on a cage-free, organic farm. Oregon, USA, 2024.

Diana Hulet / We Animals

On the move

Once we got word that we could take fifty, our small and mighty team sprung into action. Chills ran up my arms and neck as I saw three vehicles pull into the farm’s gravel road, each loaded with crates ready to be freedom rides for the hens. Earlier that day, an activist who helped with organizing sent me a text about how everything was coming together and said that “life was on our side.” This couldn’t have been more apparent than when the actual rescue was taking place. We lined up the crates at a safe distance from the barn due to health risks for the birds, and three of our team suited up with full personal protective equipment (PPE) due to Avian Influenza concerns and entered the barn. Inside, rescuers observed thousands of hens living on metal shelves in dark, cramped conditions. Though only approximately 18 months of age, some hens were already dead from illness or injury. Before another minute passed, rescuers were coming out of the barn with hens in their arms.

Maxine

On her next step towards freedom, a laying hen rescued from a cage-free, organic farm looks out from her crate as she travels from a staging area to a local sanctuary. She is one of a group of rescued hens who began their day in a dark and crowded barn and will end it with sunshine, grass and compassion. Oregon, USA, 2024.

Diana Hulet / We Animals

The sky was bright blue as each crate was filled with chattering hens feeling the sunlight and fresh air on their skin and feathers. We covered the crates with towels to calm the birds, and within another half hour, it was time to drive away and head to a staging area where we could assess their health and prepare them for the next leg of their journey. Two hens in a crate were quietly settling in my backseat, and we listened to classical music and felt the cool breeze while we navigated country roads. I was in full presence, past and future were far from my mind, as we clocked each mile away from their dismal former home.

 

Within the hour, the staging area, a suburban garage, was a flurry of activity – an outstanding volunteer vet tech duo, hens checked for signs of illness or injury, offerings of water and medication, and notes to determine who needed the most critical follow-ups. Everyone came together in a symphony of care and attention, and by late afternoon all hens were on their way to individual homes or local sanctuaries that would quarantine them, and most importantly, give them space to feel free from exploitation, and to feel love, so much love.

Sweeper at the beach in Canada. Photo credit: Cindy Hughes.

A rescued laying hen is weighed and receives necessary medication and a parasite treatment from a volunteer mother and daughter veterinary tech team from the state of Washington, USA. The two triage over fifty hens this day and provide essential support to the first large rescue effort during a massive rescue of laying hens from a cage-free, organic farm that is closing its operations. Oregon, USA, 2024.

Diana Hulet / We Animals

Rescuer and Wildwood Sanctuary volunteer Ryan McMullin carries a crate containing rescued laying hens towards a staging area in a garage where the hens will receive food, water, and medical care. The hens were rescued from a cage-free, organic farm closing its operations. This is just one of the numerous steps undertaken towards the hens living in sanctuary. Oregon, USA, 2024.

Diana Hulet / We Animals

Sun, dirt and healing

It was hours before I thought about the ones we couldn’t save. I was standing in my kitchen drinking a glass of water and had a moment to pause and let the day sink in. We left over a thousand hens in the barn. All that was possible at this point was to offer heartfelt prayers for their liberation, and glean what we could from this rescue to proceed with the next one, whenever and however it comes.

We didn’t know if Sage was going to make it. Of everyone who was getting seen that day, she was in the worst shape, hunched over in the back of the crate, her eyes closed, her bare skin raw and red. You could see that she was in tremendous discomfort. Sadly, after over two weeks of medical care, Sage was unable to recover from her previous life and rescuers made the difficult decision to humanely euthanize her. During this time, Sage experienced the feeling of freedom and made a new friend in Rosemary, another hen who was rescued. Rosemary was a grounding force for Sage during her final days. I can’t imagine the existence both hens led during the first year and a half of their lives.

Rosemary, a former laying hen rescued from a cage-free, organic farm, ventures into the herb garden of a rescuer’s backyard during her first few weeks of quarantine. Rosemary was one of the healthiest hens rescued from the farm, possibly because she is a breed who could better handle the stressful conditions she lived under on the farm. Oregon, USA, 2024.

Diana Hulet / We Animals

Sweeper at the beach in Canada. Photo credit: Cindy Hughes.

Sage, a former laying hen rescued from a cage-free, organic farm closing its operations, enjoys the warmth of the sun in a supervised backyard outing. After over two weeks of medical care, Sage was unable to recover from her previous life and rescuers made the difficult decision to humanely euthanize her. Oregon, USA, 2024.

Diana Hulet / We Animals

When I visited them after the rescue, they were already so trusting, gentle and open to exploring my friend’s yard to forage, eat grapes, drink water, wander, rest in the sun, and take dirt baths – all on their own time. There is something deeply resonant in watching the transformation happen as the residue of exploitation slips away. Being in Sage and Rosemary’s company offered me a glimpse into a world I long for, one that kept the rescuers up late at night and ready to meet at first light, in the parking lot where we would make a plan to save who we could.

Life was, indeed, on our side.

Maxine

A laying hen rescued from a cage-free, organic farm that is closing its operations peers around volunteer Tanvi Varma’s shoulder. Tanvi works as a local television reporter and assisted negotiations with farm staff to release the hens to rescuers. Tanvi now experiences the outcome of her efforts. Oregon, USA, 2024.

Diana Hulet / We Animals

This story was originally published here. Follow Diana’s animal photojournalism for more stories like this.

Explore and download these visuals and more via the We Animals stock platform. We’ll be publishing more visuals from this extensive rescue and rehabilitation effort in the coming weeks.