As the sun drops below the western horizon Wednesday night, a flock of about 1,200 chickens will be loaded onto a private jet and flown to new homes and a better future 2,275 miles away in New York.
It is a flight to freedom for the 2-year-old birds that have known only the inside of cages their entire lives.
The hens are among 3,000 chickens rescued in late July from a California-based egg production farm. The owners of the farm voluntarily surrendered the birds to Animal Place Sanctuary, a farm animal rescue group with headquarters in Vacaville and Grass Valley.
The owners knew about the sanctuary's Rescue Ranch program that asks egg farmers to relinquish custody of hens instead of slaughtering them. This is the largest farm that has participated in the program.
Animal Place collected the hens and spent several weeks treating them for mites, trimming their nails and getting them used to having leg and wing room, says Kim Sturla, Animal Place executive director.
The chickens start on this tragic road as chicks hatched in incubators and sent down a long conveyor belt. Female chicks are kept; males are dumped in a macerating machine, alive, and killed.
The young females are de-beaked -- the process of cutting off the tip of their beaks to avoid them pecking each other when they are eventually caged in groups of three to eight, depending on the size of the cage. And there they stay, Sturla says, laying eggs, unable to perch, to spread their wings or do any typical chicken behaviors, until the farmer decides they are "spent," and that it is more economical to bring in young hens and keep the egg production at its highest levels.
The hens are gassed in their cages, their bodies ground up and plowed into the Earth.
"This is what it must be like in hell," Sturla says. "I can't fathom anyone doing that to any being. It is such a deprived existence."
The 3,000 hen rescue isn't Animal Place's first chicken rodeo. Last year, the group rescued 4,460 hens from a Turlock farm where 50,000 hens had been left without food for more than two weeks.
At first, Sturla says, the hens are mystified and frightened by their own freedom. As night falls, they go to the corners of the barns, piling one on top of another. The clumps, as the rescuers call them, can be 10 hens deep, and without intervention, the ones on the bottom would suffocate.
Teams of volunteers rush from one corner of the barn to another, de-clumping the chickens. But as soon as they separate them, they rush back to the corners and start piling up again. It's exhausting, Sturla says, but within three weeks the birds are less inclined to clump.
By that time, they have savored the feel of grass and dirt beneath their feet, and the sun on their wings. They run, scratch and peck, and revel in their freedom. No words, Sturla says, can describe their joy or that of the rescuers.
The hens will take a red-eye flight in an attempt to minimize travel stress. Chickens tend to settle in for the night, abstaining from drinking and eating, and their rescuers are hoping they will sleep through the journey. The charter is being paid for by a benefactor. Sanctuaries there already have homes waiting for many of the hens.
Animal Place works with area SPCAs and rescue groups to adopt out the hens, ensuring they spend the last few years of their lives in "softness and peace," Sturla says. If you're interested in adopting or donating, go to www.animalplace.org. Check with your city or county about ordinances on keeping chickens.
Joan Morris' column runs five days a week in print and online. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.