Consuela's story

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Breaking Chickens For The Eggs
Rescued Hen Shows Harsh Factory Farm Life

The Capital Times :: FRONT :: A1
Tuesday, August 7, 2007
By SUSAN TROLLER The Capital Times

Liz and Garrett Perry were dropping off scrap lumber and old shingles from a garage roofing project at the Deer Track Park landfill when they saw what appeared to be a bloody chicken, darting between the big trash-bearing rigs roaring through the massive dump just off Interstate 94 near Johnson Creek.

It was a hot, windy day in May, and Liz Perry remembers being eager to leave the bleak moonscape of the landfill, where debris and dust blew in her eyes and mouth.

"It's pretty nasty in there, with the smell and the noise and everything," Perry said. "So I just shouted, 'Garrett, we have to catch that poor chicken!' "

They jumped out of their pickup truck, whipped off the brightly colored vests the landfill requires visitors to wear and began using the blaze-yellow garments as impromptu nets to capture the frightened bird.

"Once we caught her, we realized she wasn't really bloody but just horribly sunburned because she was missing so many feathers," Perry explained. As the Perrys pulled out of Deer Track Park, Garrett asked a worker why there were live chickens in the landfill.

He was told that large egg farms dump hen carcasses and that occasionally the loads contained live chickens that apparently had survived the gassing process that was supposed to euthanize them.

"She didn't seem particularly surprised," Liz Perry said.

When Garrett asked what commonly happens to the leftover survivors, he was told they were run over by trucks.

The chicken the Perrys found was likely a hen from a load of what are known as "spent" hens sent from Creekwood Farms Inc., a large egg farm located outside of Lake Mills that regularly uses the landfill to dump its chickens. The bird they found had been debeaked, which is common among factory birds to prevent them from pecking other chickens.

FROM EGGS TO LANDFILLS: Creekwood is one of several Wisconsin high-volume egg farms with more than a million birds laying eggs every day. Spent hens are chickens that are no longer producing enough eggs to be profitable and are a regular byproduct of egg farms, according to Ron Kean, a poultry expert at the University of Wisconsin-Extension.

Generally, he said, factory birds begin laying eggs at about 18 weeks and go through two laying cycles before their production begins to wane. Often before they are 2 years old they are euthanized with carbon dioxide, and the carcasses are sent to landfills like Deer Track Park.

Lynn Morgan, a spokesperson for Waste Management Co., which operates Deer Track Park, confirmed that Creekwood is now the landfill's only egg farm customer. She said that in 2006, Creekwood brought containers of dead chickens to the landfill during four different months, and that so far in 2007 they delivered carcasses during two months.

Morgan said the carcasses are delivered in large containers similar to those commonly used at construction sites.

"It certainly would be our expectation that the loads of chicken carcasses we receive would be fully deceased," she said. "I would hope it was an isolated incident."

Gassing is a euthanasia method approved by the Association of Veterinary Medicine Association as humane. The bodies of the spent hens are often landfilled rather than used for food or other products because processing small, thin birds like those used for producing eggs is too expensive to justify the cost, Kean said.

According to officials from the state Department of Natural Resources and compliance officers from the state Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, state law prohibits dumping live animals at a landfill.

The numbers of chickens dumped from big egg producers like Creekwood Farms can be large. Kean estimated that as many as 100,000 hens at a time can be removed from an entire chicken shed and euthanized.

That is not only an acceptable practice but a preferred practice, according to Kean, because it means the birds' housing can be thoroughly cleaned before a fresh group of young hens is brought in.

Creekwood Farms is owned by ESI Holding Corp., a Wisconsin corporation. ESI is wholly owned by Cham Food Ltd. of Israel.

Lee Felmlee, Creekwood general manager, said she was shocked when she heard that chickens were not entirely euthanized when they were delivered to Deer Track Park to be landfilled.

"We have zero tolerance for this," she said.

She explained that the crew doing the euthanasia apparently did not go through a full kill process, and that farm management was looking into how it happened and who was responsible. "We're acting on it quickly so it will not happen again," she said. She said it was an isolated incident.

But when a reporter delivered trash to Deer Track Park recently and asked about live chickens at the landfill, a worker confirmed what the Perrys were told. He said he had seen as many as nine live birds at a time that he thought were "wore out chickens from the egg farm."

THE RECOVERY OF "CONSUELA MAY": Liz Perry was barely out of the landfill when she decided to try to save the chicken they'd found and keep it as a pet, if possible. Because she didn't know what the hen's condition actually was, her first stop was at a veterinary clinic.

"I've never examined a bird so incredibly thin," said Dr. Jody Bearman of Animal Holistic Care Specialists of Wisconsin in Marshall. The bird was dehydrated, frightened and missing many feathers, but did not appear sick, Bearman said. She recommended good food and water, a quiet environment and holistic care such as acupuncture and herbal remedies.

Perry wanted to take her chicken home to Waterloo, but local ordinances forbid keeping chickens in the city. In Madison, however, a relatively recent ordinance allows city dwellers to keep up to four hens on their property, and Perry was able to find a foster home for her bird in a quiet coop off East Johnson Street.

Perry, who owns Nutzymutz and Crazycats, a Madison natural pet food and supply store, sees her new chicken frequently.

