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February 2006
I Held Them While They Died…
By Lawrence Carter-Long


Lawrence Carter-Long during the recent rescue of the Brooklyn
chickens (see article). Photo by Sangamithra Iyer

“There they were,” the newspaper story began, “3,500 chickens scattered all over the highway. And half a dozen animal rights activists, their feathers ruffled, trying to save the fowl from a foul fate.”

The chickens referred to in the article titled, “I-95 Becomes Chicken Stew” were dumped on a Virginia highway when the truck carrying them took a curve too fast on an Interstate 95 ramp and overturned en route from North Carolina to a slaughter-house in New Jersey. It was August 1995.

As I stepped into the basement of the ASPCA in New York City in October 2005 to help transport the chickens rescued from my current hometown of Brooklyn (see “Brooklyn Birds”, p. 6) to a sanctuary for safe-keeping, the almost forgotten, but never absent memory of that day over ten years earlier came flooding back.

It was the smell that did it. I hadn’t seen the rescued birds yet, but the smell that had remained on my hands for days no matter how many times I washed or showered was exactly as I recalled from a decade before.

It was déjà vu. In the first incident, it all started for me when the phone rang around 12:30 a.m. That was the first clue. Who in hell was calling me at midnight? The person on the other end of the phone was an ex-PETA staffer and housemate of mine. “Dozens of crates,” he explained, “still holding thousands of chickens” were strewn on and along the roadside. They needed help rescuing the remaining birds.

The truck had spilled around noon, but animal activists hadn’t been alerted until five that evening. A handful of individuals went to the site to see if anything could be done for the surviving birds. At that time, most of the chickens were still alive, crammed in small plastic crates used for transportation. Many of them, I discovered later, had been literally cooking alive in the seasonal heat because of the lack of shade available to them along the roadside.

The chickens were headed for a “spent hen” facility, where egg laying chickens are taken to be processed when they are considered past their prime. Those “lucky” enough to be freed from crates by the accident, those who were still alive and able to move, had flocked together in the center of the highway. They were later rounded up and placed on another truck bound for the slaughterhouse.

Not knowing the full scope of what remained ahead, I hurried off to PETA’s Aspen Hill sanctuary to wake the sleeping interns who resided there to ask for their help. A problem with their phone line kept any calls from ringing in. We climbed the ten-foot fence surrounding the property, roused the interns and eventually trekked off to Virginia.

I was not prepared for the enormity of what I witnessed upon arrival. Hundreds of yellow shipping crates were scattered along the side of the now closed off highway ramp. They were covered with excrement and blood. Each was crammed, near full, with six to ten dead and dying birds.

There was the smell of blood, urine and fear all around.

Before I could process the matter further, I was informed volunteers were still needed, but there was no longer much hope of rescuing the animals. The birds were simply too injured, too messed up. Complicating matters further, it was unclear if there was any feasible way to get to all of the birds before the sun rose again and exacerbated the already dire situation.

I was dumbstruck by the realization. The most humane course of action, in this most inhumane of situations, would be to kill the birds suffering the most before sunrise. The owner of the poultry company, who was sleeping in his car at the side of the road nearby, was unwilling to give them up to sanctuaries. Even if the birds had been in decent shape, there was no place either willing or able to house that many birds, especially chickens as messed up as these were, at such short notice.

Up until this point, my involvement in animal liberation had been largely theoretical. I’d debated animal experimenters, gotten arrested more times than I could remember, and worn out shoe after shoe at protest rallies. But here I was, a vegan, Buddhist, animal rights activist who had dedicated his life to promoting compassion, who was forced, by circumstance—no, by the law of supply and demand—to kill.

There was no time to think and after an hour or so, we had little energy left to feel. There were tears at first, but it all quickly became very clinical. With thousands of birds to ‘put down’ before dawn, we had to take action.

We set to organizing the crates first and set up an assembly line system to ‘put the birds down’ as kindly, and efficiently, as possible. Full crates were stacked in front, while empty crates were placed behind the humane officers to house the birds we would have to inject. Inject? Yes, the birds would be killed by lethal injection. Volunteers would recover the wounded chickens, hold them while they received the injection, and place them back into the crates nearest the road as they expired.

Not yet able to deal with the prospect of killing the birds myself, I set about the task of stacking the crates.

More volunteers arrived on the scene around three a.m. They too went to work euthanizing the chickens who hadn’t already died from shock, trauma and lord knows what else.

I went on stacking crates until the job was finished around four a.m.

No more escaping the inevitable. I began filling the syringes with the solution needed to put the chickens down. With daybreak drawing ever near we were now forced to move from crate to crate to crate, lifting out each chicken individually, injecting them and placing them back as they died. I remember wondering how it must’ve been for the still alive birds to be surrounded by other dead and dying chickens, but I continued. There was nothing else to do.

Except lose it. Which I finally did. Storming toward the car of the owner of the farm which was responsible for the mayhem, I screamed that the (insert expletive) was going to realize the carnage he was responsible for. Why were we getting our hands dirty with his mess? He didn’t have the right to sleep through this. He needed to witness what he’d wrought.

But I never made it to his car. Cooler heads prevailed and I was stopped, hugged and brought right back into the eye of the storm. The chickens needed us. To die. We could kick his ass later, I was told.

I forget exactly when, but at some point I stopped filling syringes and began cradling the remaining chickens—one by one—as they died. The chickens who were still alive had to be injected in the middle of their chests. One person would administer the injection, while another held the birds. The chickens, who had probably never known kindness in their short, tortured lives, would shudder at first, sometimes violently, then throw their heads over their backs and look at the person holding them while they died.

I still dream about it.

By dawn, the owner of the poultry company and a few of his employees had begun repacking the crates now filled with dead chickens onto another truck. I remember he was very concerned about getting his crates back. Not once in the ten-plus hours I was there did he or his employees lift a finger to help the birds.

Brooklyn Chickens
And here I was a decade later and the memory, once recalled, remained vivid. I hadn’t realized how much the process of holding the chickens as they were injected, then convulsed and died, affected me until I was reminded as I entered the ASPCA to get my hands dirty once again.

The visceral anger that emerged a decade ago also remains, made even stronger by time and experience.

How nice it must be to sit in an office, munching on McNuggets without a care in the world as to what—or who—went into making your meal.

How nice it must be to sleep through large-scale misery from the safety of your car on the sidelines.

How convenient it must be to shrug off an attempt to end suffering without getting your hands even a little bit dirty.

In the months that have followed my second chicken run, I find myself responding when people ask why I work on behalf of animals, that I do so simply because I must.

With awareness comes the responsibility to speak out—and, more importantly, to act. Especially while people choose to sleep through the suffering, and eat body parts out of buckets and pretend it doesn’t really matter.

Because I’ve lived with the memories that have become so much a part of me, scars that are buried so deep, they don’t have to be remembered to be felt.

I work for animals because of the suffering they endure. The suffering I have seen up close. Because I’ve washed their blood off of my body and my clothes.

Because I’ve smelled their fear and sadness.

Because I held them as they died.


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