A state veterinarian, who was called to a chicken ranch outside of Turlock after authorities found thousands of dead and starving hens, testified Tuesday that the death loss was too significant to have been part of a forced molting process.
On Feb. 21, 2012, Stanislaus County Animal Control Services responded to a complaint about starving hens at a ranch at 9501 Carpenter Road. Authorities reported that out of an estimated 50,000 hens found at A&L Poultry, more than 20,000 were dead of starvation or drowned in the manure pits under the cages. Another 25,000 were euthanized in the days following the discovery because their bodies were already in organ failure. Animal Place, Farm Sanctuary, and Harvest Home Animal Sanctuary rescued about 5,000 hens.
Two people identified as the operators of the ranch, Andy Cheung and Lien Diep, were charged with animal cruelty. A preliminary hearing is being held in Stanislaus County Superior Court to determine if there is enough cause to hold the pair over for trial.
Defense attorney Martha Carlton-Magana, who is defending Cheung, previously opened up a line of questioning indicating the hens were in the process of a forced molt to reinvigorate the egg laying process. Stanislaus County Sheriff’s Deputy Timothy Westler, who was the first law enforcement at the scene, previously testified that Cheung had told home the hens had stopped laying eggs and that he was in the process of changing out the flock.
Forced molting is a process in which hens are deprived of food for a select amount of time, typically no longer than two weeks. During this time the hens go out of production and their reproductive abilities get a chance to rejuvenate. When food is reintroduced the egg production usually restarts.
The practice of forced molting has largely fallen out of favor in many countries, including the United States.
“Lack of food to manipulate egg production in hens — the practice known as forced molting — has been condemned by United Egg Producers, the American Veterinary Medical Association, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and animal welfare scientists in the U.S., Canada, and the UK,” said Karen Davis, the president of United Poultry Concerns. “Food deprivation to force a molt causes severe immune system dysfunction resulting in death and disease in the hens.”
California Department of Food and Agriculture Veterinarian Randall Anderson testified Tuesday that even if A&L Poultry was participating in a forced molt, they were unprepared to do so.
“In a forced molt you don’t have that high of a death loss,” Anderson said.
A controlled molt has about a 1 percent loss, according to Anderson.
Anderson also testified the four grain tanks and all the feed systems were completely empty.
Carlton-Magana argued that perhaps the company was engaging in a forced molt when some sort of “mishap” occurred that caused them to lose control of the chickens.
Anderson testified that animal services started euthanizing the chickens with carbon monoxide less than 24 hours after the discovery at the ranch was made. He stated it took about three days to complete and that during that time the chickens were not fed.
Anderson testified the decision to not feed the chickens was made because many of them were in organ failure and to feed them might have caused more pain and potential disease outbreak.
Defense attorney Marlon Simon, who is defending Diep, questioned how his client could be charged with animal cruelty when the authorities also withheld food from the hens.
The decision on whether the case will proceed to trial will have to wait. Because of scheduling conflicts between the attorneys and the court calendar, the next day of testimony won’t happen until Sept. 9