The inside story of an ALF raid to rescue battery hens
- Published: 12 March 2011
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Why do some people take the law into their own hands, shirking conformity and risking everything to liberate animals from abuse and torture? Longtime Animal Liberation Front activist Keith Mann, who’s spent several years in British jails, shares his account of a raid on a battery hen complex in the UK, offering an insight into the motivations of those who engage in illegal direct action.
13 March 2011
Somewhere in the Hampshire countryside…
It is cold, very, very dark and eerily silent except for the sound of wild animals scurrying about in the undergrowth. There are rats everywhere, but nothing compared to the numbers inside the buildings.
They aren’t really the focus of anyone’s attention, though it’s hard to ignore them as they run over some of the humans squatting on their territory. This is less than a fun night out for any of this team, but for two or three silent sufferers in the undergrowth waiting for word to move in, this is a living nightmare.
Not bad out of 16 people! How many friends can you persuade to hide up in a dark, spooky remote woodland late at night with rats scuttling around, and with worse yet to come? Bet you wouldn’t find many takers!
And it isn’t just that you have to trust wild rats—you have to trust your work mates, and be certain that they don’t mind running the risk of spending some time in prison as a reward, and not dropping you in it.
This is southern England, Good Friday, circa 2004. Within this isolated woodland are hidden volunteers from the Animal Liberation Front.
Also hidden from the outside world are three huge warehouses and a stench like no other. Inside the stinking warehouses, there are so many female chickens in cages stacked in rows you would be literally overcome by the stench before you could count them.
All are incarcerated in egg units laying Farm Fresh Eggs to fill supermarket shelves with cheap chicken’s periods. No one cares enough to do anything about what goes on here except for the small group on site and others of a like mind who not only boycott the product, but break these birds out to take them to a better life.
That we allow this form of mass cruelty to take place is a gross indictment of our claim to being a sophisticated society of animal lovers and this farm is far from an isolated case. Such units can contain tens of thousands of juvenile red hens, descendants of the red jungle fowl of Southeast Asia.
Its modern incarcerated cousin is exploited to the absolute extreme. Back in the 1970s these ‘chicken sheds’, as these monstrous places are so called, could hide endless double-decker buses so vast was their size and this mass exploitation has been expanding ever since.
One of the earliest rescue raids on just such a chicken shed not a million miles from here was carried out by six friends who met at an animal welfare meeting in the south of England in 1975; seen as rather eccentric then, in today’s society they would be described by animal farmers, the mainstream media and politicians as ‘extremists’.
Overnight, they became ‘activists’, endlessly on the lookout for the animal abuse about which they were so outraged. One Sunday afternoon, they simply parked their cars on a grass verge, climbed over a gate, walked across a field to the rear of a farm in Hampshire—‘the county of cruelty’ as one called it—and unbolted the first shed door they came to.
The scene was exactly the same then as it is now, 30 years later. Same county, different farm. Countless birds crammed in cages sounding decidedly unhappy. Fearful of being shot or caught by an angry farmer, and with only a few homes secured, the group were out of there with a bird each in less than 15 minutes.
It took that long because the wretched cages wouldn’t open. It’s a lesson many budding rescuers have had to learn on the job through experience: all the cage doors are different! They all agreed afterwards that they could have rescued more had they been calmer at the time but it was a start—the start of something bigger: animal rights ‘extremism’!
It was a simple but effective thing to do, and it was to be done again and again, with activists taking more and more time to rescue more and more birds. Battery hens: plentiful, uncomplicated and exploited mercilessly have inspired generations of activists to overstep the boundaries of legitimate protest.
The Good Friday raiders have to wait until the last of the workers have gone home for the night before moving in, but it’s essential to act quickly the moment it’s safe. There’s a lot of work to do.
Bizarrely, it is still possible to simply open the doors to some of these units and walk in. Such is the sprawl of filth and the death; it appears it simply isn’t worth locking the doors. One would surely want to hide this grotesque example of how to do something bad badly, but stuck out in the middle of nowhere with only fields and a clump of trees around the stinking, infested shit storage units, who’s going to look?