In less than three months, the small White Leghorn hen has grown her feathers back and has gained weight. She shares her coop with another pet chicken named Cosette and lays eggs nearly every day. Perry named the rescued hen Consuela May.

"Consuela means consolation. And May is when we found her," Perry said.

Local independent filmmakers Robert Lughai and Tashai Lovington are working on a feature-length documentary called Mad City Chickens that focuses on backyard chicken enthusiasts and urban chicken flocks.

It's not just a Madison phenomenon.

"Seattle, Los Angeles ... it's going on in cities all over and it's growing. In a lot of cases, I think people want more control over their food. Well, and some people have chickens as pets instead of a parakeet," Lovington said.

Alicia Rheal is the president of MadCity Chickens, a loosely organized group of backyard chicken farmers.

In an e-mail she wrote, "I think I can speak for most, when I say we chicken owners are anti-corporate eggs. ... The treatment of these animals is horrendous, and the quality of eggs is poor ... and you just don't know what is being fed to the hens."

STANDARDS OF INDUSTRY: Americans ate 256 eggs per capita in 2006, according to statistics from the American Egg Board. The vast majority of the approximately 80 billion eggs come, not surprisingly, from mass production factory farms.

Poultry specialist Kean said he has been in many large-scale egg operations that he thinks are well-run and comfortable.

"I've been in (chicken) houses that are very nice. But you only see the bad situations when there's some kind of problem," he said.

As for Perry, she says she is trying to learn about factory farming issues, particularly when it comes to chickens, ever since she picked up Consuela from the landfill.

"It's horrible that live chickens would be in containers with a whole bunch of dead chickens, and then would run around, suffering in a landfill until they die one way or another," she said.

She says she sees some of the big egg farms' routine practices as almost equally disturbing.

"These laying chickens aren't bred for anything except producing eggs, so the little male chicks have no value at all. They are killed when they are just a day old, and the usual practice is to grind them up alive and turn them into mink or other animal feed," Perry said with a shudder.

The UW's Kean confirmed that this was, indeed, common, but that generally the chicks were fed into a vacuum tube that had them hit a plate before they went into the grinder so they would be stunned and unconscious prior to death. The practice is called maceration, and when administered properly, is considered humane by the standards established by the AVMA.

Perry also said that chickens at many egg factory farms are kept in what are known as battery cages, which the Humane Society of the United States calls "one of the worst factory farm abuses."

"These cages are so small that the hens can't stand fully upright, or engage in activities like stretching their wings, or preening, or bathing in the dust. They are deprived of any of the normal behaviors that chickens need to do," Perry said.

In Europe, the use of battery cages for hens is being phased out, with a deadline for their complete elimination in 2012.

Another egg farm practice Perry cited as particularly harsh involves withdrawing food from the hens to force a molting period for the birds. After molting, there is a surge in egg production.

According to United Egg Producers, 85 to 90 percent of U.S. egg farms abide by a set of scientifically developed and industry-designed standards for animal welfare that discourage food withdrawal as a method to encourage molting. All standards relating to how chickens are housed and handled are at this time entirely voluntary.

HANDLING EGGS, CREEKWOOD FARM: After hearing of live chickens at the landfill, Barb Palecek, of the DNR, said she was immediately concerned that it sounded like a case of animal mistreatment that went beyond her jurisdiction with trash disposal issues.

Palecek contacted Deer Track Park management, and she also alerted Cindy Partridge, a compliance officer in the animal health division of the DATCP.

Partridge said she sent an investigator out to Creekwood Farm the day after she heard from Palecek. "I want to make it clear that this kind of practice is not in any way acceptable, and I think the farm is taking this very seriously," Partridge said. "If they had not been responsive, we would have involved the local police as a 'crimes against animals' case."

Dr. Yvonne Bellay, the state's humane officer, confirmed that the use of carbon dioxide gas for killing poultry is a widely accepted practice approved by the AVMA when properly administered. She said that the law relating to cruelty to animals in Wisconsin is fairly broad and fairly general.

"If people are looking for standards (regarding treatment), generally they need to look at industry standards," Bellay said.

"In general, I think there's more of an awareness of animal welfare in agriculture. The best example is the changes we're seeing in the fast-food industry," she said. There seems to be increased pressure, she added, from consumers who want to believe their food was raised properly and humanely.

But she also said that people want and depend on a system that provides reliably available and inexpensive food.

This spring, the UW-Madison Food Service Department and the local franchise for Bruegger's Bagels earned kudos from the Humane Society of the United States when they joined an expanding number of universities, restaurants and retailers that require that all the eggs they use come from cage-free hens.

Fran Onofrio, a spokesman for Bruegger's, said they have gotten positive comments for the change in policy, but have seen no sales increase. "We'll keep monitoring it," Onofrio said.

Lori Nitzel, an attorney and director of the Madison-based Alliance for Animals, said that she was not surprised that a live chicken was dumped in a landfill with carcasses.

"In the industry, it's not atypical. I just hadn't heard about it before in Wisconsin," she said. "Overall, these (factory) chickens are not seen as animals. They're simply a commodity and are not treated as living beings," Nitzel said.

She noted that chickens, particularly, have few protections, although they make up 90 percent of the animals in agriculture in the United States. "They don't exactly invite us in, and so it's really hard to lift the corporate veil to see what the conditions actually are for the birds."

"Basically, if you're a chicken," Nitzel said, "you want to be born in Europe."

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