Not so long ago, I found myself on the M25 driving with tear-soaked eyes, one of my rescue hens on the back seat. Her name was Razzle and, after two years’ living with me, I rehomed her at Hugletts Farm Sanctuary in East Sussex.
Her story starts long before that as one of billions of chicks hatched in factory facilities every year for the egg industry. She never knew her mother’s warmth or the protection under a maternal wing because Razzle was not an individual – she didn’t matter to anyone. She was a cog in the egg industry machine; unlike cows, pigs or sheep, she was not even worthy of a number to trace her existence. She was created only to lay eggs and then to be eaten – ex-laying hens’ bodies are eventually sold for low-grade meat products and pet food – making as much money as possible from her short span on Earth.
Her first test of survival came on the first day of her life. Having been born in a plastic tray under artificial conditions, she was tossed onto a conveyor belt to be sexed – boys to one side (to be killed because they are useless to the egg industry) and girls to the factory. She was then thrust face first in to a de-beaker, where a sharp blade cut the tip of her beak off. The industry knows that her life ahead will be short and stressful, so to prevent her from harming other hens though frustration and trauma it blunts their beaks to prevent injuries from pecking. This is a much cheaper and quicker solution than providing them with a less stressful life. She survived this extraordinarily painful and sadistic act – but she would have suffered so much pain instead of being tucked up safely under her mother’s wings.
When she felt the first raindrops on her confused little face, she ran back into her coop, then shyly popped her head out to try and make sense of all these new sights, smells and feelings – the things you and I take for granted.
For the first few months, while maturing to egg-laying age, she was imprisoned in a huge barn. Not a wooden barn with straw, doors flung open and bales of hay to explore, but a windowless, stinking hell-hole where she was crammed in with thousands of other terrified birds. She would not have been able to spread her wings or act on any other instincts that her body was fighting to do such as forage, dust-bathe and perch high up. At best, she could simply turn around for food and water to stay alive. At around five months old, she began to produce eggs. Many don’t make it this far but she did, all the way up to 74 weeks when the hens, now spent from laying in these conditions, are routinely slaughtered before illness takes up in them.
Out of the thousands in her batch who had survived to this point, she was – for no reason other than that she and a few others were within arm’s reach – lifted out of the factory facilities and placed in a van that would take her to her freedom. Those remaining were thrown onto crates, often breaking their wings or suffering other painful injuries. No one cares and no one is accountable. Up to 10 thousand birds at a time are caged and loaded onto a single truck to endure a hellish journey – those at the bottom will have the added indignity of urine and faeces dripping down on them from the birds above. Finally, they are pulled out and hung upside down and killed in the last act of violence against them. Their story ends here.
She had grown massive spurs and her aggression had become too extreme. It was time to let her go.
When I met Razzle she was bald, traumatised and untrusting of humans, something she hasn’t overcome – and who can blame her? As I brought her home to Croydon with two of her sisters, I didn’t think she would last the night. I told myself that one day of freedom is better than nothing. Her first moments on soil rather than wire mesh were undoubtedly special, but she was overwhelmed and spent two weeks hiding in her coop, her head drooping.
Her two sisters – Peri and Plum – began to thrive, exploring the garden, learning to avoid the dog, and spreading their wings in the sun. But Razzle was fragile. We took it one day at a time, and soon enough her feathers started to push through and her comb to turn red: she was getting stronger. I remember the first time she felt a breeze on her bum: she turned around startled, as if to say ‘Who did that?’ When she felt the first raindrops on her confused little face, she ran back into her coop, then shyly popped her head out to try and make sense of all these new sights, smells and feelings – the things you and I take for granted. If I needed to pick her up to tend to her wounds, her whole body trembled with fear.
The micro-brood was headed by Peri, a great firm, forgiving (she loved a cuddle!) and fair leader, but sadly she passed away just under a year later and Razzle – having transformed from a fragile shy girl to a rather fierce tyrant – took over as the boss. She was awful! Long gone was the frightened girl at death’s door. It took about five to six months for her to heal physically. Now she was fighting, pecking, guarding the food and water and just letting the whole world know she was now strong and not taking any crap from anyone ever again.
Another year on and she was up at dawn crowing her head off, much to my horror (and no doubt that of my neighbours), and chasing the dog around the garden. She became a real handful and bullied the newest hens to the point of drawing blood. I wondered for some time if she was a cockerel, because sexing chicks is a very speedy process so it’s not unknown for some boys to slip through the system. She had grown massive spurs and her aggression had become too extreme. It was time to let her go.
She has the space and freedom that’s is unthinkable for a battery hen.
As I drove her to Hugletts, with many more tears than I was expecting, I realised that it wasn’t me who had helped this little hen: she had rescued me. A few years before I homed Razzle I had had to say goodbye to my mother who had suffered years of living with a terrible terminal illness that took her away from me piece by piece. Helplessly watching her turn from a strong, feisty woman into a tiny shadow of her former self destroyed me. Only now, years later, have I realised how much this little chicken helped heal me by allowing me to care for her and help her in the ways I was unable to help my mother. I am just so grateful to Razzle for allowing me to give her a home to heal and to watch her get strong – something I had so desperately tried to do with my mum.
We humans often seek friendship, comfort and love from dogs and cats, but treat chickens so badly, condemning them to their fate of being seen as just a meal or a thing that ‘gives’ us her eggs. Every single chicken stuck right now in a hatchery, factory or even a truly commercial free-range facility (for they all are born and die in the same terrible way and free range is often anything but) has feelings. They feel pain and fear as well as comfort and joy, and they should not be born just to suffer for our greed, whether they are chickens bred for meat or eggs.
Although I’m very sad to have had to let Razzle go, I can’t help but smile at the thought of her running around Hugletts, and being put in her place by the cockerels. When I dropped her off, I watched her interact with one of the calves who had come to greet her and then scratch away by their sides in the hay before Matthew gently lifted Razzle up to show her her new coop. She has the space and freedom that’s is unthinkable for a battery hen. I have never seen her so content in a human’s arms before – she looked peaceful at last.
This post is dedicated to the 40 million egg-laying hens killed in the UK every single year* – I’m sorry you never had a chance. To help these animals, please don’t buy eggs or products with eggs in. See veganuary.com for free help and advice on going vegan.
To learn more about the egg industry, click here.
To donate to Hugletts so they can continue taking in animals and give them a forever home you can donate via paypal “firstname.lastname@example.org”
* Source: Viva https://www.viva.org.uk/faceoff/eggs/laying-hen-factsheet