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February 2006
I Know Why the Caged Birds Scream
By Pattrice Jones

 

The Bird Rescuer. Original artwork by Sue Coe
Patty Mark and Debra Tantra. Photo: Geelong Advertiser/Mike Dugdale

Three women walked past the electrified fence and onto the Happy Hens Egg World compound, which confines 220,000 hens in rusty cages 60 miles west of Melbourne, Australia. As the women began documenting the deplorable conditions in the sheds, videotaping the sights and sounds of crowded birds in constant misery, they were set upon by seven male employees of the egg factory, demanding they leave. The women agreed to leave voluntarily but the men attacked them anyway, pushing and shoving them through the dim and dusty shed.

Hearing her comrade cry out in distress, one of the activists grabbed the wall of the shed and said that she would not leave without her friend. The youngest worker grabbed both her breasts and squeezed them hard, putting his mouth next to her ear and snarling, “that made you move, didn’t it?” She screamed and fell on the floor. The men grabbed her by the ankles and dragged her body along the length of the grimy walkway.

“During moments like this funny thoughts pop into your head,” she said later. “Every time I enter a battery hen shed, the noise of hens screaming is almost deafening. I silently stare into their cages documenting via video their suffering. As I was being dragged along the floor by my feet, I remember looking up at five tiers of cages and all the hens were completely silent, their necks were stretching out of their cages and their eyes were looking down on me. I was the one screaming and they were witnessing my suffering.”

By the end of the ordeal, animal rescue team member Debra Tranter was covered in filth and bruises. Pictures of her and Animal Liberation Victoria (ALV) founder Patty Mark leaving the scene show strong women shaken by a traumatic experience. Nonetheless, their first press statement after the incident stressed their ongoing determination to protect and rescue hens. Some days later, they went back to the same shed and did so, dodging guard dogs and barbed wire, to rescue as many hens as they could carry away into the night.

Unhappy Hens
Most of the eggs eaten by people come from hens caged in egg factories, who spend their days standing on sloped mesh in cages so small that the birds crowded into them cannot open their wings or even lie down comfortably. They are fed just enough to keep them laying eggs and not one iota more. Dim lighting and the constant cries of birds in distress create a sense of chaos. Ammonia from the manure pits below the tiers of cages hangs heavily in the air.

Animals deprived of everything that is natural to them behave unnaturally. Deprived of freedom, normal social relations, and cognitive stimulation, birds may vent their frustrations on themselves or each other. To prevent economic losses from this, the people who run egg factories burn off the tips of the birds’ beaks in a painful and disfiguring operation known as “debeaking.”

In the U.S. right now, 270 million birds are caged in egg factories—sprawling complexes in which as many as 250,000 birds may be confined in each building, and a total of more than a million birds at the mercy of men like those who assaulted Patty Mark and Debra Tranter.

Numbers can be numbing. 270 million is too many to contemplate. Imagine a single hen crowded with seven others in the middle of a battery of cages containing thousands of others. Imagine you are that hen.

Have you ever been bored? Frustrated? Uncomfortable? Cranky? Imagine yourself crowded into a cage, often thirsty and always a little hungry, with nothing to do other than jostle your cage-mates. They’re not your friends—they’re your competitors. There’s never enough space and never enough food for everybody to feel satisfied. You can’t ever get comfortable. There’s no place to go to get away from each other. And there’s never anything to do!

One of your cage-mates keeps screaming. She won’t shut up! Another is slumped in a stupor. She won’t move out of the way! Somebody else is dying. No—she’s dead. Your eyes burn. Your feet throb. Your wings ache to open. You can’t turn around or lie down. You wait.

Ten minutes. Five hours. Three weeks. Eight months. Two years. Two years you may wait for relief from the tedium and pain. Then the cage opens but you are not released. Instead you are trucked to a painful and terrifying death at a slaughter factory or, if no buyer has been found for your bedraggled body, simply buried alive in a landfill.

