1,000 chickens die in squalor

LAKE STEVENS - Decaying chicken carcasses piled on top of each other. Manure more than a foot deep. And rats slithering through the entire heap.

These were the conditions that prompted a farmer yesterday to call attention to Amberson Farms, a chicken farm northwest of Lake Stevens. His alert sparked the rescue of hundreds of chickens by an animal-welfare group and an animal-cruelty investigation by authorities.

The squalid conditions led to the death of 1,000 chickens, according to Jan Jorgensen, Snohomish County Sheriff's Office spokeswoman. About 1,500 chickens were found alive.

Peter Brian Berg, an Arlington farmer, yesterday notified authorities and Pasado's Safe Haven, an animal welfare group in Monroe. Berg did not return phone calls requesting comment. In a written statement, he said he had planned to buy chickens from Amberson, but when he arrived at the farm Wednesday, he saw chickens "in varying stages of death."

"Hundreds and hundreds of dead bodies, and the ones that aren't dead are just standing there, starving to death," he said.

Jorgensen said it was not clear how long the chickens had gone without food, but she said many of them were clearly starving.

Workers at Amberson Farms told authorities that the chickens were "molting," a farming practice of withholding food and water from chickens to induce egg laying.

But Berg told Pasado's Safe Haven that the conditions he saw were not consistent with poultry-farming techniques.

"The good thing about this is this is a poultry farmer saying this is not acceptable animal-husbandry practices," said Susan Michaels, co-founder of the animal welfare group.

Owner Keith Amberson was not at the farm yesterday, and calls to the farm were not returned. In a letter to the state Department of Ecology last year, he said he planned to close the farm, selling the chickens and cattle he had at the time.

At one point Amberson had 50,000 chickens. By June 1998 Amberson reportedly had reduced his flock to 10,000. Last year Amberson said he would send the remaining hens to a rendering plant after failing to find buyers.

Neighbors said they've long suffered from the farm's deteriorating conditions.

A group of schoolchildren said it was not unusual for the wind to carry the stench from the farm to their bus stop down the street.

Neighbor Mark Dennis said flies are so numerous that they nest on the roof of his truck.

"You've got to bat them out of your rig before you take off," he said.

Jamie Chinnick, 12, said she sometimes notices chicken manure floating in drainage ditches near the farm.

Runoff from the farm got Amberson in trouble in June 1998 when officials from the state Department of Ecology found manure up to three feet deep on some parts of the farm. Last year the department cited him for allowing fecal matter to run into springs that feed Lake Stevens.

But his $21,000 fine was reduced to $10,000 when the state Pollution Control Hearings Board said that injuries kept Amberson from maintaining the farm and the penalty would be dropped if he worked to meet standards.

The Attorney General's Office appeal of that fine will be heard today, according to Michaels.

A complaint against Amberson last year led to a sheriff's department investigation of animal cruelty, a felony. But Snohomish County prosecutors determined that in withholding food, farm workers were acting consistently with molting practices.

Jorgensen said the department would again investigate possible charges of animal cruelty and make a recommendation to the Prosecutor's Office.

Geoffrey Jones, an Everett attorney who represented Amberson last year when his case was heard before the Pollution Control Hearings Board, said he could not comment about yesterday's development until discussing the matter with Amberson.

Michaels said Pasado's Safe Haven has a signed statement from Amberson to let it take the live chickens. Last night, the group housed about 500 chickens at its Monroe farm.

The group plans to return today for the rest of them.

The dead chickens would be disposed of by Amberson farm workers, Jorgensen said.

Frank Vinluan's phone message number is 425-745-7814. His e-mail address is fvinluan@seattletimes.com


Chickens rescued

Pasado's Safe Haven is seeking chicken feed for the hundreds of chickens removed from Amberson Farms. Call 360-793-9393.