No one in his or her right mind would voluntarily go inside. As long as eggs keep coming out, nothing else matters.
Only a small number of activists are prepared to wade through the waste pits below the cages. Occasionally the farmer will drive a tractor in to scoop out the mountain of droppings, dead birds and broken eggs and scatter them on his fields, but aside from that, this is a hidden world.
As soon as the last of the workers have driven down the track and out of the woodland, balaclavas are adjusted and people emerge from their hiding places. Until two hours earlier, most didn’t even know what they would be doing; they just knew they would be needed.
It’s never a pleasant experience confronting cruelty, but as difficult as it is for some to deal with, the pain of trying is easier than doing nothing. Opening the rotten wooden door at the base of the first unit exposes a fresh nightmare for those with a phobia for rats. Those who’d previously been to reccy the site had warned them about this, but for all that, their description failed to impart the true picture.
There’s almost no describing the full horror of the scenes inside these units.
The smell is the first thing that hits you and it does quite literally hit you. Imagine the accumulated festering waste of thousands of chickens piled high. There’s waste below the cages for as far as torchlight can see, the peaks are like the Alps rising toward the sky.
Above them are the pale feet of baby birds, their toes on wire above the mess and a thick mass of grey, ancient cobwebs around the cages and girders and walls, forming like a second skin on the structure of the building, hanging in the dank air.
Underneath and on top of the compacted waste are thousands of rats; the floor seems to move with them; they are the floor. They stop and stare and scurry, looking for food, fallen crumbs, eggs, dead chickens. They run into your legs and over your feet. They run over piles of feathers scattered among the waste.
One rat stands on top of a pile and looks down at the intruders. The pile of feathers is a live bird fallen from a cage, but she’s been down there some time and has no life left in her to complain. She might be stuck or starving or injured—who cares? Her head stays firmly buried in her chest. The rat thought her a good vantage point so she’s good for something.
The birds resign themselves to their fate. There’s not a lot they can do about it; there’s nowhere to run, nowhere to hide and no way out. You fall down there, you die down there. Unless you are one of the lucky ones that gets to meet an ‘extremist.’
The team first split into working groups to comb each of the pits for the fallen birds who have slipped the net during loading, round up or escaped from broken cages. Only the farmhands know how they get there and they don’t give a damn.
It’s hard to tell at first glance whether a bundle of feathers in the dirt is alive or dead. Many get huge weights of congealed waste stuck to their legs rendering them unable to move, so they just sit there until they die. There are birds at every level of life, death and decomposition in these pits.
Some are just able to blink in the torchlight—that close to death—either weighted to the spot or caught in a deep pool of sodden waste formed under a dripping water pipe. Slowly rotting to death. It’s no reward for the huge obligation demanded from them at a few weeks of age.
It’s enough to direct someone with faultless enthusiasm to elicit the rescue of these birds, but it isn’t that easy according to Leah, a 17-year-old trainee dental nurse on her first raid. Her older sister who does this kind of thing routinely has asked her along. Leah writes later:
It took us so long going through our unit, the third one, because of the amount of water in there. We thought it must have been the same in them all but I realised later we got the short straw! It was like wading through quicksand.
The four of us got stuck up to our knees more than once and we had to keep rescuing each other and our boots! The worst of it was spending ages struggling through to a bird in the distance only to find it was dead.
One I waded through to was ninety percent sunk with only her blinking eye to attract me, but she died in my arms. She was tiny and weighed nothing. I guess her dream came true and someone came to take her to the sunny farmyard she’d heard was pictured on the side of the egg boxes, but it was too much for her little body to cope with. It was the saddest thing I think has ever happened to me.
It made me feel so proud to be with all those other people, really different people, all working really hard to save some chickens. I was brought up to think about all life. My old school friends mostly eat meat and just don’t care; they just wouldn’t understand why anyone would bother stopping eating chicken, never mind doing this!
But when you see it for real, you can’t turn away. Gina (not her real name) had tried to keep me away from this side of being an ‘animal lover’ to protect me, but I needed to experience something like this to make me realise what I need to do with my life. Fixing people’s teeth isn’t going to be it! You can smell the meat inside people, you know!
