Mail Order Peeps
By: Susie Coston, National Shelter Director, Farm Sanctuary
Hatcheries ship day-old birds through the postal service without any legal oversight. During journeys as long as 72 hours, these chicks are deprived of food and water and are exposed to extremes in temperature. As Dr. Jean Cypher, a veterinarian specializing in avian medicine notes, “A day-old chick can no more withstand three days in a dark crowded box than can any other newborn.” Other experts in avian medicine and behavior agree that transporting day-old chicks in boxes for the first 24 to 72 hours of life is cruel and medically detrimental to the birds. We know from past rescues just how detrimental, and, in fact, fatal this practice can be.
In early January 2013, a box was mailed from a business in Texas. The package was supposed to be delivered to a location in Alabama, but it was addressed incorrectly and traveled nearly a thousand extra miles to Washington, D.C. It sat unclaimed in the post office until postal workers realized that something was amiss and contacted local animal control. Inside the box were more than 100 newborn chicks.
In 2005 we witnessed a similar situation involving mail-order chicks, although, in this case, the peeps were refused at the post office. By the time the local SPCA was called, more than half of the tiny birds were dead. These hatcheries mail out millions of chicks a year. These hatcheries are not farms, but instead warehouses full of incubators. Chicks that are sent through the mail are doomed if the purchaser decides they don’t want them or if there is a mistake in labeling or shipping. Returning them through the mail would mean certain death. These chicks are at an age where they must remain in a climate-controlled environment, and they are shipped with no food or water in their boxes. And there is no farm to return to.
In both cases where we stepped in to help these chicks, some had already perished. In the 2005 case, more than half of the babies died due to exposure. The label on this box stated that it contained 50 white Jersey Giant hens and 50 black Jersey Giant hens, but the contents of the box were actually very different. In this case, 27 roosters and 25 hens survived from a total of 125 birds. We have not attempted to sex the chicks from our most recent rescue, but some are already showing the telltale signs of being roosters.
Every day boxes packed with newborn chicks are sent through the postal service heading to vendors, farmers, and hobbyists large and small. These mail-order businesses use similar shipping practices, and their websites boast more than a million chicks mailed this year — meaning more than a million chicks who are handled callously and mailed like inanimate objects to destinations throughout the United States. Those who buy chicks online, from catalogues, or at feed stores support the very same types of facilities that supply large egg producers. The chick business is not an alternative to the factory farming industry, it is part of it — and it’s characterized by the same cruel practices.
These businesses cannot sex the birds while they are still in the eggs, and they have very few orders for roosters. Male chicks are, for the most part, considered useless by hatcheries that supply egg-laying chickens. Most males are killed within a day of emerging from their eggs after being sexed. Common methods of disposal include gassing chicks; stuffing chicks into plastic bags and throwing them into dumpsters, where they die slowly of suffocation or exposure; electrocution; and tossing live, conscious chicks into a macerating machine that grinds them into pulp for fertilizer. Because the sexual distribution of hatched chicks is roughly fifty–fifty, any purchase of female chicks represents the death of an equal number of male chicks.
Chicks are sexed at hatching, but this is not an exact science and many male chicks are misidentified as female. These survivors seldom fare well and are shipped to customers who do not want roosters or cannot legally keep them. Others rooster chicks are added to boxes of hens and used as a kind of packing material to fill up empty space in the boxes and ensure fewer deaths during the shipping process. Hundreds of male chickens are dumped at municipal shelters, where they are typically euthanized, and hundreds more are abandoned to contend with harsh weather, starvation, and predators. Many roosters are given to farms to be killed for meat, dumped in parks or on city streets to fend for themselves, or taken to area dog and cat shelters, where many are destroyed due to a lack of available homes. Farm Sanctuary and other shelters field dozens of rooster placement requests every month, more than any rescue network could hope to accommodate.
Hatcheries, like other factory farming businesses, are not interested in expending time or cost to protect the well being of these animals. Because they “produce” chicks on such a large scale, it is cheaper for them simply to replace sick, injured, or dead animals than to prevent illness, injury, and death in the first place. Suppliers offer guarantees to replace chicks who have died during transport or add a few extras to the shipment to account for the probable “losses.” Whether or not mail-order chicks survive shipping, it is an awful experience inflicted upon them during their very first days of life.
The single most important way to stop this practice is to educate the public. The majority of people we speak to don’t know that these hatcheries exist or that it is legal to ship live animals through the postal system. Today, there are many farm animal sanctuaries across the United States and most have an abundance of hens who need homes, so adoption is a much better source for chicken companions. Removing eggs from your diet is, of course, a powerful step toward eliminating these practices.
Of all the many chicks we have rescued from hatcheries, one of the most outstanding roosters I have had the pleasure of meeting came from the 2005 rescue of the Jersey Giant peeps. His name was Fennel, and from the first day we met him we knew there was something very special about him. He was a friendly peep — a tiny black and yellow marshmallow-sized fuzz ball who grew into a very curious and sweet, shiny black rooster.
With this group, it soon became evident that we had many roosters. We separated the males and females because the hens appeared to be the source of fights between the roosters. Once Fennel was in a group of roosters, however, he was picked on by his male companions.
One big fight during the winter months landed Fennel in our hospital and eventually in the treatment room, where he became a friend to all who entered. He loved nothing more than sharing lunch with a caregiver — he would hop in the air to grab a piece of a sandwich or sit on the desk attempting to drink out of a water glass or sip some soup. In spring, he loved to go on rounds with caregivers, following them from barn to barn, but he never entered an area that housed another rooster.
We finally found the perfect spot for Fennel on our main farm. Fennel joined a flock of chickens who lived with our turkeys. His hens adored him, being the gentle, kind rooster that he was, and guests were thrilled to be able to hold a rooster in their lap, sometimes for an hour or more, and stroke his beautiful plumage. He loved children and adults alike and never showed a bit of aggression towards humans. Even the turkeys loved this amazing boy.
Heart disease took the life of our big-hearted boy, and his loss was felt by everyone who had met him—guests and caregivers alike. He charmed the world and educated people not only about the plight of roosters born to hatcheries but also about what amazing beings roosters really are.