Eventually live turkeys joined the feast. But not at first.
Chloe Sorvino, food and drink editor for the business magazine Forbes, marked Thanksgiving 2020 by looking back 40 years to the invention of Tofurky in 1980, by then-nature educator Seth Tibbott.
Described as a “turkey alternative,” blending tofu and wheat with a wild rice and bread crumb stuffing, Tofurky reached supermarket shelves 25 years ago, in 1995.
Tofurky today, projects Forbes, “has likely revenue of about $50 million,” including an increase in sales estimated at 32% in 2020 alone.
Thanksgiving 30 years ago
Between the debut of Tofurky as a niché product, known only to the most dedicated denizens of health food stores, and eventual commercial success, came the rise of the animal rights movement––but 30 Thanksgivings ago, many animal rights movement participants were not yet vegetarian, let alone vegan.
Even those who were nominally vegetarian or vegan often lapsed at Thanksgiving and Christmas to participate in traditional family get-togethers featuring a roasted turkey.
Those of us who did not lapse would often gather at potlucks among a relative handful of fellow veggies, mostly semi-strangers, who arrived in response to bulletin board notices.
Those who could cook brought squash dishes and pumpkin pie. The rest of us brought cranberry sauce and looked for something appropriate to put it on.
We had in common chiefly perplexed despair that factory-farmed birds were not yet prominent on the animal rights agenda.
The suffering of poultry, after all, seemed so much more obvious than that of many other animals whose plight had already become focal to the cause.
The success of Tofurky, Gardein and Field Roast ersatz chicken products, Quorn, and myriad other alternatives to poultry now found in every supermarket makes clear that those days are over.
Opposition to eating birds is now led not by activists (or journalists who cover animal advocacy), but by people in every walk of life who are simply choosing what to have for breakfast, lunch, dinner, or a special family meal occasion such as Thanksgiving, Christmas, or Easter.
Vegetarians and vegans still face a bit of rejection and resistance from food traditionalists, but rarely these days from grocery store managers and restaurant menu planners.
Pivotal change in the nature of advocacy
Quite a lot had a part in effecting the transition that made the growing place for Tofurky at Thanksgiving. One was a pivotal change in the nature of animal advocacy.
Looking back 30 Thanksgivings to 1990, the two most significant animal advocacy events of that year were––as expected––the first March for the Animals in Washington D.C., led by the late Tom Regan (1938-2017), and, almost completely overlooked at the time, the incorporation of United Poultry Concerns by Karen Davis.
The March for the Animals, followed six years later by a debacle of the same name, ending in low participation and much allegedly missing money, was in effect the beginning of the end of the vivisection-and-fur-focused first phase of the modern animal rights movement.
That was the phase in which the issues were seen in simple terms of good guys and bad guys, and the bad guys were someone else, doing awful things in either an academic ivory tower, Dr. Frankenstein’s castle, or otherwise so brazenly that they could pretend a fur coat symbolized something positive.
Where the animal rights movement turned a corner
The formation of United Poultry Concerns marked the start of the second phase, in which activists shifted their attention to what they could personally do to set an example and make a difference, for example by fixing feral cats, getting involved in electoral politics, and going vegetarian or vegan.
There were active vegetarian communes in the U.S. more than seventy years before anyone founded a humane society, and there were many other farm animal advocacy organizations before United Poultry Concerns.
Already integral to the animal rights movement were the Farm Animal Rights Movement, founded by Alex Hershaft in 1981, the Humane Farming Association, founded by Brad Miller in 1985, and Farm Sanctuary, begun by Gene Baur in 1986, for which Thanksgiving distribution of rescued turkeys became a signature event.
Spira, Singer, Mason, Robbins
Henry Spira, the most accomplished anti-vivisection crusader of all time, had argued since 1985 that the movement should logically refocus on diet, since that would be the next opportunity to effect a steep reduction in what he termed “the universe of suffering.”
Neither was Davis the first to point out that chickens and other poultry, doing more than 95% of all the human-caused animal suffering and dying in the world, hold a far higher moral claim on humane movement consciousness than they have ever received.
Spira recited that statistic like a mantra while pushing poultry baron Frank Perdue in futile hope of getting him to make reforms.
Peter Singer, Jim Mason, and John Robbins had already pointed out the numbers in Animal Liberation, Animal Factories, and Diet For A New America.
Big groups backed away
But none of them won strong big-group support for campaigns on behalf of poultry.
And none of them, for whatever it matters, appeared at that point to have ever heard of Tofurky.
The Humane Society of the U.S. began one campaign decrying the “breakfast of cruelty,” featuring bacon and eggs, then backed away as if splashed with hot grease.
