Bird House: The hatchery building near Rodriguez and 7th Avenue in Live Oak. (Chip Scheuer)

Last month, while at the Buena Vista landfill, Kelly Luker saw a white Cal-Cruz Hatcheries truck dumping mounds of fluffy yellowish material. Remembering that Cal-Cruz had been in the news earlier in the year, she pulled out her camera phone and moved closer to take pictures.

“I walked up to get a better view, though I had a pretty good idea what it was,” Luker says. “Looking closer, I saw little chick eyes staring out of mangled heads and pieces of feet and beak scattered about. You can’t see something like that and eat chicken again.”

Santa Cruz authorities had in 2009 through 2010 investigated the Live Oak hatchery over allegations of animal cruelty, including the disposal of live chicks along with unwanted eggshells, but no criminal charges were filed.

Luker, a former staff writer for Metro Santa Cruz and occasional contributor to Santa Cruz Weekly, emailed the photos to Compassion Over Killing, a D.C.-based animal rights group that, in 2009, used a hidden camera to document what it says are clear violations of state animal protection laws. Immediately after the investigation ended in February 2009, the organization gave the video footage to local authorities.

Cheryl Leahy, general counsel for Compassion Over Killing, says Luker’s photos “corroborate the evidence” the organization has that animal cruelty laws were broken. “The photos show huge piles of chicks—these chicks fit in your hand. If you estimate how many chicks are being ground up with eggshells, that’s a lot of animals.”

Cal-Cruz Hatchery President Brian Collins maintains the photos show nothing illegal. He says the company properly euthanizes all birds before running them through the eggshell disposal machine and hauling them to the landfill. “There’s nothing in there that hasn’t been euthanized properly,” he says, adding he’s tried to find a tallow plant that will take the dead birds or a farmer that can use them and the eggshells as fertilizer but hasn’t had any luck.

It’s common practice, Collins says, and perfectly legal. Cal-Cruz produces 300,000 chicks a week. He says the healthy ones are treated well while the sickly or injured birds are humanely killed and dumped at the landfill. “If I produce 100,000 chicks in one day, I’m not going to get 100,000 chicks that are viable. You don’t get 100 percent perfection in animal production.”

No Charges
For Leahy and local animal right watchers, the photos are a reminder that Cal-Cruz was never charged with violating animal protection laws—despite what many people would consider overwhelming evidence.

The video footage posted on Compassion Over Killing’s website shows a chick drowning in a bucket of waste, birds trapped in machinery (one is run through a dishwasher), mangled chicks with missing limbs lying in buckets and on the floor, live hatchlings dumped down the egg shell disposal machine and sprayed with a high-pressure hose and other disturbing images.

“We are 100 percent sure that there were multiple clear violations of California’s animal cruelty law,” says Leahy.

The state’s animal cruelty law is one of the most explicit in the U.S., Leahy explains. Unlike most states, California law doesn’t have a “common” or “normal” practices exemption for agricultural animals. This means that “following industry standards” does not protect a farm from liability if it mistreats or neglects animals. In other words, legally a bird in a commercial facility is no different from a pet dog in a home.

The law says anyone who “tortures, torments… cruelly beats, mutilates, or cruelly kills any animal, or causes or procures any animal to be so…cruelly beaten, mutilated, or cruelly killed,” or who “subjects any animal to needless suffering” may be charged with a felony and fined up to $20,000.

Collins says the video, which was shot by an investigator posing as a hatchery employee, is “60 percent staged or taken out of context.” He adds, “Shame on me for giving a guy that appeared to be homeless a job.”

He says the video did prompt him to review practices with his employees. “A lot of those employees have been there eight, 10, 12, 15 years,” Collins says. “Unfortunately, just like with anything else, you get desensitized to what you do.”

Ultimately, the Santa Cruz District Attorney’s office did not prosecute the hatchery.

“The District Attorney’s Office has decided that criminal charges will not be filed, at this time, based on a review of all the evidence we are aware of,” reads a June 2, 2010 press release posted on the D.A.’s website. “We have a history of aggressively prosecuting animal rights cases, and we take this issue very seriously. We share the public’s revulsion at the abuse of animals. However, our job is to carefully ensure that we can build and prove a criminal case against specific individuals.”

The District Attorney’s office did not return phone calls seeking comment on the dump photos, which Compassion Over Killing says it sent to the D.A. The group says it wasn’t given a reason why the D.A. decided not to pursue charges in the case. “Our position has been all along: there are clearly crimes occurring at this hatchery,” says Leahy. “We hope the D.A.’s office changes its mind and pursues charges in this case.”

Following Compassion Over Killing’s investigation, Santa Cruz Animal Services also found evidence of what it considered cruel treatment and neglect and confiscated 88 ducklings. Animal Control Officer Todd Stosuy, who investigated the hatchery, is out of the office until later in the month and could not be reached for comment.