Catherine Smith Founder and Chairwoman of the NSW Hen Rescue | Sydney Portrait Photographer

 
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If you have read my previous posts on Hen Haven and The Story of Grace, you will already know the great work that Catherine does rescuing spent hens from factory farms. Here's my interview with Catherine Smith, the founder and Chairwoman of the NSW Hen Rescue.


Why hens?

Chickens are intelligent, curious, funny, cute, entertaining and beautiful. They are also the most abused animal on earth. Humans treat them as mere commodities rather than living, feeling individuals. I want to stand up for hens because they don't even make it onto most people's moral radars and that needs to change.

There is also the practical reason; I have a small backyard, so whilst I would love to rescue all kinds of farmed animals, I am not set up properly to do so (yet!) I cannot have roosters at this stage, but that is something I plan to do in the future.

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When did you first form NSW Hen Rescue?

Back in 2010 I got in touch with a local battery farmer who  had been in the newspaper bragging that he was changing to free range. I asked him what was happening to the hens in the cages when the farm changed. He told me they would all be sent to slaughter. Soon after, I rented land and arranged to rescue 350 of the girls from that farm. It broke my heart that I couldn't save them all, but I had to focus on the girls I could help. With the help of my friend Sharron Woodward I rehabilitated the girls and then found wonderful homes for them.

It was a very challenging experience standing in the battery shed surrounded by thousands of suffering hens. As I stood there I knew my mission would be to save as many hens as possible from these terrible places. I knew I had to try and educate people about animal agriculture and show that going vegan is the kindest thing to do.

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How many hens do you/can you rescue per week?

Today NSW Hen Rescue is run from my back garden. Sadly we don't yet have the financial capability to take on land. However we aim to acquire land in the future and rescue whole shed loads of hens, leaving no one behind.

At the moment we rescue and rehome 10-20 factory farmed hens every week. I have the garden split into 3 enclosures. That way the hens that are ill can stay and have time to recover in one section whilst I take on new girls in the others.

One of my favourite things is to watch the hens first moments of freedom. When we get back from the battery farm I open the carrier door and they stand looking out onto the garden, unsure what to do. Then they cautiously take big, slow steps out onto the grass. They often look up at the sky and all around them in amazement. When one hen flaps her wings it will set all the others off and you can see the pleasure they experience feeling the breeze in their feathers. Within the first 10 minutes they will start to dust bathe and lay in the sun with outstretched wings. They express all of those natural behaviours they never could before and I have no doubt they are experiencing joy.

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Do any farmers contact NSW Hen Rescue for assistance to re-home hens instead of dispensing with them?

No farmer has ever contacted me, but I hope this will change when we acquire land. At that point I will try and make the farmers aware that we exist through media so that if they are shutting down they can contact us.

At the moment we do two kinds of rescue. We still work with farmers, but we also conduct open rescues. This is when we go into farms that have bad reputations, as part of an investigation. We take video footage of the conditions (often working with other animal groups). We then rescue any hens who will clearly not survive if left at the farm. We often find hens on the floor in the muck. They have been dropped by slaughter people, who pull the hens out of the cages and hold many by the legs at one time. The dropped hens will have no food or water on the ground and are often very thin by the time we get there.

What sort of conditions do you usually find spent hens in? Are they treatable? What percentage of hens are rehomeable?

All factory farms are horrible places. I have been to caged, barn and free range facilities and I can tell you the suffering is prevalent in all three. Cages are terrible, but to see a packed barn or free range set up where hens have to crawl over each other to move is also heart breaking.

At battery farms hens are usually packed in 6 or 7 to a cage. The stress is evident just by looking at the hens. I often see feather loss from where the hens peck at each other. They have pale combs from lack of sunlight and vitamin deficiency. The girls that have fallen to the floor are often very dehydrated and starving. When I pick them up I can feel their chest bones jutting out.

Piles of poo reach my knees and the smell is overwhelming. Some farms are overrun with rats so the hens are suffering from severe lice infestations. As a hen, being so itchy yet unable to take a dust bath, must be horrendous.

Sometimes the saddest thing is to see a girl sitting with her head in the corner of the cage, unmoving. It looks like she has lost the will to live.

Many hens we rescue need to be treated for respiratory infections. We also see leg problems from all that time standing on wire and eye problems from pecking. We never rehome a hen who needs to go to the vet, until she is well again. About 80% of the hens are rehomeable and the others just need some more time to recover before being given the all clear and going to a loving home. Some of the hens are traumatised and require an understanding and patient new family.

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Vet bills must be high, along with transport. Where does NSW Hen Rescue get funding from?

Yes we have lots of vet bills. We are lucky that there is a fantastic bird specialist up the road and he will sell us antibiotics fairly cheaply. However if there is anything more complicated than a respiratory infection it will be hundreds of dollars.

We give the hens vitamin supplements when they first come out of the cage to give them a boost and help them recover from the trauma and stress. This costs money, but is well worth it.

My husband David and I pay for most costs from our own jobs. However, we do have some wonderful supporters who donate or try and raise funds for the hens. We charge an adoption fee of $10 per hen which helps to cover some costs and filters out people who want hens for meat or commercial use.

We are in the process of creating an online gift shop and will be running a stall at this year's Cruelty Free Festival where we will sell gifts and try to raise some funds for the girls.

Any contribution, no matter how small, is greatly appreciated. Supporters help us to keep rescuing hens and that means so much.

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How many hours does it take for you to work on NSW Hen Rescue, including admin, rescue, hen care, adoption etc?

There aren't enough hours in the day! I love working on the hen rescue, but it is challenging to work full time and manage everything. Weekends are for adoptions, vet appointments and cleaning out the girls' coops. Evenings are when I call potential adopters and answer emails. It takes up most of my time and I hope one day I can work part time, so that I can spend more time with the hens.

So, what do you do on your spare time, if you have any left?

Recently I have been getting up at 5am to go to the gym with a friend. It is a good stress relief, but I am still adjusting to the early starts. I am involved with Animal Liberation NSW and attend protests and meetings when I can. Animal rights and veganism are a big part of my life. The animal suffering caused by the meat, egg and dairy industries is immense and I feel I need to do what I can to help people realise what is going on. I plan to start a farm animal sanctuary with my friend Dori Kiss (also secretary of NSW Hen Rescue) which will run alongside the hen rescue, so we are always planning for that.

Other than that I love spending time with my husband David. He is a wonderful support.

What would be your advice to the general public about battery hens and their prospects?

Battery cages are horrific and by eating even one caged egg you are sentencing a hen to at least 24 hours standing on wire, in a crowded cage. However, it is important to remember that free range and barn facilities are almost as bad. All the hens are still slaughtered between 12-24 months and all the male chicks at the hatcheries are still killed by maceration or suffocation. It is a cruel industry and the kindest thing you can do is to remove your financial support and go vegan.

 

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If you interested in helping out with saving spent hens, you can make a donation to the NSW Hen Rescue here:

http://www.henrescue.org/#!donate/c1t1x