Animal Liberators to the Rescue
The July 2005 ALV raid on Happy Hens Egg World was what’s known as an “open rescue.” Open rescue teams do not mask themselves or their intentions. They record every phase of the process of saving animals who are in dire need of food, water, or veterinary care. They replace any locks that they break and sometimes call to ask the police for help in taking abused animals to safety. If they end up in court, they use the “necessity defense,” arguing that any crime they committed (such as trespass) was justified by the need to prevent a greater crime and using the trial as an opportunity to get evidence of extreme yet routine cruelty to animals into the public record.

First used by an ALV team in Australia in 1992, the tactic of open rescue has since spread to several European countries and U.S. states. The German organization Befreite Tiere (Liberated Animals) has undertaken 36 open rescues in the past two years, rescuing 1,031 hens, ducks, geese and pigs along the way. In Sweden, a group calling itself Raddningstjansten (The Liberation Service) has coordinated a series of raids on egg factories. In one, four activists calling themselves “Action Group Pippi” (after the character Pippi Longstocking) took 60 hens from cages, leaving behind a letter for the farmer. In the U.S., local organizations such as Mercy for Animals of Ohio and the Animal Protection and Rescue League of California have used the open rescue method to document abuses at egg factories.

Still photos and video footage gathered during open rescues alert activists and the public to the atrocities that go on behind closed doors in factory farms, puppy mills and vivisection labs. The brave animal advocates who break into these houses of horror risk their own safety and sanity, confronting unthinkable cruelty and unspeakable suffering, to bring abused animals and their stories into the sunshine.

On the night of the incidents at Happy Hens Egg World, Patty Mark was still awake and shaky at two a.m. In the weeks following her assault, Debra Tranter wrestled with depression and struggled with questions about the futility of her activism. Both say that the expressions of empathy and solidarity that poured in from animal advocates around the world kept them afloat during the difficult days following their misadventure.

Solidarity Against Sexual Abuse
Debra Tranter was not the first woman sexually assaulted at an egg factory (nor the first woman sexually assaulted while trying to protect or rescue animals). In 2002, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission determined that supervisors employed by DeCoster Farms, which had egg factories in Iowa and Maine, sexually assaulted several female employees. Because the women were undocumented workers, their supervisors were able to use threats to keep them silent and compliant in the face of sexual exploitation.

That kind of behavior should come as no surprise. Debra Tranter is perhaps in the best position to explain why. In the moment of the sexual assault, she says, “as well as feeling shocked and violated I also felt in complete solidarity with the caged hens surrounding me. These men knew how to abuse, manipulate, and terrorize to get what they want. They wanted me to leave the shed the quickest way possible, so they abused and terrorized me to get me out. They want the hens’ eggs, so they cage and torment them in order to get what they want the easiest and quickest way possible.”

Why grab Debra Tranter’s breasts rather than more quickly muscling her out the door? The hens and the dairy cows can tell us. To break an animal’s spirit, you must first steal from her the sense that she controls her own body. These animals and the more than a million children held in sex slavery are the living legacy of the days when all female animals—human and nonhuman alike—were chattel.

Fat cow. Silly hen. We use animals to insult women and project our ideas about passive femininity onto them. The result is to reduce the female animal to a body whose reproductive powers can be controlled and appropriated by men.

Thanks to thousands of years of using every trick in the book to control the reproduction of other animals, we people have got sex and power all mixed up. Young men confuse rape for consensual sex. Young women see their own bodies as objects to barter and then put themselves down for doing so.

That’s one part of the process that leads so many women to believe the lies about themselves and other animals. Women buy the groceries in most households. They’re the ones buying the eggs and milk of other females to feed their children, many of whom may themselves be sexually abused.

But some women stand in solidarity with the hens and the cows. They refuse to allow themselves or other animals to be reduced to meat. Like Patty Mark and Debra Tranter, they feel afraid but act anyway. In so doing, they liberate themselves—and us—along with the animals. And they deserve nothing less than our fullest support.

Pattrice Jones is coordinator of the Eastern Shore Sanctuary and Education Center (www.bravebirds.org). Visit www.alv.org.au for more information about Animal Liberation Victoria and www.openrescue.org to learn more about open rescues.

 

 


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