Karen Davis was a frequent ANIMALS 24-7 guest columnist & commentator
MACHIPONGO, Virginia––United Poultry Concerns founder Karen Davis, or Karen Davis, PhD., as she always signed her writings, “passed away peacefully on the morning of November 4, 2023 at the United Poultry Concerns sanctuary, surrounded by her beloved birds,” the organization announced, pledging to “continue her vision and legacy through our sanctuary and vegan advocacy.”
Karen Davis, a friend and frequent news source for ANIMALS 24-7 since 1988, contributed to ANIMALS 24-7 twenty-two guest columns (see list and links below) plus 287 posted comments on articles. Karen Davis was also especially encouraging of the collage work of Beth Clifton, reprinting many of Beth’s collages in the United Poultry Concerns periodical UPC Poultry Press and occasionally requesting collages especially for UPC Poultry Press.
Fought cancer since 2019
Karen Davis, 79, had fought cancer since 2019, compounded in May 2021 by “a fall that required emergency spinal surgery, followed by a lengthy stay in a rehabilitation facility, from June 4 to July 23, in Nassawadox, Virginia,” she emailed to ANIMALS 24-7 upon her release.
Karen Davis attributed the fall to “a systemic bacterial infection contracted through a chemotherapy port that resulted in my falling down our front stairs backward due to the weakness caused by the infection.”
But even that did not slow or deter Karen Davis in her educational mission on behalf of animals, especially chickens.
“I taught the kitchen staff in both facilities [hospital and rehab clinic] what vegan food is, and was rewarded with very good meals once they understood,” she continued.
Built poultry cause into a movement within a movement
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 when United Poultry Concerns debuted in 1990 were the Farm Animal Reform Movement, founded in 1981, the Humane Farming Association, founded in 1985, and Farm Sanctuary, founded in 1986.
Henry Spira (1927-1998), probably the most effective anti-vivisection activist ever, had argued since 1985 that the animal advocates, having won several major victories toward reducing animal use in laboratories, should refocus on diet. This, Spira said, 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 their books Animal Liberation, Animal Factories, and Diet For A New America.
But none of them won strong big-group support for campaigns on behalf of poultry. 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 in favor of vegetarianism and got fired.
Who would stand up?
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 like one furious Little Red Hen (with jet-black hair) at the 1990 National Animal Rights Conference hosted by the Farm Animal Reform Movement [now called the Farm Animal Rights Movement], after Obis accepted an ad for a prepackaged chicken pilaf mix.
Except for Obis, who could not get away on that occasion, 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.
Mass media took Karen Davis seriously before most of the animal rights movement did
But the Little Red Hen turned out to be the right person for the job. Reporters left those strange interviews writing, in essence, “Karen Davis is a chicken! She is telling us what chickens would, if they could.”
They could not help realizing that chickens are much more intelligent and sensitive than they had ever imagined. They found Karen Davis likably charismatic, perhaps because of her oddness.
Eventually, after years of paying hard dues to be taken seriously, Karen Davis began getting more ink and air time than many of the supposed movement superstars.
More important, to her, some of the media personalities who interviewed Karen Davis confessed that they could no longer eat chicken.
Somehow the Little Red Hen had gotten to them.
Opposed hunting in family of hunters
Born in Altoona, Pennsylvania, daughter of a stay-at-home mother who taught French and a trial lawyer who eventually became the Blair County district attorney, Karen Davis was the eldest in a family also including three younger brothers.
All three brothers, and her father, were avid hunters.
Karen Davis found refuge in rock-and-roll.
“As a teenager in the 1950s and early sixties,” she recalled to ANIMALS 24-7, “I was in love with Elvis Presley and even had a picture of him that glowed in the dark above my bed.”
By age 13, Karen Davis often disrupted family dinners with arguments against hunting and fishing.
“I despise hunters & gun enthusiasts”
“I cannot relate, from any standpoint, to people who stalk, terrorize, wound, and kill for pleasure,” Karen Davis wrote late in life, “and I despise guns and gun enthusiasts totally.
“My brother Amos’s eye was shot out with a bb-gun by my brother Tim when Amos was five years old, but that had no effect on either my father or Amos.
“My father sport-hunted well into his eighties, half blind, and Amos, missing one eye, was an obsessive hunter. I don’t know what he does these days. I don’t want to know, unless he has laid down his weapons.
“Among other small animals whom my father injured and killed and taught my brothers to injure and kill, my father and his friends gunned down ring-necked pheasants for recreation.
“I watched my father and other men standing in the kitchen in the early morning decked in bright orange, talking about the great day of killing that lay ahead. They’d load the dogs yelping into the car trunk, slam it shut, and off they went.
A walk in the woods
“Once I went for walk in the woods with my father and one of my brothers the day before the first day of ‘pheasant season,’” Karen Davis remembered.
