Lucky I wore gumboots, the ones that almost come up to your knees, because I’m standing in stinking sludge that comes up to the rim of my boots. Oh god, the smell! I’m trying not to think about all the faeces and corpses and filthy diseases swimming around my legs. I wade through and finally I’m inside a huge shed with rows and rows of cages surrounding me. Rows that are six tiers high, rows of cages stuffed with hens. Rats run along the rafters above my head, ‘Please don’t wee on me’ I silently beg. Rats run along the conveyor belts of the cages, spiders scurry from their webs, all sorts of bugs, lice, fleas and filthy dust in the air, and I’m breathing this in, along with the stench, the ammonia from all the hen’s faeces hurts my eyes and my throat. I’ve only been there a few minutes, they’ve been there how many months, if not over a year?
I hear the girls who have respiratory infections, they gurgle as they breathe. I look at their tiny faces, thousands of faces desperate to get out, some can’t even look at me, they are so scared they just squeeze into a corner of the cage as far away from the human as they can get. Their sick and depleted bodies, their crudely cut beaks, their purple, dry combs flop over their little eyes, their red sore bottoms, all the pain they must be in. All these faces, all these broken and sick bodies, all of them need to be freed! I smell a rotting corpse and look into the cage next to me. There, inside with six other girls is the trampled,long dead body of a hen, with an egg that another hen had laid in her rotting corpse.
How can this be happening? How can any human being treat a single creature so badly, let alone thousands and millions of them treated like nothing but machines in a production line? I feel like screaming, I feel like running from this huge shed of suffering and grabbing the ‘farmer’ and screaming in his face, “How can you do this to all these innocent girls?” I can’t do that though, it will keep me from rescuing more hens, so I just have to push the rage back deep inside of me.
I take a deep breath, swallow the rage down, turn to the rows of cages and try to choose a hen to rescue. Who do I chose, how do I chose, who must I leave behind to die? I um and ah then point to the girl that’s squeezing herself into the corner of the cage, her bare featherless back to me and we start opening cages, gently lifting each girl out and then closing cage doors back onto the other girls, leaving them behind but with more room in the cage, a small comfort at the very least.
Finally we have our twelve girls, but as we walk back out through the rows, another girl is in my path, out of the cages. ‘Well we can’t just leave her here, she was put in our path for a reason’ I tell myself. So that’s thirteen girls we have.
Back out in the sludge with thirteen lucky girls, we spot more hens STUCK IN THE SLUDGE! We can’t leave them there, they’ll struggle with their last bit of strength to free themselves, only sinking deeper until they die. We have to save them too. That makes fifteen! We only planned to rescue twelve but we’ll find the money for the vet bills somehow and no doubt we will find the extra homes for the girls.
We turn our backs and leave behind thousands of little desperate faces. I can’t bare to think of them, if I let myself think of who I couldn’t save, I may not have the strength to carry the ones we have saved. I might let myself think about the ones left behind, when I am alone, I might let myself cry for the ones left behind but I probably won’t. I can’t let myself crack as cracks will only lead to breaking. I need to keep going, I need to stay strong, I need to think of what good we have done, the freedom we are giving these fifteen girls. They are out of that hell on earth and on their way to loving homes and I’ll be back wading through that sludge next week, to save another twelve girls. No, make that eighteen.