Karen Davis, president and founder of United Poultry Concerns, is a pioneer in farm animal welfare in the US and a wealth of information on such topics as poultry biology, behavior, intelligence and commercial processing. She is an unflinching and unapologetic advocate who inspires compassion and understanding for the status of birds that have been mass bred and raised for food, such as turkeys and chickens. I have the great pleasure of presenting her story here in what I hope will evolve into a 2-part interview.
Q. How did you become actively involved in poultry welfare issues?
In the early 1980s I joined the fledgling U.S. animal rights movement in the Washington DC area. Through the 1980s I read many books and articles about animal rights, deep ecology, and genetic engineering, learning as I did that of the billions of animals abused by humans, ninety-five percent were animals raised for food. Peter Singer’s depiction of these animals in “Down on the Factory Farm” in Animal Liberation was particularly influential in focusing my attention on farmed animals. I’d already become a vegetarian in the early 1970s after reading Leo Tolstoy’s essay “The First Step,” in which he described his visits to Moscow slaughterhouses. A decade later I plunged into farmed animal issues, and in the mid-1980s I volunteered at Farm Sanctuary, where for five weeks I lived in a trailer, took care of the animals and got to know them. Farmed animals were new to me. Afterward I wrote an article about my experience for The Animals’ Agenda, “Farm Sanctuary: A Peaceable Kingdom for Farm Animals.”
Of all the animals at the sanctuary, the birds were my favorites. I have always had an affinity for birds. Despite growing up in a somewhat rural town in Pennsylvania, where hunting and fishing were major activities and topics of conversation, I didn’t get to know chickens and turkeys until I went to work at Farm Sanctuary. By then I had learned that while farmed animals represented 95 percent of abused animals, the overwhelming majority of these animals were chickens. Fatefully, my husband and I moved to a place right around then where our landlady kept a small flock of chickens, and I started visiting them in their little shed. The chickens would be pressed against their screen door when I came down the dirt path through the trees, awaiting my arrival. One day, they were all gone – all except one crippled hen whom I gathered in my arms, brought into our kitchen and grew to love so much that my path in life began to emerge. If chickens were the largest number of abused land animals on the planet, they needed an advocate who would combine pure love for them as individuals with a scholarly devotion to promoting their interests and relieving their suffering, and thus it was that in 1990, I founded United Poultry Concerns as a nonprofit organization dedicated to the compassionate and respectful treatment of domestic fowl.
Q. What are some highlights and major accomplishments of United Poultry Concerns?
UPC’s biggest accomplishment is making chickens a major issue in the animal advocacy movement. Activists knew little about chickens in the 1980s. We knew something about the terrible suffering of hens in battery-cages, and I vividly remember an early PETA magazine cover photo of a baby chick being thrown in the garbage against a background of many other chicks inside a hatchery, but there was little information about chickens themselves, who they are, apart from their suffering at our hands. I also remember a letter to The Animals’ Agenda at the time asking why the magazine gave so much attention to whales (important as whales are) and so little to chickens, to which the editor replied that if we can’t even get people to care about saving the whales, how on earth can we expect to get anyone to care about chickens?
When I decided to start United Poultry Concerns, I was warned by some that people weren’t ready for chickens. This proved false, but the point, in any case, was to make people ready. One of the many ways I’ve done this is by writing my book Prisoned Chickens, Poisoned Eggs: An Inside Look at the Modern Poultry Industry. First published in 1996, reissued expanded and updated in 2009, Prisoned Chickens, Poisoned Eggs brings to light the poultry industry’s own account of its transformation of the chicken, from an active outdoor bird to a sedentary prison inmate and “machine” filled with suffering, sickness and antibiotics. It reveals the tragedy of chickens through the lens of the industry that created their tragedy without pity or guilt. The book became, as I hoped it would, a blueprint for people seeking a coherent picture of the modern poultry industry and a handbook for activists seeking effective strategies to expose and relieve the plight of chickens. Prisoned Chickens, Poisoned Eggs is also an invaluable source of information about the family life of chickens, starting inside the egg, just as my book More Than a Meal: The Turkey in History, Myth, Ritual, and Reality provides a comprehensive look at the life of turkeys from the time they are born.
In the 1990s, United Poultry Concerns conducted two primary campaigns that I’ll briefly describe. One was our exposure of the U.S. egg industry’s practice of starving hens for weeks at a time to reduce the cost of egg production, known as forced molting. In 1992, I discovered the literature on forced molting at the National Agricultural Library in Beltsville, Maryland, and published “Starving Hens for Profit” in our quarterly magazine Poultry Press. The following year I found information on the link between forced molting and Salmonella enteritidis in hens and their eggs. These findings prompted an intense UPC campaign with many ramifications, one of which was my successful persuasion of Marc Kaufman of The Washington Post to publish a cover article in the Sunday edition of The Post on April 30, 2000. “Cracks in the Egg Industry: Criticism Mounts to End Forced Molting” revealed forced molting to millions of readers. It was a key turning point in our campaign that resulted ultimately in getting both the U.S trade group United Egg Producers and the American Veterinary Medical Association to oppose forcing hens to molt by starving them. To learn about our campaign to end forced molting, see http://www.upc-online.org/molting/60905suffer.htm in www.upc-online.org/molting.