“They were discussing their visit earlier that morning to the pheasant farm that would release the hand-reared pheasants for recreational killing the following day. My brother said to my father about that visit, ‘I just wish I had had my gun.’ He wished he could shoot the birds while they were still in the pens, before the canned hunt in the woods had even begun.
“Having grown up in a family and community dominated by ‘hunters,’ whose so-called hunting mostly amounted to canned hunts of helpless targets, I was exposed to the sadistic joy of training (mistreating) beagles to chase down rabbits, and raising ring-necked pheasants in pens purely for the sake of shooting the tame and bewildered birds at close range when they were released from the pens.
“My father liked to say, ‘Everything hunts the rabbit.’ When I presented my brother about to be married with a framed watercolor of a rabbit in a field of daisies I had painted as a wedding present, my father said, “That rabbit better not come around during huntin’ season.’ He thought that remark was a good joke.”
From admiration of Elvis to emulating Ric O’Barry & Paul Watson
As an adult, Karen Davis had little further to do with her birth family.
Karen Davis suffered “a psychological crisis” while at Westminster College in New Wilmington, Pennsylvania, reported Washington Post obituarist Harrison Smith.
There, wrote Smith, “She studied Russian and German history while pursuing a sociology degree. She said she became obsessed with Nazi death camps and the Soviet Gulag, fixating on the suffering of innocent people, and tried to kill herself after her freshman year. She dropped out and moved back home, taking a job at a clothing store.
“In the early 1960s, I became involved in the civil rights movement,” Karen Davis told ANIMALS 24-7, but “by the early 1970s I began to agonize over the suffering and abuse of nonhuman animals.”
Karen Davis around that time first read about Dolphin Project founder Ric O’Barry, the former dolphin trainer who has worked to end dolphin captivity since Earth Day 1970, and Paul Watson, who first became famous for confronting Russian whalers off the northern California coast.
Of O’Barry, Karen Davis told ANIMALS 24-7, “I deeply admire his moral courage on behalf of dolphins, whales, orcas, sharks, tuna, sea turtles, fish, lobsters, crabs, shrimp, clams, oysters, and all water-dwelling creatures who have the misfortune of living on this planet with our species.
“I have always liked and admired Paul Watson,” Karen Davis added. “He chose a challenging and dangerous life on behalf of our victims of the sea. He acted not only on behalf of those victims but for land animals including birds as well by establishing a vegan food policy for the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society,” scrapped after Watson was ousted from the Sea Shepherds in 2022, but now in effect at Watson’s new organization, the Captain Paul Watson Foundation.
Disillusioned by “no-kill” shelter
Karen Davis decided to do what she could on behalf of animals herself, but taking a job for six months at the Pets Unlimited no-kill dog and cat shelter in San Francisco proved severely disillusioning.
“Pets Unlimited was a tax shelter for a wealthy family,” Karen Davis wrote, “who occasionally brought little pet dogs in mink vests to visit the place. The two office managers were themselves mentally off balance. The room upstairs was a madhouse for dogs who were no longer considered adoptable. Puppies would sometimes be turned into the “shelter” and end up developing kennel fever.
“The cats mostly slept. Each morning the dogs were let out of their cages to run in a concrete passageway for about 10 minutes. Then they would be yanked by their collars and chains back to their cages frantic and crying.”
Learned from parrot
Karen Davis found a friend, though, in “a beloved blue-fronted Amazon female parrot. Her name was Tikhon. I rescued her in 1972 by buying her from a store where she was in a cage all alone behind plexiglass. It was unbearable to me seeing her there. I would go to that store specifically to see if she was still there, unsold. One evening, I couldn’t stand it anymore, so I bought her and am glad I did. I loved her deeply and she returned that love many times over,” until her death in 1994.
“We mustn’t forget that chickens, like parrots, evolved to live and thrive in forests,” Karen Davis mused. “The world of the tropical forest resides in their genetic makeup despite all the obscene and destructive ‘breeding’ they have helplessly undergone, just like the poor, helpless parrots, macaws and other vibrant avian souls whose joy of life our species has carelessly stripped away.”
Karen Davis became a vegetarian in 1974, after reading The First Step, by the Russian author and vegetarian commune founder Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910), describing his visit to a Moscow slaughterhouse.
The Gulf of St. Lawrence
“Out of the blue,” Karen Davis recalled, “I started getting mail about the slaughter of the harp seals in the Gulf of St. Lawrence from the New Brunswick SPCA, which became the International Fund for Animal Welfare. In March 1974 I joined an IFAW-sponsored tour to the Magdalen Islands in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, to see the newborn seals and their mothers on the ice floes off Grindstone Island.
“I thought no hunting would be taking place where we were going. The idea of the tour was to promote seal-watching instead of seal-killing. But I was wrong. So excruciating was the sight of baby seals being clubbed in the distance, the cries of the mother seals and their young filling the air, and the pink, blood-soaked ice at my feet, that I shied away from animal abuse issues until the early 1980s.”
