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February 2006
Brooklyn Birds
By Kymberlie Adams Matthews

 

Willow and her Brooklyn friends warm and content in their new coop at Woodstock Farm Animal Sanctuary. Photo by Sheila Hyslop
First meal of rescued birds. Photo by Sangamithra Iyer

The stench was indescribable. For days after the rescue I could smell it in my hair and on my skin. It is hard to imagine being a factory farmed chicken and living day after day with the aroma of suffering surrounding you.

Sunday, October 16, 2005
There were hundreds of them, crammed into plastic crates, stacked one on top of another. They were encrusted with feces, urine and blood. Many were severely dehydrated, while others suffered from injured limbs and eyes. Many were dead. Black garbage bags full of dead and decomposing birds were strewn around the parking lot.

My sister Kristi, a special agent with the ASPCA, was called to the Brooklyn scene early this morning. A makeshift market had been set up in a parking lot selling chickens for the Jewish kaparot ritual, which is observed around Yom Kippur and involves waving a live chicken around one’s head while saying a prayer. These were the leftovers: hundreds of chickens had been abandoned, left to die in the recent stormy weather.

Kristi and several co-workers spent the day at the crime scene gathering evidence and trying to identify and untangle the live birds from the corpses. Almost all of the chickens on the bottom layer of crates had drowned in the flooded parking lot. Despite the enormous number of dead birds, they were able to rescue over 300 live chickens.

Monday, October 17, 2005
This morning a small group of volunteers including Cat Clyne, Sangu Iyer and Lawrence Carter-Long met at the ASPCA in upper Manhattan. We worked with Kristi and a few other officers moving the birds into transport crates and cleaning the basement area where they were temporarily housed. The young birds were filthy and skeletal, their feathers so encrusted with dried feces and urine they were yellowish-brown in color. They were so quiet and still. It was difficult to believe there were more than 300 of them!

We loaded up into vehicles and caravanned the two-plus hours north to Catskill Animal Sanctuary (CAS), where we were able to establish temporary housing for the birds.

Kathy Stevens, director of CAS, and a handful of volunteers including Jenny Brown, director of Woodstock Farm Animal Sanctuary, were awaiting our arrival. Several people had already begun to muck out the barn to convert it into a temporary coop, while others gathered lumber to assemble a makeshift infirmary in the barn’s corner.

We unloaded the crates inside the barn and released the chickens into a sectioned off area. Jenny, Lawrence, Kristi and I sat on overturned buckets, examining and banding bird after bird. Toes were broken. Wings were sprained. Eyes and flesh were torn. Almost all had to be wiped with a soaked cloth to remove the grime encrusting their bodies. They were then handed off to Sangu, who guided them to food and water. Having not drank or eaten in days, she had to make certain the famished birds did not swallow too much or too quickly, and keep an eye out for birds who were severely ill.

Jenny Brown and Cat took over the intensive care unit for the very weak and injured birds. Heating lamps were hung and blankets arranged into soft nests. Jenny administered fluids intravenously, while Cat made sure they were comfortable and warm.

Hours later we were done. We were exhausted. Our noses and sinuses were full of stink and gunk. Many of us began to lose our voices from breathing in the noxious fumes and particles of feathers and dried feces. But the chickens seemed happy. Many were stretching their toes out, cautiously touching their feet to the ground and walking freely for the first time in their lives. Others huddled together, drifting off to sleep. One bird whose eye had been encrusted shut with muck blinked and looked around.

They were fed, free, safe, and if you listened carefully, you could almost hear them purr.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005
I have spent the last few days on the phone trying to secure permanent homes for the birds. Time is running out. CAS and Woodstock Farm Animal Sanctuary can permanently house about two dozen each, but homes for the majority of the birds need to be found—almost 300! I am beyond stressed. My lunch hours are spent sending out email alerts, making calls and searching for homes. I am at a loss.

Friday, October 20, 2005
I struck gold. With the help of Pattrice Jones of Eastern Shore Sanctuary, I have secured homes for 150 of the birds. She will be taking some, so will Karen Davis of United Poultry Concerns, and a Virginian animal rescuer will take some as well. Kristi and I are planning a trip down to the Delmarva Peninsula next week. That’s half spoken for; but at least another 150 to go.

