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.
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
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
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
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
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
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.