An Ontario egg farm is facing more than four dozen animal cruelty charges after tens of thousands of hens were found living in "inhumane" conditions and laying eggs among dead birds, authorities said.
The San Bernardino County district attorney's office charged Robert Hohberg and his farm, Hohberg Poultry Ranches, on Tuesday with 39 misdemeanor counts of violating California's Prevention of Farm Animal Cruelty Act, which requires egg-laying hens to be given enough space to allow them to properly spread their wings without touching other birds or the cage.
Hohberg, 70, and his farm also face 16 misdemeanor counts of animal cruelty, according to the criminal complaint. He is scheduled to appear in San Bernardino Superior Court on March 7.
"It's a very inhumane situation," Dist. Atty. Mike Ramos said. "If you are going to harm animals here in the Inland Empire, we are going to hold you responsible."
An investigation into the farm's conditions was launched after a complaint in January 2016 to the Inland Valley Humane Society, Ramos said. The complaint alleged that chickens were being kept in "inhumane" and "deplorable" conditions, prosecutors said.
The following month, the district attorney's animal prosecution unit, the Ontario Police Department and the humane society got a warrant and searched the ranch. Officials found 28,000 chickens living in unsanitary and overcrowded cages, Deputy Dist. Atty. Debbie Ploghaus said.
Other hens were found laying eggs among dead and decaying birds, she said. According to prosecutors, the eggs were intended for human consumption.
"While we are obviously concerned about the health of our citizens, at the end of the day, we also have a lawful obligation to ensure that animals in our county are being treated humanely," Ramos said. "The overcrowded conditions these animals were forced to live in were cruel. It was a horrible existence."
In 2012, the Food and Drug Administration sent a warning letter to Hohberg after finding serious health violations at three of his facilities during inspections. According to the FDA, the farms did not have proper practices in place to prevent salmonella contamination. The FDA also found that a manure scraper had not been properly disinfected.
Inspectors spotted at least one cat in the rows of caged chickens and wild birds inside the poultry houses. They also observed cluttered debris, old equipment, cobwebs and leaking and pooled water.
A woman who answered the phone at the poultry ranch Tuesday declined to comment about the charges.
If Hohberg is convicted, he faces up to 180 days in jail for each cage size violation and a year for each animal cruelty count.
Ramos said he is hoping the case helps prevent other ranchers in the Inland Valley, as well as across the U.S., from mistreating animals.
"It's not really about putting people in jail for years," he said. "It's about holding people responsible."