Wednesday, October 25, 2005
We set out on our first trip early this morning. Last night we carefully modified our rental truck with a thick plastic lining, hay, and containers for food and water. We arrived at the Catskill Animal Sanctuary and headed straight for the makeshift chicken barn. We could not believe the difference in the chickens! They had grown tremendously. They were cleaner, their feathers whiter—almost their natural color. And they were rambunctious. Gone were the frail, skeletal birds we had rescued just over a week ago. We loaded up the birds and hit the road. Three peanut butter and banana sandwiches later we crossed into Maryland.

Pattrice and Karen operate sanctuaries on the Delmarva Peninsula, home of the modern chicken industry, home of Frank Perdue. We could not help but feel the irony in transporting Brooklyn birds—from New York!—to an area where over one million chickens are killed every day.

At Eastern Shore Sanctuary, every inch of land is built upon using scraps of timber and chicken wire, donated and fix-me-up coops. There are no gates leading from one pen to the other; cinder block steps allow an easy climb over dividing fences. Discount kiddy pools are perfect for the birds and an old Buick is just the right place to store feed. It reminded me of the sanctuary I grew up on. When I was young, my sisters and I were always coming home with a new addition to the family—Gizmo, a pigmy goat we ‘rescued’ from a petting zoo, a dozen rabbits who just happened to fall off the truck on the way to slaughter, and numerous others—we were constantly coming up with creative ways to expand our barn. This to me is sanctuary life.

As we pulled into one of those do-it-yourself car washes we couldn’t help feeling a sense of relief and accomplishment. They were home. With the help of two bottles of bleach, an industrial broom, and several dozen garbage bags, we began to clean. After two hours of scrubbing, the rental truck never looked or smelled so clean. We returned it to the local rental office and took a bus back to NYC.

When we arrived at Port Authority bus terminal, everyone was dressed for Halloween. We were too. We looked like chicken rescuers. Rubber boots, stained jeans...bits of straw stuck in our mangled hair. We could have easily won a costume contest...except for the fact that we stunk—bad.

Thursday, November 10, 2005
Two weeks later we were on the road again. This time heading for the southern tip of New Jersey and the Popcorn Park Zoo. Don’t let the name confuse you, Popcorn is a refuge for wildlife, exotic and farmed animals that were abused, injured, elderly or exploited.

After a long journey, we eventually made it to Popcorn. We released the chickens into the poultry yard and watched them settle into their new home. It was getting late, but fortunately we were able to take a quick tour of the sanctuary. Lions, tigers, and cows—oh my! On the outside of each pen of rescued animals was an information card telling their story. We met former exotic pets, retired circus animals, and handicapped forest critters. We were told a new card would be added in the morning. It would tell the story of 75 chickens from Brooklyn.

Today
How did this happen? How does a person set up shop in a lot and sell live chickens—in the middle of Brooklyn? Unfortunately, despite a growing concern about the spread of avian influenza, these markets continue to thrive all over the world. New York City is home to more than 90. What are people thinking when they go into these kill shacks to order dinner? As animal rights activists, many of us tell ourselves that people would “get it” if they saw the inside of a factory farm, if they saw a slaughterhouse. Well, if you have ever been inside a live market, you know that they represent these places on a smaller scale: the animals are stacked in cages, they defecate onto one another, and the smell is just as indescribably awful.

And what about the authorities? At most, state or federal inspectors visit a market a few times a year, focusing primarily on public health, rather than the welfare of the animals. With respect to animal cruelty, ASPCA Humane Law Enforcement agents are only dispatched to investigate when a complaint has been made. So is it any wonder that hundreds of unsold birds are simply handled as garbage, as were the Brooklyn birds?

Tomorrow
This rescue has inspired us to learn more and work on behalf of the animals used for food in our city. It occurred to me from the very beginning that there is just no room for rescued farmed animals. Yet there will undoubtedly be more. And we owe it to them to provide homes.

We need an organized network to coordinate and finance the placement, transport and care for future rescues. The city shelters cannot do it—they are not built to accommodate farmed animals and it is not their mission to do so. When hundreds of birds are seized from live markets, fighting rings, and inappropriate backyard settings, who should be responsible for finding homes for them? The ASPCA? NYC Animal Care and Control? Overburdened and under-funded farm animal sanctuaries?

We need to work together and create our own underground railroad from city to sanctuary.

The one thing I take away from this is no matter how difficult, how time-consuming and how stressful it was taking on the responsibility of these 300-plus lives, it simply had to be done—and I would do it again in a heartbeat!

This issue is dedicated to the Brooklyn birds. To the millions of farmed animals who don’t make it, who suffer in silence in the darkest corners of our city. And to the friends who stepped forward to help.

 


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