I should mention in this regard that we’d already gotten the forced molting issue into The Washington Post the previous year as part of a powerful three-page profile article on United Poultry Concerns in the Sunday Style Section of the newspaper on November 14, 1999. “For the Birds” by Tamara Jones won the Ark Trust Genesis Award for Best Newspaper Feature in 1999. Click on www.upc-online.org/991114wpost_karen_davis.html to read this award-winning article.
“For the Birds” brought publicity to UPC’s other big campaign in the 1990s, which was to educate people about the poultry slaughter process. In particular we focused attention on the process of subjecting chickens, turkeys and ducks to “electrical stunning,” in which the birds’ feet are clamped to a metal conveyer belt and they are dragged, head down, through cold, salted electrified water designed to paralyze the muscles of their feather follicles so that their feathers will come out more easily after they are dead, and to immobilize them on the slaughter line. The birds are not stunned or intended to be stunned. Instead they are deliberately tortured with electricity for strictly commercial purposes. It has been my relentless insistence on the fact that the birds are electrically paralyzed with painful electrical shocks while fully conscious, as opposed to being rendered pain-free or unconscious, which has led to the current animal welfare campaigns to get the poultry industry to switch from electrical “stunning” to gas stunning as a less cruel method of immobilizing birds in the slaughter plants, prior to cutting their throats.
The other key aspect of our poultry slaughter campaign was our lobby on behalf of three bills introduced by House Representative Andrew Jacobs of Indiana to amend the Poultry Products Inspection Act to include a humane slaughter provision for poultry. While we succeeded in getting major media coverage, a congressional briefing, and a subcommittee hearing, all three bills died in the House Agriculture Subcommittee to which they were referred, and our effort to get a Senate companion bill was defeated by the agribusiness lobby. To this day, poultry remain excluded from the federal Humane Methods of Slaughter Act. For more information, see www.upc-online.org/slaughter.
Currently United Poultry Concerns has a campaign to eliminate chicken slaughter projects from high school curriculums, adding to our effort begun in 1994 to eliminate school hatching projects and other classroom cruelties to chickens (www.upc-online.org/hatching). In recent years, several schools, including an 8th-grade classroom in Idaho, have purchased baby chicks from industrial hatcheries for students to raise and slaughter. Teachers and administrators rationalize these classroom butcheries as “real life lessons that teach students where their food comes from.” In 2008, we campaigned successfully to remove the Chicken Project permanently from the curriculum of Canandaigua Academy in upstate New York, and we have since stopped two other schools from repeating this classroom atrocity. For more information about our education campaigns, see www.upc-online.org/classroom.
Q. What’s the story behind your chicken sanctuary?
As I noted above, a chicken – her name was Viva – inspired me to found United Poultry Concerns. Of course there’s a more complicated story, but the point is that during the period of educating myself about the poultry industry, I became acquainted with a chicken and she had a profound and lasting effect on me. I am deeply drawn to chickens. Even before starting UPC in 1990, I’d adopted a few chickens from a now defunct sanctuary in Washington, DC and from the Montgomery County Humane Society in Maryland from which we continue to adopt roosters and hens from time to time, even though we’ve been on the lower Eastern Shore of Virginia, four hours away, since 1998. The reason I moved our headquarters from outside Washington, DC to this rural part of the country dominated by the chicken industry was for the sanctuary. We needed an affordable place with the zoning that would allow us to maintain our rescued hens and crowing roosters, so we ended up here.
The sanctuary is an essential part of United Poultry Concerns. Not only is it a refuge for chickens rescued from farming and cockfighting operations and an opportunity for visitors to meet them; it’s my primary source of information about chickens, enabling me to educate people and to challenge poultry industry lies, like the one they like to spread about how chickens and turkeys can’t handle the outdoors and can only live in total confinement. So, I ask, how do you explain the fact that here at our sanctuary, these very same chickens, rescued from battery cages and industrial chicken farms where they never set foot on the earth before they got here, how do you explain that right here in our yard they are vigorously digging in the ground with their claws, jumping up on tree branches, sunbathing, dustbathing, socializing, exhibiting curiosity, hiding instinctively from hawks overhead, sounding predator warnings, showing affection and doing all the things that characterize their ancestors and wild relatives? How do you explain their ability to adapt so readily to a whole new environment? A chief benefit of our sanctuary is that it allows me through my writings and speaking engagements to bring the sanctuary experience to people who, even if they cannot literally visit us, are enabled by way of vicarious experience and video footage to get to know our birds by having our sanctuary brought to them.