American SPCA president John Kullberg in 1991 spoke out in favor of vegetarianism and got fired.
Who would stand up for the chickens, turkeys, ducks, and geese?
Not I, said one big-group executive after another.
“Then I will,” said Davis, flapping her arms and thrusting her beak at Vegetarian Times founder Paul Obis during the 1990 National Animal Rights Conference, hosted by FARM in Alexandria, Virginia.
The Little Red Hen
Davis was one furious Little Red Hen (with jet-black hair) on that occasion, after Obis, who sold Vegetarian Times soon afterward and died in 2018 at age 66, accepted an ad for a prepackaged chicken pilaf mix.
Except for Obis, who could not escape down the hall no matter how he tried, and Spira, who encouraged Davis, hardly anyone took the Little Red Hen seriously at first. She had no money, no major political connections, and was even by her own admission an extreme eccentric, reportedly allowing rescued chickens to run in and out her windows and across her desk in the middle of the few very important mass media interviews that came her way.
The right person for the job
But the Little Red Hen turned out to be the right person for the job. Reporters left those strange interviews saying to themselves, and others, in calls seeking further perspective, “Karen Davis is a chicken! She is telling us what chickens would, if they could.”
They couldn’t help realizing that chickens are much more intelligent and sensitive than they had ever imagined. They found Davis likably charismatic, perhaps because of her oddness, and eventually she began getting more media attention than many of the supposed movement superstars.
More important, some reporters confessed that they could no longer eat chicken. Somehow the Little Red Hen had gotten to them.
Expanding the circle of compassion
Those who know chickens really well are aware that they do not limit their circle of compassion to their own kind.
Chickens can practice cannibalism, and roosters notoriously fight to the death, yet a hen will faithfully sit on any eggs she is given, and will mother the hatchings to the best of her ability, whether they are close relatives, reptiles, or even a neonatal kitten placed in the nest to keep warm
This is not because hens are too stupid to know the difference.
On the contrary, many hens will somehow know enough to lead ducklings and goslings to water, will lead other birds to whatever they need, and will even try to lead a kitten to kibble, skipping the nursing stage perhaps because they simply lack the means to nurse.
Speaking for turkeys
Such an instinct may be why The Little Red Hen wrote More Than A Meal (2001), still in print, on behalf of turkeys, and made it her best of many good books.
Davis did some first-rate investigative reporting to chase down the origins of myths about turkeys, and the origins of turkeys themselves. Her writing is passionate, yet not shrill.
Davis’ included several of her More Than A Meal anecdotes in her 2019 ANIMALS 24-7 guest column Turkeys: Sympathy, Sensibility, and Sentience.
For example, Davis wrote, “Everette M. Prosise, in a fall 1999 letter to Virginia Tech Magazine, described an awesome mother turkey fly into action to protect her poults from a hawk in rural Virginia.”
Recounted Prosise, “I saw a turkey coming into the back field. She had about 10 babies about the size of large quail walking with her.
“They both fell about 10 feet”
“Without warming, the hen took off vertically as if she had stepped on a mine. About 20 feet off the ground, she intercepted and attacked a hawk that was coming in for a baby. The hen hit the hawk with her feet first and with her back almost parallel to the ground. The hawk flew toward the back of the field with the turkey hen in pursuit; it turned back towards the babies, and the hen hit it again.
“They both fell about 10 feet and were fighting with their feet, until the hawk headed for the tree line and kept going. The hen returned to her babies. When they went back into the pines, the babies were very close to their mother’s feet. Wish you could have seen it.”
Noted Davis, “Thanks to this keen observer, we did!
For me, reading More Than A Meal first on a 2001 flight from San Francisco to Seattle, it was a page-turner, opened at takeoff and completed right at landing.
Reached a turkey biologist
As we taxied to the gate, the young man across the aisle and one row back tapped me on the shoulder, and asked if he could have the title, in order to buy his own copy. He had been reading along with me, he explained, and got hooked.
Handing him my card, I expected to hear that he was an animal rights advocate and militant vegan.
Not at all. He was a second-generation wildlife biologist. His dad was restoring huntable turkey populations not far from Davis’ home in Virginia.
Still, the young man never knew before that there was so much to know about turkeys, and he sounded as if the Little Red Hen had ensured that he would never see turkeys the same way again.
Jamaka Petzak says
“The Little Red Hen” was one of my favorite stories. My mother read it to me when I was quite small.
One of my flock of chickens would sit with a fellow hen when she was about to pass. She was very caring of her sisters.
