Operation Chicken Airlift began with a phone call last month from a California egg farmer to the Animal Place sanctuary in Grass Valley, Calif.
Thousands of "laying hens" that had outlived their usefulness were about to meet their demise, the farmer said. Was the animal group interested in saving them from death by carbon monoxide?
Thus began a unique rescue effort that was scheduled to send 1,200 white Leghorn chickens on a $50,000, cross-country cargo flight Wednesday evening from Northern California to upstate New York.
On the East Coast, the chickens will be ferried to sanctuaries where they will live outside of cages and roam the land without the expectation of producing breakfast for the egg-loving public.
''We're ready," said Jenny Brown of Woodstock Farm Animal Sanctuary in Willow, N.Y., which will take in 200 of the birds. "We've got perches and nest boxes for them, lots of grass, even a small area where they can wander into woods. They will be able to spread their wings and feel the sunshine for the first time in their lives. It is a joy and honor and privilege for us to give these chickens a second chance."
The airlift effort, which is being funded by an anonymous donor, is unprecedented in its scale and complexity, said Marji Beach, education director for the Grass Valley sanctuary.
Laying hens are bred for their ability to produce large eggs at an extraordinary rate, experts said. But their productivity and the size of their eggs typically level off after a couple of years, after which they generally are sent to slaughterhouses or otherwise destroyed.
Unlike broiler chickens, which are raised for meat, the laying hens generally are too lean for human consumption, said Mitch Head, a spokesman for United Egg Producers, a trade association that represents egg farmers across the country.
''It's not economically viable to process them to get just a little bit of meat," he said, although their carcasses sometimes are used in pet food.
Grass Valley's Animal Place, which focuses on rescuing pigs, goats, poultry and other farm creatures, began reaching out to California egg farmers several years ago, "asking them to give us their hens when they are about to slaughter them," Beach said. About 12,000 chickens have been placed, mostly in small batches, so far, she said.
Beach declined to identify the farmer who, about a month ago, offered up the most recent flock. Animal Place officials signed a confidentiality agreement to protect the supplier's identity, she said.
Animal Place located nine animal sanctuaries on the East Coast willing to accommodate a total of 1,200 California chickens. About 1,800 more will live at the Northern California group's digs in Vacaville and Grass Valley and will be available for adoption to the public.
Getting the birds across the country has proved a complicated task. Rounding up the chickens took two days and the effort of about 30 people, said Beach. Although the birds were in cages, a few escaped. "But they were so weak that they weren't hard to catch," she said.
Released into barns, "they didn't know what to do at first," Beach said. Their beaks and nails had been trimmed to prevent them from hurting one another in close quarters.
''But every day we see them become more and more like chickens, taking dust baths, making nests, scratching in the dirt," Beach said.
After the group consulted with agricultural officials in New York, staffers and volunteers conducted formal "health checks" and ran blood tests to make sure the birds were medically fit to fly.
Because commercial airlines do not transport adult chickens, the group chartered a private cargo plane and found a donor willing to foot the $50,000 bill. The climate-controlled flight is expected to take eight to nine hours.
Head, of the trade association, said he knew nothing about Operation Chicken Airlift, but applauded the effort.
''It sounds like a win-win to me," he said. "If a farmer wants to give them the chickens, and someone is willing to spend that kind of money to take care of them, I'll stand on the sidelines and cheer."
Also applauding was Jennifer Fearing of the Humane Society of the United States, which sponsored a successful ballot measure designed to improve conditions for California's 20 million egg-laying hens.
Proposition 2, scheduled to take effect in January 2015, prohibits the confinement of farm animals in a manner that does not allow them to turn around freely, lie down, stand up and fully extend their limbs.