Hens standing on a dead, decomposing cage mate. © Jo-Anne McArthur / Animal Equality / We Animals Media
A dead layer hen. © Jo-Anne McArthur / Animal Equality / We Animals Media

In 2010, Jo-Anne McArthur, a photojournalist and the founder of We Animals Media, joined activists with the international animal protection organization Animal Equality as they entered a farm in Spain through an unlocked door. Inside, they found 160,000 egg-laying hens housed in crowded, filthy cages. They were able to rescue five individual hens, to be placed with a sanctuary for the rest of their lives. 

When examined by the vet, the rescued hens were found to be lacking in essential vitamins due to the absence of sunlight throughout their eleven months in the farm. Their combs were pale, and one of them had lost an eye due to an infection that went untreated. Some had experienced liver damage, caused by an unnatural diet. They had also endured the forced molt process, having been deprived of food and kept in complete darkness to shock their bodies into laying eggs. 

An open rescue with Animal Equality © Jo-Anne McArthur / Animal Equality / We Animals Media

“As I document the work of activists who rescue animals, I find myself often wishing we could tell the individuals in our arms that they’re no longer in harm’s way; that their lives are changing for the better; that instead of heading to more suffering and death, this journey will lead to a lifetime of care and comfort, of fresh air and open spaces,” McArthur says. 

As part of an open rescue like this one, only a few of the animals can be saved, while the rest remain behind in the battery cages common to the industry, six hens to a cage, confined to a space smaller than a sheet of printer paper. An estimated 95% of laying hens in the United States live in battery cages. Over the years, McArthur has photographed these conditions throughout Spain, Sweden, Australia, Taiwan, and beyond. 

An enriched cage hen farm in Sweden. © Jo-Anne McArthur / Djurrattsalliansen / We Animals Media

When factory-farmed laying hens are born, their male siblings are “culled” because they can’t produce eggs. In the US, approximately 260 million newborn baby chicks are killed annually. Sometimes, they are thrown into the trash to die, and other times they’re suffocated in plastic bags, gassed, or shredded alive in industrial macerators. In the case of the latter, they are fully conscious as their bodies are torn apart. 

The females then have their beaks mutilated without an anesthetic to prevent cannibalism and nervous pecking, unnatural behaviors caused by stress or a lack of nutrients. Their muscles grow weak from the inability to move, and it’s not uncommon for birds to get sick or die while in these battery cages; McArthur has seen hens standing on the dead bodies of other hens to avoid injuries caused by painful wire flooring. After one or two years in the farm, the hens will be sent to slaughter. 

Hens crammed into cages at a factory farm in Australia. © Jo-Anne McArthur / We Animals Media

The photojournalist says, “Spending sixty seconds looking into just one cage in these facilities feels like an eternity, as though not only an entire life was contained in that one minute but that existence was an endless loop of hen after hen after hen, pumping out egg after egg after egg, eating the same, unvaried diet of protein-rich corn and soy meal: every minute of every hour of every day until they’re no use anymore and they’re killed.” 

Suffering is a fact of egg production in the modern age, and even “cage-free” hens can live in dark, overcrowded barns. McArthur and the team at We Animals Media further explain that while “access to outdoors” is required in “free-range” farming, that often means the animals have a small hole that doesn’t provide full-body access to the sunlight and open air. Some might even have a door that never opens, a loophole to the “access” rule. 

Following their rescue, the five hens saved by Animal Equality in 2010 saw sunlight for the first time in their lives. They took their first steps on grass. McArthur was there to witness the moment, and she’ll never forget it. “All of us involved in liberation want to assuage the animals’ fear of us; to assure them that we are there to help and not to use or abuse them,” she reflects. 

Hens rescued by Animal Equality enjoy their first sunny day at a sanctuary © Jo-Anne McArthur / Animal Equality / We Animals Media

After years on the frontlines of the fight against animal exploitation, she sees some glimmers of hope. Plus, about a decade after that open rescue, Animal Equality announced just last year that their work had contributed to the decreasing percentage of hens kept in cages in Spain, with the numbers dropping from 82% in 2018 to 77% in 2019. You can support these ongoing efforts for a better future by donating to We Animals Media or visiting the Animal Equality website. They currently have a petition calling for the end of the killing of newborn male chicks in egg production. Sign it here

Hens packed into cages at a factory farm in Australia. © Jo-Anne McArthur / We Animals Media
Hens standing on a dead hen in a factory farm. © Jo-Anne McArthur / Animal Equality / We Animals Media
A dead hen on the egg conveyor. © Jo-Anne McArthur / Animal Equality / We Animals Media
Dumpster full of dead hens. © Jo-Anne McArthur / Animal Equality / We Animals Media

This story is part of a series of articles about the We Animals collection, a world-class stock site comprising more than 10,000 images and videos from animal photojournalists. You can learn more about their achievements here and become part of We Animals Allies here.

Discover More