Zach Groff

Published on:

November 3, 2016

How I Went From Buying Cage-Free Eggs to Rescuing the Chickens Who’re Exploited for Them

by Paul Darwin Picklesimer

"Can you be around tomorrow night?"


“Okay, let’s plan on being here at 6pm and we’ll go over some things.”

“Sounds good. See you then.”

With that, and after months of training, I’m set to participate in an open investigation with Direct Action Everywhere’s Open Rescue Network. We’re driving down a dark road when the smell hits us. The light mood in the SUV darkens as a “dairy farm” approaches. Through my backseat window I spy hundreds of eerie silhouettes. All mothers, standing in the dirt. Some of their stolen calves are in nearby pens. More are miles away. More yet have already been killed. I think about the injustice and the individuals as we drive past then I snap back to the moment. Twenty minutes out. We park and sit in relative silence for a while. A lookout notes any activity at the cage-free egg facility down the road. We go over our roles one last time then slip through a barbed wire fence and embark on our path through the grove. As we walk carefully through the darkness I catch myself enjoying the stars and the moonlight. I love hiking at night. If only I had a sleeping bag and camp stove on my back instead of a camera. We’re on our way to hell.

Our pace slows as we reach a brightly lit area in front of the long metal barn. A lookout radios a warning that a vehicle has turned in to the farm. We’ll hold our position for 15 minutes to look and listen for activity. Time passes and there’s no movement aside from a coyote or fox scuttling from one shadow to another. We hike around a lagoon on our way to one of the two largest barns on the farm. A giant exhaust vent fan kicks on and blows out the hot scent of feed, shit and death. I try to prepare myself for what I’m about to walk into. Thousands of hens are imprisoned behind these walls. Three of us suit up in disposable coveralls, gloves and shoe covers while another prepares to be a lookout. After hours of researching, scouting and planning, we’re about to see where and who millions of Costco’s cage-free eggs come from.

We open the door and walk in to a fight. Our headlamps and cameras turn to our left in time to see a hen being viciously attacked by their sibling. They’re pinned at the bottom of a chain-link wall, crying out in distress as their attacker rages in a blur of flapping wings and pecking beak. Everyone’s beak has been partially seared off when they were just chicks, but as we’d soon see, blunted beaks can still be deadly.

Our presence startles the attacker away and the victim hobbles off shortly after. They’re hurt and we wonder if they’ll survive much longer, but before we can help, they’re gone… enveloped by a crowed cluster of frightened children. I’m frightened too. The event temporarily took my breath away and now that it’s back, I’m overwhelmed by the air itself. I can see, smell and taste it. I can’t imagine breathing it for 18-24 months - the time these little hens will spend here before being sent to the killing facility.

A brief calm comes after the fight until silence gives way to hundreds of synchronized coos interspersed with outbreaks of frantic squawks. Shining a light down an isle reveals what looks like a tunnel of flesh.

Closer inspection finds sickness, injury and filth everywhere. Dead hens lay among the living, some cannibalized. Extreme crowding leads to scores of hens covered in feces. The fact I must pay attention to camera focus, framing and lighting as I document grants me a measure of emotional protection. I can only look through the viewing screen for so long though. Eventually I make eye contact with someone.

They’ve never seen the sun, or walked in the grass, but on the bottom of the rack near the back of the barn we see Ella. Ella's featherless, cowering and caked in waste. We decide that Ella's not staying here another night. I gently take Ella into my arms and head back to the entrance. Along the way my heart breaks for each little child who isn’t coming with us. We wish we could take everyone out, but for now, Ella will have to serve as their ambassador. We’ll share Ella's story. We’ll show everyone where Ella came from and ask if that looks like the farm on the egg carton. We’ll show everyone what Ella's siblings are going through and we’ll show them how Ella lives the life they deserve today. We’ll show Ella's first steps in the sun, first bath (which Ella loved), healing and friends in the sanctuary that is Ella's new home.

A couple team members drive Ella straight to a veterinary doctor. I and a few others drive home. When I climb into bed around 4am it dawns on me that five years ago I was buying “humane” eggs, but now, thanks to Direct Action Everywhere, I’m helping us all see that there’s no such thing. Hard-working activists from other great advocacy groups will continue urging animal exploitation industries to take more incremental steps, while we’ll keep showing the world that none of them will ever be enough.

Violence, suffering and injustice are absolutely inherent whenever persons are reduced to products and we’ll keep fighting until everyone is free!