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Capturing Caged Hens on Video Brings a Charge of Burglary
By MICHELLE YORK
March 16, 2006

ROCHESTER, March 13 Last fall, Adam C. Durand's first film had its premiere before a large, mostly supportive audience at a local theater.

Mike Groll for The New York Times


Adam C. Durand with his friends Melanie Ippolito, front, and Megan Cosgrove. The group filmed conditions at a Wegmans farm upstate.

 

In May, Mr. Durand, 26, expects that the film will be shown again this time to jurors at his trial on felony burglary charges.

The film and his arrest have attracted considerable attention to the widespread but little-known practice of confining hens to small wire cages at egg farms, and the animal-rights campaigns against it.

Still, Mr. Durand says: "I didn't sign up for making a film because I wanted to be a martyr. I did this because I felt I had to do it."

In 2003, Mr. Durand learned that an overwhelming majority of the world's eggs are produced at farms where hens are caged. At some farms, the hens are literally piled on top of each other in a cage without enough room to lie down or flap their wings. Cages are stacked in rows, so farmers can house more birds. But that leaves hens on the lower rows vulnerable to dripping feces.

The practice has its benefits, some experts say. It reduces production costs, and it cuts the hens' exposure to predators and potential diseases, said Temple Grandin, a professor of animal science at Colorado State University and an author.

To animal-rights activists, the practice is cruel and unethical. Several countries in Europe have banned caged-hen egg farms. In the last year, the Humane Society of the United States has persuaded several supermarkets and some 80 colleges and universities to buy eggs from cageless farms, said the society's president, Wayne Pacelle.

Still, perhaps 95 percent of the country's eggs come from caged hens. Mr. Durand and a few friends decided to investigate the conditions at one of the largest egg farms in the state, which is owned by the Rochester-based supermarket chain Wegmans.

After the company denied his request for a tour of the farm, which is in Wolcott, 47 miles east of Rochester, Mr. Durand and a few friends made three midnight visits in 2004. The complex, which houses 750,000 hens and supplies all of the Wegmans-brand eggs to the chain's 69 stores, was unlocked, and no employees were around, he said, and he and his companions wandered freely, though they said they were aware that they were trespassing.

They said they found hens were closely confined, sometimes spattered with manure and sickly. In some cages, a hen carcass was left with live chickens, he said. Below the cages were manure pits, some with mounds three to four feet deep. "We could hardly breathe," he said.

Mr. Durand, who works as a graphic artist, shot video during the visits and took a few of the more sickly hens with him, which he bathed and placed at a friend's farm. From the video, he produced a 27-minute documentary called "Wegmans Cruelty."

He dropped off a few copies at the Wegmans corporate office and began showing it around town as part of a campaign to pressure the company to change its practices.

Last September, the film was one of about 100 chosen for the Emerging Filmmaker series at the Little Theater in downtown Rochester. The film caused quite a stir, especially since Wegmans frequently makes the Forbes list of best workplaces and Rochesterians are known to be so proud of the markets that they show them off to out-of-town visitors.

A few people wrote to the theater asking that the film not be shown, but a larger number supported it, according to organizers of the series. "It was a packed house," said Karen vanMeenan, who chose the films.

At Wegmans, executives were not impressed. "We are very appalled at what was said about us and the picture it paints," said Jo Natale, a company spokeswoman.

So was the company veterinarian, Dr. Benjamin Lucio-Martinez, a professor at Cornell University who inspects the Wegmans farm once or twice a year. "It was extremely overrated," he said. "Those things do happen in chick houses, but this was like watching a show of 'Law and Order.' It makes you think crimes like that happen everywhere in New York City."

Ms. Natale said she did not believe that all of the film was actually shot at the Wegmans farm, as Mr. Durand claims. Some of the scenes were misleading, she said, citing one in which a swollen hen was held up to the camera. "That's how a hen looks before she lays an egg," Ms. Natale said. She added that the farm's 75 employees inspect the cages each day to remove carcasses.

After the film's debut, Wegmans pressed burglary and other charges against Mr. Durand and two of his friends, Melanie Ippolito and Megan Cosgrove. Ms. Ippolito and Ms. Cosgrove have since pleaded guilty to reduced charges, but Mr. Durand has not been offered a plea bargain. He faces the most serious counts, including burglary, criminal mischief, petty larceny and criminal trespass. His trial is scheduled for May.

Though Wegmans said it had no plans to change its production techniques, it did hire a consultant to make recommendations for improvements. As the national animal-rights movement has gained ground, a trade group of poultry producers, which includes Wegmans, has recently agreed to drop the "Animal Care Certified" logo from its egg cartons after the Better Business Bureau charged that it was misleading advertising.

Mr. Durand said that gave him hope. "I'm glad we did it," he said of the film. "I have faith that whatever comes out of it legally, that it will be worth it."

 This is a behind the scenes look at dairy farms across the country.
It was filmed by Viva!USA - Vegetarians International Voices for Animals.
More info can be found at
www.vivausa.org