I first learned about Karen Davis and United Poultry Concerns in 2009 when exploring ways to better understand and care for my first family of adopted chickens. I was immediately struck by the passion and power of her words. Ten years later, I have come to know Davis as a colleague in animal rights activism, and my respect for her work has only deepened over this decade. It is at this ten year juncture that Davis released her new book, For the Birds: From Exploitation to Liberation, which is a collection of her writings on a wide range of subjects that reflect both the heart and intelligence of a pioneering advocate for animals.
“Chicken-Human Relationships: From Procrustean Genocide to Empathic Anthropomorphism” is a groundbreaking look at the physical and cultural disfiguration of the chicken into a cheap food source, resulting in the erasure of the chicken’s true identity. The modern-day Procrustes masterminds new ways to force his victims into more grotesque physiological and psychological contortions, all the while masquerading as an animal welfarist who frames new technologies in torture as a win-win, good for both the animals and his bottom line. Davis lays bare the brutality and deception of the industry while reviving the lost and little-known attributes of the chicken’s nature, based on both scientific studies and lay observation.
Her vast knowledge of the egg industry is shockingly revealed in “The Life of One Battery Hen.” Reading this, one walks away with a portrait of an industry that is as morally broken beyond repair as it is fully committed to the cover up of its immorality.
“The Social Life of Chickens” and “The story of the little chicken named Viva who started it all“ are Davis’s moving, personal accounts of caring for, observing and interacting with a variety of individuals she’s rescued over the years. These works heightened my receptivity to chickens and all birds and to the potential for how we might interact and learn from them.
In addition to years of activism, Davis takes the time to mentor young and novice activists. In her work, “Moving Beyond The Rhetoric of Apology in Animal Rights,” Davis addresses some of the most common pitfalls that activists confront when communicating with the public, from giving our critics the power to define us in disparaging ways to betraying our message in an attempt to make it more palatable to the public.
Both Davis and I share a deep appreciation for the power of the media in shaping and potentially changing public perceptions of animals. For this reason, I was so pleased to see Davis so concisely describe many common media tropes in her piece, “Disengaged Journalism & The Disparagement & Disappearance of Animals.” This piece helps us specifically identify how journalists so often treat animal-related stories and why we must challenge them as part of our effort to hold the media more accountable and demand that animals be more accurately represented.
Davis has also pioneered the study of animal rights in connection with other social movements, including progressive politics and feminism, such as in “Are Feminists Right to Resist Comparison with the Females of Other Species?” Here, Davis deconstructs the speciesism and “us and them” mentality that explains why we consider a comparison to a hen insulting while a comparison to a lion complimentary. She is also unflinching in her analysis of subject matter that other authors would find too difficult, such as “Interspecies Sexual Assault: A Moral Perspective.” In this work, Davis questions the tenuous cultural and economic lines we’ve drawn between criminal bestiality and the routine breeding practices of farmers — practices which involve the sexual manipulation of chickens, turkeys, pigs, cows, and other species.
For the Birds: From Exploitation to Liberation is a thoroughly satisfying collection of Davis’s work which celebrates her achievements as an author, activist and rescuer who I have come to greatly admire. Those who are new to her writing will likely be struck by the range of subjects, while more seasoned readers will be grateful to find her most important ideas compiled into a single edition. I know that anyone who takes the time to read and absorb her wisdom will be greatly rewarded.