Maryland agricultural and environmental officials, along with executives from one of the nation's largest egg producers, are working to salvage three huge chicken sheds in Cecil County where heavy snow caused ceilings to collapse Monday, trapping 300,000 egg-laying hens in their cages.
Many hens were crushed, company officials said, when ceiling trusses collapsed. Others might have died when automated feeding and watering systems failed at the egg farm near Cecilton.
Heating systems in the buildings apparently are operating, roofs are intact and the birds have not been exposed to the elements, said Greg Clanton, vice-president of ISE America, a Japanese company that owns the buildings and has its Maryland headquarters in Galena.
"We've got a disastrous mess up there that we've got to work through," said Clanton. "I'd say we are fortunate that none of our employees were hurt."
Members of Compassion Over Killing, an animal rights group based in Takoma Park, said they entered the damaged buildings "in the middle of the night" Thursday and said they found tens of thousands of birds without food and water caged in the football field-size poultry houses.
"As far as we're concerned, this is a violation of Maryland's felony animal cruelty law," said Miyun Park, who led a group that took photographs and videotape of conditions inside the houses.
"There are dead birds, already decomposing, in cages with live or injured animals," Park said.
Clanton, who scoffed at accusations by the activists that the company planned to burn down the buildings with live and dead birds inside, said his workers have not tried to save surviving birds because the buildings are unstable.
Snow and mud have prevented the company from getting heavy equipment into the remote site. No one will be allowed inside until the buildings are shored up, said Clanton.
State agriculture officials were notified about the snow-damaged sheds and the Maryland Department of the Environment has approved allowing the company to bury dead birds in a 40-foot-deep trench on the site.
Injured birds probably will be put to death with carbon monoxide, state agricultural officials said.