Animals In Print
The On-Line Newsletter
From 11 August 2003 Issue
UPDATE08/07/03 Fran Henry
Buckeye hens strut to freedom at animal sanctuary
Plain Dealer Reporter
It wasn't enough. A wide ramp led from the open horse trailer to the barn, but the rowdy bunch of brown hens huddled inside might as well have been given violins to play.
Instead of hopping down the ramp to the barn's feeding troughs, they noisily stood their ground in the straw-covered trailer bed. But what could be expected of hens who had never moved more than a few inches this way or that?
In a eureka moment, a cadre of people swooped into action and began carrying the hens into the ancient barn that had been prepared for their coming. Soon the barn was filled with the gentle hum of chicken sounds. Bok- bok-bok, bok-bok-bok.
And that is how 1,048 hens, which had lived their 90- to 95-week lives caged at Buckeye Egg Farm's Croton, Ohio, facility, found freedom Monday afternoon at Oohmahnee Farm, an 86-acre farmed animal sanctuary in western Pennsylvania, near the tiny town of Hunker.
The hens were released by Buckeye, which is under state order to shut down its 15-million hen operation. Volunteers from the Pittsburgh area took the hens from Ohio that morning in cooperation with Buckeye officials.
Although the heat and turmoil of a three-hour trip killed about a dozen hens, the rest rapidly settled into what hens do best - they acted like chickens.
They strutted around and about the straw-covered dirt floor, some strolling into the sunny barnyard to take dust baths and peck for insects - as well as they could with beaks that had been trimmed within a few days of their hatching. Beak trimming is standard in the egg- farm industry, a measure taken to keep chickens from pecking one another to death.
But this crowd was too busy eating from shiny new aluminum feed troughs and learning to drink from special watering buckets to take much time to settle scores. Oohmahnee volunteers gently held hens and dropped water into their waiting beaks, helping them learn to drink from a bucket, instead of the water nipple they used when caged.
Volunteers rushed about a dozen other birds into a makeshift first-aid center at the corner of the barn, where they were treated for heat exhaustion suffered during their trip. There, they sat quietly in shallow basins of water while their body temperatures lowered.
The hens owed their freedom to Bill Leininger, Buckeye director of operations, who released them from the farm's killing floor into the care of Cayce Mell, who founded the sanctuary with her husband, Jason Tracy. The birds were going to be killed because they no longer produced enough eggs.
The unprecedented event was born out of an agreement struck by Mell, 28, and Leininger, 32, to understand each other's philosophical differences about the meaning of humane.
The egg producer believes that keeping the hens fed, watered, housed and safe from predators is humane treatment in and of itself. No producer would stand for inhumane treatment because the flock's productivity depends on good care, Leininger said.
However, Mell believes that humane treatment means allowing hens to freely exhibit natural behavior, including pecking and dust-bathing, and to live uncaged.
Despite their differences, however, they agree that their mutual concern for the hens might form the foundation of an ongoing relationship. "We're willing to find common ground," Leininger said. "She'll learn more about large-scale farming, and I'll learn more about animal welfare."
He stressed that he will deal with Oohmahnee exclusively and doesn't want to be besieged by sanctuaries seeking birds.
Mell has her fingers crossed that Leininger will release additional hens in the future as Buckeye faces the possibility of closure. In early July, the state ordered Ohio's largest egg producer to close and begin removing the hens in early August. However, Buckeye won a reprieve allowing it to operate at full capacity until the appeal is settled.
If Buckeye loses its appeal, it will be forced to close two barns a week, a rate which both Mell and Leininger call "very aggressive." Buckeye might have to burn hens alive or bulldoze them into the ground to keep up with the state-ordered depopulation, both said. Such methods are legal, Mell said, because chickens are not protected under the Federal Animal Welfare Act.
Leininger hopes that surrendering the hens to a sanctuary will show that Buckeye, with its long history of pollution and nuisance problems, "is heading in a much more positive direction." Its shabby history belongs to previous management, he said. "We're a younger, aggressive management group, looking to be an asset to the community."
Mell said she is willing to "do whatever it takes to keep the lines of communication open to make sure more of those birds come to the sanctuary. Let's learn from each other. Let's talk to each other."
Her dream is that factory farmers and the mainstream population someday will recognize that all animals are "thinking, feeling and suffering sentient beings. It may take many years, but it will happen," said Mell, who is a humane officer for the county in West Moreland, Pa.
In any event, Oohmahnee doesn't have anywhere near the room for all of Buckeye's flock, should the company close.
A painful thought, but one Mell eases with a parable:
A man is walking along a stretch of beach, where hundreds of starfish have washed ashore. Along his way, he picks up starfish and flings them into the ocean.
Another man comes along and asks the first man why he bothers. "There are, after all, hundreds of miles of shoreline and thousands of starfish marooned onshore," the second man says. "You can't make a difference."
The first man picks up another starfish and tosses it into the waves. "It makes a difference to this one," he says.
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