Our birds, seen in pleasant, woodsy surroundings that stimulate their activities and reveal their charms, are their own best ambassadors. One of my favorite stories concerns media celebrity Ira Glass, host of the popular public radio program This American Life. Some years ago we were running a campaign against his annual fall “poultry slam” which featured mean-spirited stories (meant to be funny) about chickens and turkeys between Thanksgiving and Christmas. I challenged Ira to come to our sanctuary and meet the birds his guests were badmouthing, and he came. The result was that he became a vegetarian and told millions of viewers on Late Night with David Letterman how he was touched and changed by our chickens. You can watch the video clip by going to www.upc-online.org/karenbio.htm and scrolling down to “Ira Glass Tells David Letterman how Karen & her chickens led him to become a vegetarian.”
A couple of years ago a friend urged me to write an essay about chickens based strictly on my own observations and interpretations, foregoing the usual “science says” formula and simply talking about what I personally have learned and believe about chickens based on my experiences with them as narrated in the essay. This was a challenge for which I am grateful, for it inspired me to tell stories of some of the many chickens I have known and loved, adding to portraits I had already drawn (see www.upc-online.org/stories), thereby preserving the lives of these birds not only in my own memory but in the hearts and minds of many other people. You can read the essay by going to the topic “Thinking Like A Chicken” on our homepage. Click it on and you’ll see “The Social Life of Chickens” at www.upc-online.org/thinking/social_life_of_chickens.html.
Q. In your opinion, what are the most effective ways to continue to address poultry welfare issues?
I believe that as advocates we must continually educate ourselves about the animals we seek to help. In the case of chickens, we must inform ourselves not only about the conditions they endure on factory farms – the darkness, crowding, filth, diseases, mutilations, brutal handling, boredom, and so on – but about who they are when they are not suffering and being abused. When we learn about the evolution and natural life of chickens, about their complex social relationships, their devotion to one another and their young, their intelligent abilities to enjoy and defend themselves, and all of the vigor and vibrancy of their lives in their own world of Chickendom, as well as within our sanctuary care, then something of the nature and depth of their suffering can be understood and articulated. We need to help the public understand that merely being outside of a cage or shuffled about in a movable pasture, while better than the most severe forms of confinement, does not constitute a humane or satisfying life for chickens. Despite thousands of years of domestication, chickens, even with traits bred into them for meat and egg production, are essentially the wild jungle fowl of their ancestry, with the same cravings for lush soil, trees, and activities suited to the tropical forests they originated in. Chickens in the natural world as well as feral chickens such as those in Key West, Florida spend most of their time raising and protecting their families. I always tell people that roosters, far from being bloodthirsty fighters as cock fighters would have it, are basically family men, devoted to their hens and chicks. And, yes, they will defend their families to the death if necessary, as will a mother hen.
All this being said, I think the best way to address poultry welfare issues is by combining an affirmative animal rights-vegan advocacy with efforts to improve conditions for the billions of birds who will never live to see a vegan world. I believe we owe it to the birds to do what we can to make their lives less miserable through legislation and public pressure, and to hold the industries that own them accountable. Left to itself, animal agriculture has no morality. Decades of reading agribusiness and farming publications and attending poultry welfare meetings have taught me that people who raise and slaughter animals do not respect or empathize with animals but regard them solely as resources put here by “God” or Nature to feed and glorify humans. I think there is little we can do to help animals trapped in food production; it simply is too vast, hidden, and complicated to regulate or even monitor. Even as we work for welfare reforms such as banning battery cages for laying hens, which I think we should do, but without overstating what can actually be accomplished, the reality of an expanding population of nearly 7 billion people* who are consuming 50 billion terrestrial animals each year and countless billions of sea animals (in 2009 Americans alone consumed 51 billion sea animals) means that the way to animal welfare (to animals faring well) lies in eliminating the demand for animal products in favor of vegetarian – vegan – food.
I think there are lots of things activists can do to get more people to care about animals and hopefully to stop eating them. I think the most important thing for an animal advocate is to stand up for animals and never, ever apologize for them or for caring about them. If there is one theme that has occupied me ever since I became an animal advocate in the 1980s, it is the lack of confidence that often surfaces when advocates face the public. I call this failure of nerve conveyed through anxious, self-deprecating speech, “the rhetoric of apology in animal rights.” Moving beyond the rhetoric of apology to a confident rhetoric of affirmation for animals and a compassionate vegan world is vital. A vegan world is a place without slaughterhouses and animal slavery. It is a place where the fellowship of animals is valued, and the dignity of their lives and feelings is respected. Never say the public “isn’t ready.” Our task is to do our best to make people ready. “Moving Beyond the Rhetoric of Apology” can be read at www.upc-online.org/thinking/rhetoric.pdf.
KAREN DAVIS, PhD is the president and founder of United Poultry Concerns, a nonprofit organization that promotes the compassionate and respectful treatment of domestic fowl. She’s the founding editor of UPC’s quarterly magazine Poultry Press and the author of several books including Prisoned Chickens, Poisoned Eggs: An Inside Look at the Modern Poultry Industry, More Than a Meal: The Turkey in History, Myth, Ritual, and Reality, and The Holocaust and the Henmaid’s Tale: A Case for Comparing Atrocities. Karen maintains a sanctuary for chickens, turkeys and ducks on the Eastern Shore of Virginia To learn more, visit www.upc-online.org and www.upc-online.org/karenbio.htm.