San Diego County's Animal Services Department has filed a complaint against a veterinarian who allegedly authorized a Valley Center egg ranch to kill 30,000 hens by dumping them alive into a wood chipper.
Reports by the county, recently obtained by The Times, recount workers at the ranch feeding squirming birds by the bucket into the pounding machine, then turning the mashed remains with dirt and heaping the mixture into piles.
The complaint centers on Gregg Cutler, a veterinarian who is also on the animal welfare committee of the American Veterinary Medical Assn.
Last winter, Cutler attended a meeting of poultry ranchers, veterinarians and state and federal officials to discuss how farmers should deal with chickens and other fowl during the outbreak of exotic Newcastle disease. During the meeting, the group discussed using a wood chipper to destroy birds that could not be moved because of a quarantine.
A few weeks later, in February, Ward Egg Ranch rented a wood chipper to destroy hens which, though not infected with the Newcastle disease, had stopped laying eggs. San Diego County authorities received a complaint about the killing, and operators of the ranch said they got the idea from Cutler and others at the meeting.
Cutler denies he came up with the idea, but said he doesn't have a problem with using the machine for that purpose.
"No idea was too crazy to throw out at these meetings," said Cutler. "We were in desperation trying to deal with this disease."
Feeding chickens into a wood chipper, he said, "seemed like it was instantaneous and there was no suffering.... I personally believe if it's done properly with correct equipment, it's a humane way of disposing of birds in an emergency."
Cutler said he's being unfairly targeted by animal welfare activists. In the last three weeks, four national animal advocate groups have called for his removal from the animal welfare committee.
In the county's report into the incident, Arie Wilgenburg, one of the ranch owners, is quoted as saying that several veterinarians, including Cutler, said wood-chipping was an "approved method" to kill hens that were no longer producing eggs.
An egg ranch manager, Ken Iriye, told officials that the ranch preferred using the wood chipper to the usual methods of gassing by carbon-dioxide or snapping chickens' necks because it was "less traumatizing." He said it was easier for the staff to "cram the chickens in a chute than to chase them around and break their necks."
The report says that Cutler acknowledged supervising the mass euthanasia over the phone. County Animal Services Lt. Mary Kay Gagliardo said Cutler also told her that he believed using a wood chipper was humane.
Gagliardo wrote: "I then asked him if he felt it was still humane if they were going in there bunches at a time, being plugged up in the chute, not knowing if they were going into the shredder feet first, breast first, if he still considered that a humane death, and he said to me, 'Yes, of course. However they go in, it's quick, it's painless, and it's over in seconds.' "
Cutler denies saying this and claims there are numerous inaccuracies in the report.
Wilgenburg, one of the ranch's owners, said that since February he has received about 100 pieces of hate mail and several threatening phone calls in the middle of the night. The sale of part of the ranch to Cebe Farms, which raises poultry for eating, was held up for several months because of the public outcry, Wilgenburg said.
If he had to do it again, he said, he would have gassed the chickens instead of sending them through a chipper. "Still, gassing is worse than the wood chipper.... It takes slightly longer for the chicken to die."
In filing the complaint against Cutler, the county asked the state Department of Consumer Affairs to investigate the incident further and determine if punishment was warranted.
A state veterinary board spokeswoman said the agency does not comment on filed complaints. Generally, if the veterinary board believes a violation has occurred, the case is taken to the state attorney general's office, said Gina Bayliss, the board's enforcement director. The attorney general may present it to an administrative law judge, who can put a veterinarian on probation or suspend or revoke his license.
In April, the San Diego district attorney's office investigated whether the egg ranch had committed animal cruelty. Elisabeth Silva, the deputy district attorney assigned to the case, said that she could not find criminal intent on the part of the owners, concluding that the Wilgenburgs were just following professional advice.
Silva's office declined to file a case. Animal welfare groups protested. Silva investigated further, but again declined to file a case against the Wilgenburgs.
Animal interest groups continue to protest Cutler's fitness to practice avian medicine. Karen Davis, president of the Machipongo, Va.-based United Poultry Concerns, has been circulating the San Diego County documents and vowed that animal groups would continue to nettle the American Veterinary Medical Assn. until it removed Cutler from the animal welfare committee.
In response to the outcry, the veterinary association has publicly condemned throwing live chickens into a wood chipper. Spokeswoman Gail Golab said they are pursuing "standard procedures to investigate allegations against members," but would not divulge details.
Other poultry experts may have also authorized the wood-chipping, the animal welfare groups acknowledged, but they said they focused on Cutler because of his committee membership.
"This is not just anybody," said Wayne Pacelle, spokesman for the Humane Society of the United States. "This is a guy on the animal welfare committee of the most prominent animal veterinary group in the country. That does not inspire confidence in any declaration from such a committee."