TURLOCK — The plight of some 50,000 chickens left to starve at a Stanislaus County egg farm more than a year ago and the rescue of the surviving hens is chronicled in the new documentary "Turlock."
Released in February, a year after the discovery of the widespread neglect at A&L Poultry west of Turlock, the documentary was filmed for Animal Place. The farm animal sanctuary and animal rights activist group from Grass Valley organized the rescue and wanted to document the incident and successful rescue of more than 4,000 hens.
More than 40,000 chickens died a third because of starvation, the rest euthanized because they were in poor condition.
In February, Stanislaus County prosecutors filed criminal charges against A&L Poultry's Andy Yi Keunh Cheung and Lien Tuong Diep for felony animal cruelty.
The documentary project was planned as just a 10- to 15-minute video commemorating the rescue effort. But what resulted was a 46-minute online documentary with plans to expand the film to feature length for theatrical release. The group's story is told from an animal advocate point of view and uses footage from the egg farm, video of the rescued hens and interviews with staff and volunteers.
Animal Place Executive Director Kim Sturla said the rescue of 4,460 hens of which 4,100 lived was the largest farm-animal rescue in California history and second-largest in U.S. history.
More than 100 volunteers and staff helped in the effort, taking the hens from the Turlock egg farm, bringing them to the group's Vacaville facility and rehabilitating the sick birds afterward.
"I think it's important that people understand cruelty perpetuated against animals won't be condoned. And good folks will come forward and help in any way they can," Sturla said. "And they did in this case."
Officials, farms criticized
The documentary follows the rescue from when the group found out about the case, through reading an article in The Bee, to care at a sanctuary farm and adoption to new owners. Along the way, it discusses group members' deep frustrations with Stanislaus County Animal Services and state officials, who the activists claim were reluctant to release the surviving birds to them at first. More than 25,000 of the birds were euthanized en masse on the site.
The film also strongly criticizes the commercial livestock industry and high-capacity egg farms such as A&L Poultry. Many of the interviewees advocate vegetarian or vegan lifestyles.
"I think it's important for all of us to be aware from where our food comes, to be aware that many practices are inherently cruel," Sturla said. "It's tough to oversee the care of 50,000 individual animals. It's really an impossibility, so when things go wrong or people abandon them or run out of food, things go wrong in a really big way."
Volunteers from multiple animal rescue groups, including Harvest Home Animal Sanctuary in Stockton and New York-based Farm Sanctuary, took part in the rescue and tell their story in the film. Most of the birds were taken to Animal Place's Vacaville sanctuary. Others were taken by the Humane Societies of Marin, Sonoma and the Peninsula, as well as the Sacramento and Monterey chapters of the Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
The hens were adopted by more than 200 individuals across the state and as far away as Oregon, Washington and Nevada. Adoptees had to sign a contract saying they would never slaughter the birds or use them commercially. Some of the adoptees were interviewed for the film.
Filmmaker Keegan Kuhn, who volunteers with Animal Place, was involved with the rescue from the beginning. But it wasn't until earlier this year that he thought of making a documentary to commemorate the effort. He produced the film through his First Spark Media production company in El Cerrito.
"It was a life-changing experience for most of the people involved," Kuhn said. "I really want people to think differently and question how we view animals we use for food, to extend the circle of compassion to include all animals."
Kuhn said he is working to lengthen the film by about 30 minutes to be full feature length. Screenings are planned for the Seed Conference in New York in May and the National Animal Rights Conference in Washington, D.C., in June. He hopes to have it completed to enter in film festivals later this year.
Since being posted Feb. 22, the one-year anniversary of the incident, the video has garnered about 8,000 views across online video sites YouTube and Vimeo.
"It's been tremendously positive. Overall, it has been an eye-opening experience for a lot of viewers," Kuhn said. "We're excited for greater discussion on how we view farmed animals."
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Bee staff writer Marijke Rowland can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 578-2284.