The typical image of a suffering animal that garners sympathy and compassion is usually a struggling dog or cat that flashes across the television screen for a domestic animal shelter commercial.
It is not as easy to empathize with a farm animal. But that is something Animal Place, one of the oldest and largest farm animal shelters in the country, is trying to change.
Animal Place relaunched a 40-minute documentary on its website Tuesday to detail how, in February 2012, the organization saved thousands of starving hens in Turlock that were caged on a negligent farmer’s property.
“It was the largest rescue in history,” said executive director Kim Sturla. “There were two large sheds typical for egg-laying hens in little cages and he had 50,000 birds. Of the 50,000, 16,000 to 20,000 starved to death.”
The criminal case against the farmer is currently under way, Sturla said, though she believes the process would have garnered more attention had the animals been domestic.
“If someone had done that to companion animals such as dogs or cats, that would have been an unconscionable act of cruelty, but when it comes to farm animals, they have less protection from the law and empathy from the public, she said.
Sturla contended that suffering is an equal cruelty for all living creatures.
“The ability for a chicken to suffer is no different than any bird, certainly not less than a dog or cat; cows feel pain, pigs have emotions and personalities and chickens are quite bright, contrary to the bad rap they get,” she said.
The Turlock rescue began after Marji Beach, education director for Animal Place, found an article about the farm in the Modesto Bee. The organization contacted the Turlock animal shelter and took action to save the hens.
“We sent people out there with stock trailers (the next day) and we were up against time because every hour made a difference in the life of those animals,” Sturla said.
Trips were made back and forth to El Dorado animal control and Harvest Home, a small sanctuary in Stockton. Animal Place’s Vacaville facility housed about 4,100 of the birds.
The purpose of the film is to generate empathy for chickens and inform people of where their food comes from, Sturla said.
“Not to say all farmers starve their animals to death by any stretch, but the lives of those chickens, even those fed and watered, is pretty atrocious and people don’t know about where the eggs come from,” Sturla said.
According to Sturla, 98 percent of chickens are born in incubators and immediately placed in cages, without interaction from the mother. All male rooster chicks are killed because the scant meat on their bones and inability to produce eggs serve no purpose to the farmer.
Chickens are generally kept for a year and a half when their egg count diminishes, Sturla said, and then they are also disposed of.
“There are no state or federal laws whatsoever on how they can be killed,” Sturla said, which can include suffocation, macerating machines and grinders. “The whole system is inherently cruel.”
Even cage-free chickens are inhumanely killed, said Sturla, adding that unless eggs are taken from companion chickens, there is no guarantee that eggs from the store are from humanely tended chickens.
She also said companies have a responsibility to seek alternative and cruelty-free methods of business.
“Any business that is harming somebody else, be it the environment, humans or nonhumans, should look at alternatives so you’re not making profit off the cruelty of somebody else,” Sturla said. “It’s not just about chickens or dogs or cats, but about people.”
To view the film, visit http://www.turlockrescue.org/
“Now is a time when we explore what we are doing to one another and what can be done — if not to stop it, to minimize it or phase it out,” Sturla said. “I think we all need a little more kindness and compassion with what we do and how we lead our lives.”
To contact Staff Writer Jennifer Terman, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 530-477-4230.
“Now is a time when we explore what we are doing to one another and what can be done — if not to stop it, to minimize it or phase it out.”
— Kim Sturla, Animal Place executive director