From Sunday, April 12, to Monday, April 13, there were more than 60 reports of tornadoes tearing through the Southern United States. The affected areas included northwest Georgia, home to two of the largest chicken producers in the country, Pilgrim’s Pride and Koch Foods. The tornadoes decimated the industrial farms, ripping apart sheds full of birds, but leaving tens of thousands alive.
“The survivors were strewn among the wreckage, wandering nearby roads, or huddling together under pieces of debris for shelter,” says Jane, a resident of Orange County, New York.
Orange County is more than 800 miles away from northwest Georgia. Nevertheless, when Jane received word of animal-rights activists on the ground requesting help, she got in her car and drove 12 hours, arriving at one of the farms at midnight and searching for survivors until dawn. (Due to animal-rights activists being targeted for surveillance and prosecution by law enforcement, Jane declined to give her real name.) She returned home the following evening with 28 chickens in tow, set for better lives.
Jane is just one person in a network of volunteer animal rescuers and sanctuaries that stretches throughout the Hudson Valley and beyond. While the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has ushered in new challenges for their work, Jane and those like her remain steadfastly committed to doing what they can to save animals.
Volunteer animal rescuers operate through a largely informal network of contacts, who share information about crises and mobilize in response. News of the tornado-struck poultry farms in Georgia first spread on social media, eventually making it to volunteers like Jane. But there are more organized operations too, like Microsanctuary Resource Center, a nonprofit that supports the small-scale rehousing of rescued animals through guidance and funding. Rockwell Schwartz is a board member of MRC and operates her own microsanctuary in Brooklyn.
“At the moment, I have here not only my own group of 18 permanent-rescue residents, but also a wild pigeon I rehabilitated and am preparing to release, a foster chicken, and two foster rabbits,” says Schwartz. “I focus heavily on birds, particularly farmed birds—chickens, quails, chukar partridges—and pigeons, but I also rescue fish, rabbits, and really anyone who comes my way and is in need of help.”
Many of Scwartz’s and Jane’s rescues are rehoused in the Hudson Valley with organizations like Catskill Animal Sanctuary. CAS’s 150-acre refuge in Saugerties is home to more than 300 rescued farm animals, including chickens, goats, pigs, cattle, and sheep. Some animals that arrive at CAS are placed elsewhere through adoptions, but most live out their lives on the refuge, where special needs related to physical injuries or trauma can be better attended to. Because CAS is a sanctuary, it is perhaps the most visible node in the animal-rescue network, but communications manager Veronica Finnegan stresses that their work really is part of a collaboration.
“Sanctuaries, microsanctuaries, rescuers, and animal organizations all work together informally, all with a shared goal: saving animals,” says Finnegan. She points to the recent closure of the Sprout Creek Farm in Poughkeepsie, which was home to cows, goats, and chickens, as an example of that collaboration.
“We got hundreds of concerned messages about the fate of the animals, but when we came with a trailer to offer to save some of them, we were turned away,” says Finnegan. “Other animal organizations, like Hudson Valley Animal Rescue and Sanctuary, had better luck. They took in 200 animals who would likely have been auctioned off for slaughter. From that group, we welcomed home four baby goats: Mollie, Arlo, Chester, and Levi.”
Sprout Creek Farm announced its closure in mid-April, citing financial difficulties exacerbated by COVID-19, just one example of how the pandemic has affected animal rescuers, specifically by creating more crises. Widespread uncertainty in food production combined with shelter-in-place orders have produced a dramatic spike in the demand for backyard chickens, which Jane, Schwartz, and Finnegan all cite as the source of more abandoned birds.
“COVID-19 has turned us all into de facto homesteaders, and as a result, local stores can’t keep up with the demand for chicks,” says Jane. “We are doing this rescue work in the Hudson Valley, but this is happening right now across the country. And that is its own nightmare, right? Fuzzy yellow chicks dying in the palm of your hand.”
The spike in animals requiring rescue comes amid already stretched capacities. Although nationwide numbers are hard to ascertain, animal shelters across the country are reporting forced closures and the denial of strays, surrenders, or rescues due to pandemic-related concerns. Anticipating that shelter-in-place orders would limit her mobility, Schwartz managed to rehome more than thirty birds in the Midwest at the end of February. CAS has been at capacity, yet was still receiving hundreds of inquiries about rescues in 2019, well before the pandemic. The normal volume of requests has prepared CAS to redirect inquiries to other sanctuaries, but turning them away, even with references, remains “heartbreaking,” according to Finnegan.
“Fielding rescue requests has been such a distressing part of our work that it’s shared among several employees, because answering them all is too much for one heart to bear,” she says.
While the pandemic has increased the scale of animal rescues, it also continues to sap resources from individual volunteers and organizations alike. Like so many other workers, Jane was furloughed from her job due to the pandemic, leaving her with less of her own money to put toward the costs of rescue, including 1,600 miles worth of gasoline and tolls to Georgia and back. Similarly, both donations and other fundraising channels for nonprofit organizations such as CAS have suffered from a combination of general financial hardship and shelter-in-place orders. Due to the pandemic, CAS has had to close its facilities to the public, postponing its annual “opening day” celebration in April and other revenue-generating operations. It remains unclear to the refuge which phase of New York State’s reopening plan it technically falls under, but Finnegan stresses that they are prioritizing the health of their team, the public, and, of course, the animals.
“We had initially planned to reopen on May 24, but of course we’re going to go with the latest public-safety guidelines,” she says. “Since we’ve shut down our tours program, our bed-and-breakfast, and our cooking classes, we have lost a vital source of support for the sanctuary.”
Despite these difficulties, animal rescuers persist. CAS recently unveiled new pandemic-proof initiatives to stay in touch with supporters, such as its “Virtual Sanctuary,” which offers public and private video tours of the refuge, and “Goat 2 Meeting,” through which teleconference users can surprise their colleagues, family, or friends with livestreams of residents like Poppy the goat, Samira the chicken, or Lola the duck. Schwartz’s microsanctuary has similarly continued operations, albeit on a smaller scale, placing four chicks here, one kitten there. And Jane is still committed to rescuing chickens, though mostly in the Hudson Valley, rather than Georgia. They all remain animated by their love of animals and implicit understanding that, even before the pandemic, they had their work cut out for them.
“Given the scale of the problem, there are unfortunately very few formalized efforts to help these animals,” says Jane. “Instead, grassroots efforts come together in response to a specific crisis. A group of relative strangers, all moved to do what they can to help, come together to save lives.”
Arvind Dilawar is an independent journalist. His articles, interviews, and essays on everything from the spacesuits of the future to love in the time of visas have appeared in Newsweek, The Guardian, Vice, and elsewhere.