Belton Mouras, Virginia Handley, & Vernon Weir
On that trip, however, Karen Davis met Belton Mouras, a World War II hero who went on to found first the Animal Protection Institute, now merged into the Born Free Foundtion, and later founded United Animal Nations, now called Red Rover.
“Belton introduced me to the tireless animal protection legislative lobbyist in San Francisco, Virginia Handley,” Karen Davis said.
“At the Summit for the Animals meetings, Belton and Vernon Weir stressed the importance of always thanking every single donor, advice I took to heart and have followed ever since,” Karen Davis remembered.
Taught at University of Maryland
Temporarily disengaged from animal advocacy, Karen Davis pursued an academic career, teaching for 12 years at the University of Maryland, and married a colleague, University of Maryland professor of Victorian literature George Allan Cate (1935-2012).
While working on the Ph.D. in English that she eventually earned, Karen Davis “taught a writing course at the University of Maryland, College Park, designed for students in their sophomore year who planned to enter the nursing profession,” she recalled.
“One student wrote a paper on the Silver Spring monkeys case. In it she defended animal experimenter Dr. Edward Taub, whose treatment of the primates he used in nerve-severing experiments at the Institute for Behavioral Research in Silver Spring, Maryland, led to his arrest and conviction on cruelty charges in 1981. Unfortunately, in 1983, the Maryland Court of Appeals reversed his conviction, ruling that state anti-cruelty laws did not apply to research conducted under a federal program.
“My initiation into the animal rights movement”
“At the time,” Karen Davis acknowledged, “the names ‘Silver Spring monkeys’ and “Taub” rang only a small bell in my head. The paper stirred, without satisfying, my curiosity concerning the case against Edward Taub. I told the student she would have to supply the missing evidence and arguments on the other side before I could assign a grade to her paper.”
Meanwhile, Karen Davis recalled, “An article in The Washington Post about Ingrid Newkirk, who had recently cofounded People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, alerted me to the animal rights movement which was just then getting underway.
“The Silver Spring Monkeys case was PETA’s first big case, and it was my initiation into the animal rights movement,” Karen Davis said.
Attending a World Laboratory Animals Day demonstration in Lafayette Park, Washington D.C., with her husband, Karen Davis “saw two poster photos,” she remembered.
“One was of a nonhuman primate who had had a head transplant with big black sutures.
“The other was of a laboratory beagle in a metal cage whose side had been intentionally burned in an experiment. Their wounds and most especially the expression on their faces led me, on the spot, to pledge never again to abandon animals to their fate because I couldn’t bear knowing about their suffering and abuse. Henceforth I was an animal advocate/activist.”
Studied animal rights before it was an academic subject
The campaign on behalf of the Silver Spring monkeys included “candlelight vigils at the head of the National Institutes of Health’s house, stationing ourselves on the grounds of NIH for a couple of months till late at night each night, and standing on Rockville Pike with big posters depicting the tortured monkeys,” Karen Davis recalled. “A large group of activists occupied the 11th floor of the NIH offices for several days. My husband and I joined the support group outside the building.”
Despite all the effort, Karen Davis saw, “In the end, the NIH refused to allow the monkeys to go to a sanctuary. They would not ‘cave in’ to animal rights pleadings.”
This experience helped to inform Karen Davis’ later tactical choices, as did a lot of independent study.
Karen Davis mentioned as particularly influencing her “forever after animal rights activism” Animal Factories, by Jim Mason and Peter Singer (1980); The Animals Film, directed by Myriam Alaux and Victor Schonfeld, narrated by Julie Christie (1981); and Singer’s earlier book, Animal Liberation (1975), plus a stint as a volunteer at the original Farm Sanctuary in Avondale, Pennsylvania.
Formed animal rights club
“One of the first letters-to-the-editor I ever had published was to The Washington Post about the horrible rodeo in town,” Karen Davis remembered. “In 1983, I circulated a petition urging a ban on the New York City carriage horse business.
“My experience with my students convinced me it was time to form an animal rights organization on the University of Maryland College Park campus,” Karen Davis continued of her pre-United Poultry Concerns activism. “In September 1989, the Animal Rights Club became an officially registered student group – the first of its kind at the university. Along with this, my proposal to teach a university honors course on the role of animals in literature was approved for the 1990 spring semester.”
Elliot Katz & Norm Phelps
Among the pre-United Poultry Concerns acquaintances Karen Davis cited as most influential in her evolution as an activist were veterinarian and In Defense of Animals founder Elliot Katz (see In Defense of Animals founder Elliot Katz dies at 86) and Norm Phelps (see Norm Phelps, 75, spiritual mentor to the animal rights movement).