Sharing to social media, with gratitude.
Karen Davis, PhD author says
Thank you very much for your article about me and my work, going back 30+ years, to those early days in the 1980s when some animal advocates urged me to start United Poultry Concerns (a big supporter of the project was Henry Spira), while others said an organization focusing on chickens and turkeys would never fly – but here we are, still ascending! My new book of essays, For the Birds: From Exploitation to Liberation, is being published soon this year, by Lantern Books. It includes two articles originally published by Animals 24-7.
Karen Davis, United Poultry Concerns http://www.upc-online.org
Dr. Will Tuttle says
Thank you for this excellent essay and review that captures some of the unique contributions that Karen Davis has made to the animal liberation movement. She has been a capable, authentic, persistent, and inspiring voice for birds and all of us for 3 decades. You really have done well in writing this important piece!
Karen Davis, PhD author says
Thank you, again, for your article about me and United Poultry Concerns. It’s wonderful, but I have a concern about your use of the term “cannibalism” relating to chickens. The term connotes behavior that most people automatically react to negatively and can use, consciously or otherwise, to justify their abuse of or indifference to chickens. Having kept chickens since 1985, I have not seen “cannibalism’ although, on RARE occasions, a hen for unknown or complex reasons will pick on, or at, another hen. In a natural environment or outdoor sanctuary like ours (predator-proof since 2014), with soil, bushes, trees, lots of space, etc., chickens simply run away from an aggressor or flit up to a tree branch.
Chickens in confinement can be driven to pick at each other’s bodies due to their inability in confinement to adequately meet their nutritional needs and to have something to pull on and peck at in an environment that excludes materials for them to exercise their genetic need to forage, pull at plant leaves, and do things that the dry, powdery mash they are forced to eat does not allow them to do. Chickens have a genetic need to dustbathe, and when they cannot exercise their inborn need to practice bodily hygiene, using their claws and beaks to rake in particles of earth, they can be driven to start “raking in” one another’s feathers as there is no other material for them to work with in a captive environment of metal, plastic, and wires.
In short, I do not want to contribute to the idea of chickens as “cannibals.” This industry term arose when farmers began confining chickens indoors. The industry has told its own story about the beginning of “cannibalism” in captive chickens incarcerated in barren environments. Their response to the abnormal behavior which THEY caused in the birds was to burn off part of their beaks.
A 1960s study lasting several months, of feral chickens on an island off the coast of Australia, conducted by McBride, et al., noted in their published monograph that no serious fights among roosters or hens were ever observed. They underscored that serious fights are a reflection of the stress of captivity in chickens. In addition, they describe in detail the extent to which roosters and hens living normal lives are occupied with raising, protecting, and interacting with their chicks and other family members. Picking at each other, and fighting amongst themselves, is not how they spend their time.
— Karen Davis, United Poultry Concerns http://www.upc-online.org
Karen Davis says
Hello, Animals 24-7 and thank you very much for your article featuring my advocacy for the birds going back to our “official” beginning in October 1990 thirty years ago. It is indeed gratifying that Tofurky products are a growing market. It’s gratifying that even in rural Virginia on the Eastern Shore the two main super-stores, Food Lion and Walmart, carry Tofurky products including the delectable Tofurky sausages. But behind the happiness and progress of these increasingly popular vegan foods, the plight of turkeys remains. These avian lovers of the woods and fields are confined in the most horrible conditions of filth, misery, injury, and fear.
A recent article by journalist Martha Rosenberg cites a live turkey hanger at a turkey slaughter plant in North Carolina telling her about the terrible pain the turkeys are in with their broken, twisted legs. Yet, he says the tortured turkeys do not make a sound, do not cry out. Their entire life experience consists of human violence toward them. They are in a condition of Learned Helplessness and Learned Hopelessness. This condition is what people who eat turkey products put in their mouths. A mouthful of sorrow and suffering. The Tofurky gravy train cannot come fast enough.
Karen Davis, PhD, President, United Poultry Concerns. http://www.upc-online.org
Jamaka Petzak says
Sharing to socials with gratitude and again remembering my wonderful flock in the Mojave, each with a distinct personality, each beautiful, and each, I hope, having lived a good life in their large, sandy yard, perching in their ancient juniper or in the henhouse or barn at dusk.
Cathy Sue Ragan-Anunsen says
Wonderful article about the important work of Karen Davis.
Thank you to animals24-7.org
and of course heartfelt gratitude goes to Karen for devoting her life to changing the public’s misperceptions of chickens and Turkeys. Being “first” is never easy.
Cathy Sue Ragan-Anunsen