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Dear John Oliver, “Sympathy Geese” Are No Joke!

At Catskill Animal Sanctuary, we appreciate a good joke. Much of the rescue work we do is heavy and tiresome, and many of us love to tune into Last Week Tonight for a “hot take” on the week’s news. And as a non-profit, we often rely on the US Postal Service to mail things to followers around the world. But there was one joke in your last episode that didn’t sit quite right. 

To answer your question, “Who wouldn’t want a sympathy goose?” we say: Quite a lot of people! How do we know? We’ve received 70 rescue requests for baby birds since the start of this year, and over 400 rescue requests total. Of course, we know that your question was meant in jest, but to baby chicks and goslings, and the people who rescue and care for them, the joke landed with a thud.

The fact is that people routinely send these birds in the mail, and sometimes, actually, as a joke! In April, we were contacted by a New Yorker who had received 12 chicks in the mail from someone “trying to be funny.” We also once rescued a rooster named Henry who lived with us for years after an unwitting human found him amongst his daily mail.

Regardless of the reasons they’re shipped, the conditions are brutal, and as a result, many of them die in transit. That’s not funny.

Last month, we received a voicemail from a post office worker who has dealt with an influx of live birds due to the Coronavirus and people searching for a way to source their own food. Folks are not only panic-buying cleaning supplies and toilet paper, but now, it seems, baby chicks, too.


We just had a box of chicks show up, and [the whole box] is dead… This is just—happens repeatedly… Please, please do something for these poor animals… If you can do something about this—these animals are being shipped in the mail. They’re thrown in these trucks. There’s no heat in the winter. There’s no air-conditioning in the summer, and sometimes they come and get boxes thrown on top of them. Please do something.” 


As a teaching sanctuary, we help good people understand the alarmingly few protections against cruelty afforded chickens, geese, turkeys, and ducks. The few laws that do exist to protect the welfare of animals raised for food most often don’t apply to our avian friends, and “live mailing” is just one of those laws. 

It is perfectly legal, as you stated, to ship live chicks through the mail, and in fact, some hatcheries and farms even encourage consumers to purchase extra chicks due to the likelihood that many won’t survive the journey. 

More troubling still is that for every chick who was mailed, whether they wind up at Tractor Supply, in feed stores, or in our own mailboxes, a baby boy chick has been killed. Demand for roosters is notably low, but just as with humans, there’s a 50% chance that every chick will be male. Within hours of emerging from their shells, chicks are “sexed” and males are either discarded in garbage bags, left to suffocate and die, or thrown into a macerator where they are ground up alive. 

Worldwide, about 7 billion chicks are culled each year in the egg industry—where each of these birds come from. To put that number in perspective: 7 billion seconds is 220 years. To travel 7 billion miles, you’d have to circle the globe 300,000 times. 7 billion is an enormous number. We are grateful that you were born a male human, and not one of those 7 billion chicks so that you could grow up to make us laugh on Sunday nights!

We know that images of boxes of dead chicks and yellow babies being ground alive are horrifying, and it may be hard to connect that to a well-intended joke, but the only way we can begin to make real changes for these animals is by shining a light on the very unfunny institutionalized cruelties inherent in the egg industry.

We invite you to visit us and learn more about our 300+ rescued animals (either when we’re finally able to open, or virtually).

If this pandemic is bringing up food scarcity fears for you, or for your audience, we encourage you to ask folks to plant a garden instead of building a coop, and not to make light of the suffering these birds endure as they’re shipped without protection. Inviting animals (the source of many zoonotic and infectious diseases as well as enormous suffering and pollution) into our mailboxes and backyards is not the answer.