There are dozens of living birds in each of the pits and many more dead ones. There are little colonies of black beetles in and under the corpses, the floor beneath them alive as they recoil en masse from the torchlight back into the shit.
The surviving birds are the first to be loaded into bread crates and piled in the back of one of the vehicles backed up to the entrance doors. It’s cramped and will be like that for a few hours, but it’s five-star accommodation compared to what they have had to endure so far in their short lives.
By the time the Unit 3 team gets back to Unit 1, someone has cut a big hole in the caging above the pits near the doors where the waste isn’t so deep. Birds are being passed down and transferred into big bright coloured plastic laundry bags, four or five in each one. The only colour in this dreadful place.
There is a human conveyor belt of bags and birds moving gradually from cages to crates to who knows where. Do they know these humans have good intentions, or is this it: that terrible, final journey to the slaughterhouse?
There is a lookout posted in the woods by the gate, but no one is expected to return to the farm until early in the morning. Everyone has a lot to lose should they be caught red-handed in the middle of a ‘conspiracy’—not least the owners of the horseboxes on site loaned on a promise they will be returned safely—but the work is being done at a careful, steady, relaxed pace.
Rushing things is a waste of valuable energy and besides, these birds are fragile. According to reports and observations, many birds suffer at least one broken bone during the round up for slaughter and whilst they are unloaded at the other end. No one along that route cares, that’s for sure.
Upstairs among the cages, the miserable individual stories are far outnumbering those down below. ‘How many can we take?’ is Leah’s first hopeful query, after she has been helped up to the aisles to do a shift.
There’s no way you can take them all without far more hands or far more time. There are just too many and they’re stacked up high, huddled five to a cage. Perhaps less if cage mates have died, leaving space to stretch a little, perhaps something soft to stand on for a while.
But which ones do you take? The first you come to seems to be the best method, that way you don’t beat yourself up choosing who gets to spend the next 10 years pottering around pecking and chasing moths and who gets shipped to the slaughterhouse physically worn out and traumatised to be brutally killed.
It’s a cruel world, but whose fault is that? Surely not the fault of vegan ‘extremists’ breaking from the ranks of the norm?
There are so many aisles it would be easy to lose everyone else. There are so many birds, probably 100,000, each one so programmed to resume the routine of eating that they begin as the torch brings light to the darkness. That’s what they do for eighteen hours of artificial daylight: eat.
Indeed all chickens behave this way—they see a light and they eat! And dust bathe. And lay eggs. And therein lies the problem: they can lay daily and are forced to do so with the flick of a switch. They all look broken and resigned. What are their other options?
They fight, hence the debeaking process that slices off the tip of their beak and limits the amount of damage they can do to each other. Some sound really disturbed. Periodically there will be a pained scream in a distant aisle—that of a bird finally broken, driven insane, dying? Who knows? You’d never find her. It sounds like it’d be too late anyway.
There are some birds lying on the floor outside the cages, not quite dead. Others are dead. They’ve been pulled out as failures, no longer profitable. As the weeks turn to months, the overcrowding is resolved as naturally as can be in this environment and by the end of the cycle, by the end of the year, there may be just one bird left.
No one cares much as long as they’ve lived long enough to leave a sufficient profit in their wake—but pump them with as many antibiotics as you like, you can’t make them stay alive, laying eggs forever. They are very fragile.
The sad thing is, they do stay alive and continue laying those precious eggs long after the year they’re incarcerated in a cage if you just leave them alone. Instead of which, they’re forced to the extreme for a few more eggs.
Compared to the vast numbers exploited, ALF’s rescue statistics are pitiful. Nevertheless, since 1975 many thousands of individuals have been whisked out of this kind of living hell and onto the Animal Liberation Underground Railroad where they have been able to live out their lives in peace.
Three hours later, one horsebox full of birds trundles slowly out of the woods as a second one pulls in, lights dimmed, and reverses to the doors. For the hard working raiders this is a pleasure after all.
