It wasn’t an easy decision, to leave the comforting suburban bosom for Salt Spring Island, chasing the dream of a better life. Trevor and I had spent long hours conjuring up the perfect island existence; a large acreage, raising animals on a hobby farm, making homemade bread, going for long walks with our Golden Retriever running ahead on the island trails. We dreamed of bright stars staining a dark night.

The first week on Salt Spring Island, our house deal fell through and our dog was diagnosed with advanced lymphoma. We managed to find a rambling house to rent, tucked on a ridge, surrounded by several Arbutus-covered acres. We had our starry nights, but the rest of our dream tore apart.

Free time was soon filled with veterinary visits, cancer research, cooking homemade dog food while our dying friend became more ethereal with each passing day. The cancer steadily eating its way through muscle and body mass.

Maybe it was the call of the wild, or just the call of compassion, but slowly other injured creatures started coming our way. A battered mouse with a gaping hole in its side, dropped on our porch by a disappointed-looking Grey Owl. We brought it inside, safe from a neighbor’s circling cat, comforting the tiny creature while it passed. Next was the majestic Northern Flicker with its window-bruised head. We placed the stunned creature in a dark box, waiting until the swelling went down. It flew away a few hours later, seeming none the worse for its experience.

We weren’t looking for more wounded creatures when a friend passed on a request from an animal sanctuary seeking homes for a 100 hens. The hens had been rescued from a local battery egg farm.

It was an impulse call.

I spoke with the animal sanctuary and offered to accommodate 10 of the hens. We busily, and excitedly, prepared for ‘our girls’ to arrive, building a coop, purchasing straw and other supplies, reading up about raising organic chickens. I was confident, my family had kept vibrant Rhode Island Reds for most of my life, I knew chickens.

But I didn’t know these chickens.

There they stood, huddled together, large areas of feathers missing, angry raw patches on their necks and backsides, some with naked wings devoid of feathers, the remnants of beaks long burnt off. One hen had blue mold growing on its side and neck, another with open sores snaking up its spine, another jammed in the corner, a leg twisted into a claw, shaking in fear. One fragile hen had so few feathers its pink skin seemed translucent.

I tell myself that people don’t know about the reality of factory farming or they blindly trust their eggs come from a more humane farm, like the ones in the pictures.

I had to look away, their misery, their suffering, so palpable in the warm sunshine. I couldn’t help thinking of what the gentle Mahatma Gandhi once said, ‘The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.’

We did some research and were dismayed to learn that in Canada there are more than 26 million egg-laying hens. The USA has more than 10 times that amount, with an estimated 285 million egg-producing hens. In North America most of these hens live in factory farms, the animal equivalent of a concentration camp.

With about 8x11 inches allotted per egg-laying hen, the creatures are placed in wire battery cages at 18 weeks old, stacked tier upon tier in warehouses, they can’t turn around nor spread their wings, their beaks are burnt off without anesthetic or painkillers, fed heavily medicated pellets, they never see sunlight or walk on the ground. Battery hens are kept alive until they are roughly two years old, and once their usefulness has ended, they are slaughtered.

I tell myself that people don’t know about the reality of factory farming or they blindly trust their eggs come from a more humane farm, like the ones in the pictures. I think of the old adage: ‘If slaughterhouses had glass walls we would all be vegetarian’. I amend that to: ‘If battery farms had glass walls, we wouldn’t eat eggs’.

The hens are doing as well as can be expected. Some will recover and some won’t. Three of the 10 continue to stand, like bad children, knotted in the corner of the coop, eyes closed, refusing to budge and trembling when we get too close. I worry they have been driven to madness from their ordeal. Some take enormous stumbling steps like they are walking on the moon. Others despite their wounds seem determined to live.

I don’t know how many will survive the winter, but their remaining time will be free of suffering. For some people these hens are just egg machines, for us they are sentient beings that have been to hell and back. We can see the suffering in their eyes and inscribed on their damaged bodies.

Each evening when we close their pen door against the night, I think of the Tennessee Williams’ quote, ‘A prayer for the wild at heart, kept in cages’. Maybe we’ll write this over the coop door.

Valerie Williams is a writer living on Salt Spring Island, Canada.

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