Nathan Runkle holds the hen he says he saved from the trash can.
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VERSAILLES, Ohio - On two nights in December, Nathan Runkle and Derek Koons walked into five huge sheds at Weaver Bros. Egg Farm near this Darke County town.
For about five hours, the two took pictures and videotaped thousands of hens in cages.
“We documented really callous acts of egregious cruelty, neglect, and abuse to the hens there,” said Mr. Runkle, director of Mercy for Animals, an Ohio-based animal rights group.
Mr. Runkle said he and Mr. Koons discovered hens with eye and sinus infections, feather and wing damage, and hens trapped without access to food or water.
The videotape also shows Mr. Runkle, 18, standing in a dugout, where he said he found a hen still alive in a trash can full of dead birds.
“I easily would have mistaken this hen, determined to survive, for a lifeless corpse had she not lifted her tiny head, stared at me with curiosity, and blinked her eyes from atop the pile,” Mr. Runkle said of the hen he has named Hope.
It wasn't the first time that members of Mercy for Animals, formed in October, 1999, walked through unlocked doors to “investigate” how hens fare on large-scale farms - which the groups refers to as “factory farms.''
In 2001, Mercy for Animals videotaped conditions at Buckeye Egg Farm and Daylay Egg Farm and has used the footage, titled Silent Suffering, to spread its message across Ohio and the nation.
The message is not to take incremental steps to revise regulations.
Mr. Runkle said Mercy for Animals' goal is to persuade people not to buy eggs - to “choose kindness rather than cruelty.''
It's a major challenge, given that per capita egg consumption - egg production divided by population - has risen from 234 in 1996 to 252 last year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Ohio ranks second, behind Iowa, in U.S. egg production.
“These hens are regarded as egg-producing machines, as production units whose sole purpose is to pump out as many eggs as possible, and no attention is given to their individual welfare,” said Mr. Runkle, who said he grew up on a farm near Urbana, became a vegetarian at 11, and a vegan four years later. A vegan doesn't consume any animal food or dairy products or use animal products like leather.
During the last two years, Mercy for Animals and two other animal rights groups have investigated seven large-scale egg farms in Ohio, Maryland, and Minnesota.
Mr. Runkle said Mercy for Animals is not affiliated with Compassion over Killing and Compassionate Action for Animals, which is based in Washington. But they “have close contact with each other,” Mr. Runkle said.
The tactics of Mercy for Animals have alarmed the state Department of Agriculture, which has accused the group of posing a “biosecurity hazard” with its “covert investigations” and using illegal means for an agenda that consumers can embrace if they want to become vegetarians or vegans.
The animal rights groups alarm the United Egg Producers, the industry trade group.
“I have seen these videotapes that are taken, and they're endangering the birds,” said Ken Klippen, vice president of United Egg Producers. “The bird is in a resting stage. The lights are off, and when they flash those camera lights, it startles the birds, and they may harm themselves.”
Large egg operations such as the Weaver farm are called 'factory farms' that the group says are rife with absue.
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Mr. Runkle said the charge is untrue.
“We find it offensive that someone who profits off the exploitation of egg-laying hens would point a finger at activists who are exposing the inherent cruelty of the investigation and rescuing hens who are in dire need of veterinary care,'' he said.
Tim Weaver, president of Weaver Bros. Egg Farm, said he's not sure whether Mr. Runkle and Mr. Koons were on his farm in December as they say. He said if they were, he hasn't decided whether to press charges against them.
“I respect their right to have an opinion with respect to diet and health issues and vegetarianism; that is what America is all about. I question the practice of breaking and entering, trespassing, and theft,” Mr. Weaver said.
Mr. Runkle said Mercy for Animals adheres to nonviolent principles and he is willing to risk prosecution to educate consumers about “animal cruelty” in the egg industry.
When Mercy for Animals requested a tour of Weaver Bros. Egg Farm last year, Mr. Weaver referred the letter to the Ohio Poultry Association, the Ohio Livestock Coalition, and United Egg Producers - which turned down the group's request and said Weaver Bros. Egg Farm is at the forefront of improving the treatment of hens.
“Not only must we provide protection for our animals, but we also must protect our nation's food supply from bioterrorism,” wrote Gene W. Gregory, senior vice president of the Atlanta egg trade group.
Weaver Bros., founded in 1929 and now the fourth largest egg farm in Ohio, hasn't used forced molting - in which hens are denied feed so they produce bigger and strong eggs when feeding resumes - for several years, Mr. Weaver said.
“We're putting fewer birds in each building,” said Mr. Weaver, who estimated the farm's flock at 1.7 million hens. “There is no one in the world who cares more for the health and safety of my animals than me. The animals are my lifeblood. We always try to do what is right.''
Asked about the dead hens in the Mercy for Animals video, Mr. Weaver replied: “It's like a city. Some people die every day. Every morning, you walk up and down and check for ventilation, and you check for the health and welfare of the chicks.''
State officials are wondering why Mercy for Animals members who entered hen sheds at Buckeye and Daylay egg farms and “rescued” 34 hens in 2001 never were arrested or charged with any crimes.
Fred Dailey, director of the state Department of Agriculture, has urged farmers to “prosecute intruders” for trespassing, burglary, theft, and property damage in 2001.
Municipal prosecutors in Union County didn't return messages seeking comment. Richard Grafmiller, the Upper Sandusky Municipal Court prosecutor, said he referred the matter to the sheriff's department. Sheriff Mike Hetzel said the matter was referred to the county prosecutor's office, which didn't take action because Buckeye Egg and Mercy for Animals agreed to start a “dialogue” about animal welfare.
Mr. Runkle said Mercy for Animals tomorrow plans to ask prosecutors in Darke County to investigate and then file charges against Weaver Bros. Egg Farm.
Ohio's law that prohibits animal cruelty applies to farm animals held for slaughter, and so it doesn't cover egg farms, David Glauer, veterinarian for the state Department of Agriculture, said.
Mr. Runkle said Mercy for Animals members read industry manuals on bio-security before they go into large-scale farms. They take showers before they enter sheds, use protective clothing, wipe camera gear with anti-bacterial solution, and wear protective gloves and masks.
In fact, Mr. Runkle says citizens should know why bio-security measures are so important in “factory farms.''
“These hens are living under such stressful conditions that they suffer from severely compromised immune systems. If you go to a farm out in the country where the hens can dust bathe and walk freely and they're not suffering from such filthy conditions and confinement, you don't have to lace up in biosecurity outfits because their immune systems can handle people coming in.”