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October 1995
Double Jeopardy on the Road to Hell

By Julie Beckham



I am active in the struggle for animal rights. I write letters, staff exhibits, attend and organize demonstrations, coordinate media coverage for United Poultry Concerns (UPC) events, etc. I have adopted companion animals from shelters and rescued cats and a chicken from the roadside. But never until Thursday, August 25, 1995, have I witnessed so vividly and personally the suffering and terror that millions of farm animals experience every day. Around 11:00 am on that day, with temperatures soaring near 100°F, a speeding truck transporting approximately 3,500 chickens overturned on an I-95 exit ramp in Springfield, Virginia, just south of Washington, DC.

These particular chickens were 16 month old “broiler-breeder” hens who were on their way from North Carolina to a spent fowl slaughterhouse in West New York, New Jersey. Their journey had actually started many hours, possibly days, before with the complete withdrawal of food and water. Sometime Wednesday evening, a catching crew had violently grabbed the birds and stuffed them into crates. Their bodies exhibited many wounds and injuries, from raw backs seething with traces of blood and other fluids, to broken legs and wings.

The weight of the truck immediately crushed at least 300 chickens, thus ending their life of pain. Virginia Department of Transportation workers arrived and quickly stuffed all loose chickens back inside the crates. A Fairfax County Animal Control Officer came and went. The United States has no federal laws regulating poultry transport. The Animal Welfare Act excludes transportation of animals used for food and fiber and the 28 Hour Law of 1906 that requires livestock in transit to receive food, water, and rest every 28 hours applies to rail and ships, not trucks. At least 30 million chickens are trucked to slaughter every day.

I first learned about the accident from a radio broadcast. All media to my knowledge initially covered the incident with snide and insulting remarks about the chickens. While I tried to get a UPC representative on site, Karen Davis, UPC President, issued press releases to the wire services and local media decrying the irresponsible reporting and urging responsible coverage. The first activists on site were Mary and Joan Duffy, UPC members and incorporators of Riverside Rescue, a non-profit cat rescue group. After a highway worker informed them that they could not take chickens from the crushed crates, Joan took three chickens saying, “So arrest me then!” These birds are now in the loving care of Lynn Halpern and David Welch in Frederick, Maryland. Meanwhile, animal rights activists continued to arrive from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), Action for Animals Network, and UPC.

Chickens were stuffed inside crates that were stacked five to seven high in endless rows. Bottom and middle crates had mounds of droppings, blood, and broken eggs from the chickens above, and little air. Each crate held 5-8 chickens. Temperatures climb dramatically when birds are loaded in crates. For example, temperatures at 48-50°F will climb to 55-60° in transit and soar to 85° during stops for as little as an hour. In each crate the bodies of dead and dying chickens were suffocating the living ones. Our plan was to caravan as many chickens as possible to UPC and other temporary shelters. While highway workers and Virginia State Troopers kept guard to ensure we didn’t get away with valuable merchandise, highway workers joined our instinctual attempt to preserve lives by hosing the birds with water every 30-60 minutes while we unstacked as many crates as possible. The dreadful question ever present was, were we only extending their lives so more nuggets and soup could be produced? Meanwhile at the far end of the holding site, Karen Davis, Debbie Becker, and Lynn Halpern quickly loaded 13 chickens into their cars and drove them to safety. Those birds are now permanent residents at UPC’s sanctuary.

The hot day wore on. Birds continued to die in the heat. About 9pm, three Fairfax County Animal Control Officers came to the holding site. The troopers told us the final fate of the chickens was up to the Officers. Their decision was to separate the dead chickens from the living, to inspect each living chicken, to euthanize the sickest, and to send the remaining birds on to slaughter. We began pulling dead bodies out of the crates and placing them in massive piles. One chicken could not even lift her own head. A caring PETA activist cradled the dying chicken in her arms carefully holding her head upright. She was the first to be euthanized. About this time, more PETA support arrived, including a veterinarian.

The owner and a fresh truck showed up a half hour later. Walking toward the Animal Control Officers, the owner showed his complete contempt for the birds by hopping across the tops of the crates, further crushing the raw and bloody backs of all those inside. The troopers then kept the owner and slaughter employees away from the birds as Officers and activists continued searching through the bodies.

Meanwhile, the media began changing their reporting angle. When I first arrived on site at 7 pm, the local CBS news station interviewed me and aired the first sympathetic story of the day. John Fountain, a Washington Post staff writer, spent over two hours on site and was so moved by the pitiful shape of these chickens that he wrote a sympathetic follow-on-story about United Poultry Concerns and the rescued birds. By the next day, the news media were referring to animal rights activists as “animal caretakers,” and two additional TV stations aired sympathetic stories about the sad plight of these birds.

This media success occurred by turning our words into action. Fairfax Animal Control Officers, Washington Humane Society staff, and PETA staff and volunteers assisted with the euthanasia effort until 10:30 am Friday. Over 3,200 chickens were spared the return journey to the slaughterhouse. I am still haunted by the smell of birds dying miserably in the heat. I can still see their blood and the endless piles of crates and bodies. Most of all, I still see their eyes as they died.

Julie Beckham
is an animal activist who lives in Washington DC. She works with the Federal Government, volunteers with United Poultry Concerns, and is the proud companion of two dogs and six cats.


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