Lawsuit in Largest California Farmed Animal Rescue in History Moves Forward

turlock manure pit
The manure pit beneath the sheds where many hens drowned. (Photo by Marji Beach/Animal Place)

50,000 Hens

On December 5th 2012, the Stanislaus County Superior Court sided with the Animal Legal Defense Fund, ruling in favor of three sanctuaries, Animal Place, Harvest Home Animal Sanctuary, and Farm Sanctuary, and allowing an historic lawsuit to proceed, based on the largest rescue of farmed animals in California history. In a scandal that drew national attention, the Turlock, California-based company A & L Poultry abandoned 50,000 hens without food and left them to die. Some 20,000 of these hens starved to death by the time authorities discovered the deserted sheds in February 2012. Others drowned in giant manure pits under their cages. 25,000 more had to be euthanized to end their immense suffering. Animal Place, Farm Sanctuary, and Harvest Home Animal Sanctuary stepped in to rescue the remaining 5,000 birds. Representing the sanctuaries, ALDF and Schiff Hardin sued the owners of the egg farm to hold them responsible for their heinous cruelty. The farmers sought to have the case dismissed, but on December 5th 2012, the court rejected the farmers’ arguments, permitting the case to move forward.

In addition to ALDF’s landmark civil lawsuit, the defendants are also facing criminal prosecution. On February 11, 2013 Andy Cheung and Lien Diep, owners of A & L Poultry, were arraigned after being charged with felony animal cruelty by the Stanislaus County District Attorney–a charge rarely levied against industrial agricultural producers. The defendants face up to three years in prison and fines of up to $20,000 under California Penal Code section 597(b), which makes it a crime to deprive any animal of proper food, water, or shelter, or to inflict "needless suffering" or "unnecessary cruelty" upon an animal.

bedgraggled hen from the turlock factory farm
Bedraggled and near death, this hen waits for special medical care. (Photo by Marji Beach/Animal Place)

Meet Kelle Kacmarcik

Kelle Kacmarcik, Wildlife Solutions Manager at WildCare (a nonprofit that runs a wildlife rehabilitation hospital, nature education programs, and provides non-lethal, humane wildlife management services) was one of the rescuers in Turlock that fateful day in February. Kelle has been rescuing feral cats and wild gulls in China Basin and Bayview-Hunter’s Point in San Francisco for years. Through her contacts in animal rescue, Kelle Kacmarcik knew Christine Morrissey, who managed Harvest Home Animal Sanctuary in Stockton, California, and Livia Stone (wife of Biz Stone, co-founder of Twitter). When the Turlock rescue mission started, Farm Sanctuary reached out to Livia to help their emergency team find expert volunteers, and Kelle Kacmarcik was the first one Livia called. She rallied other rescue volunteers to join her the next morning; they didn’t know what to expect, but they knew it would be terrible. When her group arrived, they found a dozen people from Harvest Home, Farm Sanctuary, and Animal Place. "That was inspiring, to roll up and find people already there working."

"We’ll Help as Many as We Can"

Jamie London and Jacie Volek help care for the sickest hens. (Photo by Marji Beach/Animal Place)

 They focused on getting birds out from sheds the size of football fields that each held 25,000 hens. Kelle remembers "cage after cage of birds were crammed together." Sadly, the whole day, hens were gassed (euthanized) at the other end of the building. As Kelle explains, "you just have to put it out of your mind. We’ll help as many as we can. That’s the hardest thing, knowing you can’t save them all…but it matters to the one that you can. In terms of rescue, that is the principle I live my life by."

A Hen Named Natalie

hen getting a bath
Kelle Kacmarcik cares for a rescued hen. PHOTO: Christine Morrissey/Harvest Home Animal Sanctuary

At six that evening, the state veterinarian said: "no more." There weren’t any more savable hens. And yet, in the first barn, they suddenly saw a bird walking towards them. Kelle and her friend Nat begged the security guard to let them in the barn. At that very moment, the veterinarian drove up. Meanwhile, the hen stumbled outside. Desperately, Kelle and her crew took the exhausted vet aside and pleaded for the life of the bird. Meanwhile, the hen wandered, dazed, back into the barn toward the manure pit. Finally the vet conceded, and Kelle quickly gave him her net and her boots. He put them on and was able to net this last bird after walking straight into the gigantic manure pit.

"They’re all individuals to us," Kelle says, "every single bird in there. There was just something so significant about getting that last hen out of there. We knew she would die if we didn’t." Named "Natalie" after Kelle’s friend Nat, who persuaded the vet into the rescue, Natalie the hen symbolizes something triumphant in the midst of horror. "They pulled out about 4,650. This was 4,651" Kelle explains. Watch the video of Natalie’s rescue.

"One Night of Freedom"

This beautiful hen stretches and flaps her wings for the very first time. (Photo by Marji Beach/Animal Place)

After the hens were out, the rescue crew worked hard to give life-sustaining care, and bring the hens to sanctuaries so that "they could experience at least one night of freedom." They were pale, dehydrated, and starving. Many couldn’t stand. Nine months later, Kelle remembers the rescue vividly. It was "easily the most horrific thing I’ve ever seen…and smelled."

The volunteers worked that night at Animal Place, Farm Sanctuary, and Harvest Home Animal Sanctuary until the wee hours of the morning. Though they were exhausted, they kept caring for the birds to determine which were in the most need. "To see them kicking around, trying to nest, dust-bathing…" Kelle recalls, "we were really tired and exhausted but we kept thinking: this is one day for us. It barely compares to what these birds went through their entire lives."

"It was life-changing" Kelle says. Egg-laying hens receive no federal protections, although California voted to ban cruel battery cages like those at A&L Poultry. That law goes into effect in 2015. Watch the Animal Place video of the rescue.

The Legal Case

The hens stuffed in battery cages at A & L Poultry had been denied their ability to engage in natural behaviors, in cages so small they couldn’t even open their wings, and their beaks cut off (without anesthetic) to prevent pecking. And then, A & L Poultry shamefully abandoned these hens like disposable garbage. Although factory farms are rarely held accountable for the immense suffering they inflict on animals, ALDF’s lawsuit aims to place responsibility on the people who caused the pain and distress to tens of thousands of helpless animals.

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