Some small moments grow with time, expanding in ways you never thought possible. They are unforgettable because they are leeches on your heart and mind.
Looking into her eyes was one such moment. It was 2005. It was the very first large-scale rescue I participated in, and I will never, ever forget her eyes.
I was part of an effort to save the lives of 2,000 hens from a 160,000 hen egg-farm. The hens were nearly two years old, their fragile, slender forms deprived of calcium and protein from laying five times more eggs than normal. Still, despite it all, they had more living to do, they had more breaths to take. They wanted life as much as I do. As you.
Even though their life was not much of a life at all. They lived in cages, crammed and jammed 6-10 per metal box. I saw hens who had died trying to reach the one nipple of water hanging at the top, their six-inch long nails welding them to their spot. I saw decomposed bodies trampled by the living. Death is what I smelled, that and ammonia. It was a fraction of what the hens endured.
We could not save them all. We could barely save a small portion of them.
I remember one moment, one bright, painful moment. Darkness was at our end of the barn. We had flashlights and head lamps and peered through grim shadows to pull birds gently from cages. We shuffled them into large dog crates, their limp, tiny frames melting in our hands. I gazed down at the other end of the barn. It was hard to see, but the doors at that end were wide open, sunlight dipping in...the first and last time the hens at that end of the barn would see.
At that end of the barn were the catchers. Workers paid by how many hens they could catch in a day. Backlit, workers grabbed hens by the legs, the wings, the heads, and yanked them from the cages. I'm sorry to disturb you with this, with this small grotesque moment, but I will never forget. A hen's wing was stuck. She was yanked. And what made her separate from us, that downy soft apparatus of flight was torn from her. I swear I heard her scream above the screams of thousands more. Her detached wing flopped to the ground, dejected, removed from what made it perfect and whole.
I felt nothing. I wanted nothing more than to stop and run and breathe again. I wanted to be back outside in a world that ignores all this suffering, that is stupid and callous and shallow. I wanted to be there. Anywhere but here.
At the end of our final visit, when it was impossible to take anymore birds, I looked into the eyes of one hen.
I can tell you where her cage is. If you took me to the farm, I would march you up the rickety wooden steps, past the platform where a woman would place eggs in pallets for shipments to grocery stores, and into the shed. I would take you down the first aisle, careful to avoid the cracks that lead dozens of feet down into the manure pit. A third of the way I would turn you towards a cage. It will look like every other cage in the barn. It will be the cage on the top row.
And I would tell you about this hen. Like her sisters, she was all white. Her pale, fleshy comb perched on her head flopped over. To my right, her left. It was not so pendulous as the others. She had an orange eye, probably two but I only saw the one. She had stuck her head through the bars and gazed at the activity beneath her. She looked at me, looked me straight in the eyes.
I cannot tell you why I did not demand to take that hen. Because I would not have stopped with her, perhaps. I would have grabbed all ten hens and then stared at the ones below, the ones to her right, the ones screeching in pain at the end of the shed. Maybe I would have shoved the catchers off the platform, stolen the transport truck, drove them all to sanctuary.
I can only tell you that the hen I left behind wanted to live. She wanted light. She was complete and whole and so freaking perfect. I'd like to go back in time and take her.
We saved 2,000 souls during that week of rescue. I worked my butt off to find homes for most of them. The ones we took in at the sanctuary have all died. I have only my shadowed memories of those days. And it is virtually impossible to talk with other rescuers about it, because to talk is to feel and remember and realize how little anything has changed.
I don't eat eggs. I did not in 2005, either. If I could take you to that graveyard, to that barn of brutality and suffering, I would like to think you would not eat eggs either. That you would see the hollow, empty sheds and ache for the lost souls whose suffering went unseen, unheard. I do.
It has been seven years since that rescue. I still think of her gaze.