It’s hard for anyone to say how they’re all doing because the birds were spread far and wide, but over six hours that night this small group bagged up, boxed up and sent on their way over a thousand chickens to good homes.
The ‘girls’ were driven first to prearranged safe houses from where they were later distributed to people keen to live alongside them in mutual harmony in back gardens, allotments, farms and smallholdings, long after fertility.
Bizarrely, this compassionate way of life is viewed as ‘criminal behaviour’ in the eyes of the law.
If the police track down the birds they’ll be put back in cages. They are someone’s property after all and it matters little if they suffer, you’re not allowed to rescue them. So what can you do?
Weeks after the Animal Liberation Front raid on the Wallops Wood Farm, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA) were informed of the conditions and encouraged to investigate.
The RSPCA is supposed to help animals: ‘RSPCA Action For Animals’—it says so on the promos. Staggeringly, the RSPCA Inspector didn’t even bother to check out the farm’s conditions, and said he didn’t even need to see the video footage because a poultry expert—a vet he knew—had been shown the footage and assured him that there was nothing illegal in the way the birds were slowly wasting away in the pits or dying on the floor outside the cages.
The Inspector was happy to agree while the Expert shrugged his shoulders and said such cruelty is a trade-off if we want cheap eggs. The RSPCA clearly does not prioritise animal welfare above profit.
Oddly enough, Trading Standards at the local council and its special Animal Welfare Department are the people to contact, if you are keen on wasting your time.
They’d been to Wallops Wood before and animal welfare charities and campaign groups all agree that Trading Standards inspection teams turn up without warning and they were certainly pretty quick off the mark here.
However, the inspectors rapidly cooled down and the charities and the volunteer groups all concur that in reality prosecutions rarely happen. A year earlier, Trading Standards were called to the same place and coincidentally turned up at the farm the day after the units had been ‘depopulated’ and the spent society of little ladies within decamped to the slaughterhouse for conversion into chicken stock or something like.
Apparently they aren’t much good for anything else! The inspectors weren’t directed to look under the units, only in the cages and as the cages were empty the place was given a clean bill of health.
Tipped off a second time, they made another visit to the farm and were directed specifically to the waste pits below the cages. They were equipped with video footage taken by the raiders, depicting the suffering of fallen stock, footage of rats in cages with laying hens, the filth, and hens crammed in cages. They’d seen it all before and weren’t minded to do anything about it.
They told the farmer off and said they advised him to fish out the birds below the units but only one month later there were dozens of live hens still there. What the farmer had done as a priority was replace the old wooden walls with huge solid steel ones bolted from the inside to keep out prying eyes, effectively sealing in from rescuers the birds that fall and making the situation worse.
Anyone care? Trading Standards in Hampshire were themselves more concerned that people had entered this site without protective clothing and may have transferred disease, and wanted names!
The question of the appalling conditions in which the birds were forced to live did not even enter their radar! Only the extremists have since been into those stinking cellars and the aisles above to rescue other birds.
By way of contrast, a 42-year-old man who was found guilty in 2004 of causing unnecessary suffering to 2,000 birds that were found dead, dying, diseased and living in utter squalor at his farm was given a conditional discharge and ordered to pay £75 costs.
Two men arrested for rescuing some birds from the cages had their homes raided, spent months on bail and were fined £1,000 each.
This is an extract from From Dusk Till Dawn: An Insider’s View of the Animal Liberation Movement by Keith Mann. Foreword by British singer Morrissey.
Watch the raid on Youtube here.
Keith Mann is a British animal rights campaigner who first came to widespread public attention after being sentenced in 1994 to 14 years imprisonment, reduced to 11 years on appeal—one of the longest sentences handed down to an animal rights activist—after being arrested in 1991 for conspiracy to set meat lorries on fire and for having escaped from custody. He has been the subject of a Channel 4 documentary Angels of Mercy? (watch part 1 and part 2). He is the author of From Dusk Till Dawn: An Insider’s View of the Animal Liberation Movement.
Image: Battery hen rescued during an ALF raid, courtesy of Keith Mann.