“I first met Elliot in the mid-1980s,” Karen Davis said. “I always liked Elliot and considered him a friend and a man of deep courage, conviction, and care.
“Elliot supported our campaign to eliminate the use of chickens in the Kaporos ritual (see Kaporos: chicken soup for the soulless?). In turn, Karen Davis supported “his campaign to upgrade the language we use in speaking about animals and our relationship with them,” while disagreeing with Katz about his use of the term “guardian” instead of “owner.”
Institutional exploiters of animals, Karen Davis maintained, are not “guardians.”
“I first met Norm in the 1980s, in a van, in the early morning hours of a hunt sabotage in Montgomery County, Maryland, organized by Wayne Pacelle when Wayne was with The Fund for Animals,” Karen Davis continued. “Norm was a speaker at our very first United Poultry Concerns conference.
Met Steve Hindi at Hegins
“I’ve known and admired [Showing Animals Respect & Kindness founder] Steve Hindi for many years, going back to the days of the annual Labor Day pigeon shoots in Hegins, Pennsylvania,” Karen Davis added.
“It was this pigeon-shooting massacre that Steve said changed him from a trophy hunter and fisherman into an animal rights activist. In an article he once wrote called I was a fish-killer, Steve described the face of a still-living young fish he had caught. Reading it tore my heart apart.”
Inspired by Steve Hindi’s confrontational activism against the Hegins pigeon shoot, Karen Davis testified, “One year, I released a box of pigeons just as they were about to be released to be wounded and killed, and was arrested and charged with ‘property destruction’ or some such ‘unlawful act.’”
An Associated Press photographer caught the moment. The photo of Karen Davis releasing the pigeons was published in newspapers around the world.
“In the early 1990s,” Karen Davis continued, “I engaged Steve Hindi on behalf of United Poultry Concerns to document a ‘rooster pull’ conducted by certain Pueblo villages in New Mexico, consisting of pulling off the heads of roosters as some sort of ritual entertainment.
“In 2020, Steve Hindi documented a cockfighting property in New Mexico at my request after a neighbor begged for help for the many roosters tied to stakes. The local sheriff refused to do anything. We posted Steve’s overhead video of this rooster-filled property on our cockfighting page at www.upc-online.org/cockfighting.”
This was relatively early in the ongoing Showing Animals Respect & Kindness campaign to “Crush Cockfighting.”
“My heart goes out to Steve Hindi and to all the birds tortured by these people,” Karen Davis said. “It’s hard to see what will stop the cockfighters short of strong opposition to cockfighting in the states in which they never-endingly take place.
“Brutal, sadistic, & ignorant”
“Cockfighters, dogfighters, pigeon shooters, and sport ‘hunters’ are extremely brutal, sadistic, ignorant people,” Karen Davis added. “Their state and federal representatives do nothing to civilize them, and most are not civilized themselves.
“Women in rural states like Kentucky, Alabama, Arkansas, Tennessee have horrible lives at the mercy of domestic violence, being forced to constantly bear children to violent men.
“Steve Hindi has true courage for the animals trapped in vicious, dismal, hopeless human cultures,” Karen Davis said.
Karen Davis herself made a point of accommodating several ex-fighting cocks at the United Poultry Concerns sanctuary.
At one point, Karen Davis mentioned, “We currently have four roosters living in our sanctuary who were rescued from cockfighting rings. Mr-Sippi has been with us since January 2009. Scooter, Rowdy, and Brandy Alexander have been with us since July 2018. They each have their own area and doting hens within our 12,000-square foot predator-proof outdoor aviary, comprising individual yards and houses inside each yard.
“Roosters will sometimes fight in order to establish boundaries and territories and to protect their hens from being ganged up on, but generally speaking, like all chickens, roosters rescued from cockfighting operations soon settle into social activities and daily routines with few disputes apart from occasional playful dashes at each other through chicken wire fencing,” Karen Davis observed.
“Rowdy and Brandy Alexander immediately staked out their territories and neither ventures into the domain of the other. Brandy Alexander accepted an older rooster named Lorenzo, who’s lived with us for years, without any ado. Roosters establishing boundaries and a rational social order have nothing to do with roosters being forced to act out the gratuitous violence of their human captors and tormentors.”
Named her first chicken “Viva”
The United Poultry Concerns sanctuary began to evolve, recounted Farm Animal Reform Movement executive director Lisa de Crescente in 2022, when “While living in Darnestown, Maryland, Karen Davis would frequently walk along a path on her way to a pond located behind her yard. Along this path was a chicken house. She could see many of them suffered with deformed legs and toes, unable to hold their own weight.
“One morning in late August she noticed the chickens were gone, except one. This one remaining little bird buried herself deep in a far corner.
“Karen carried her into her kitchen, made her a bed next to the kitchen table, and named her Viva.”
But before that, Karen Davis remembered, “Henry Spira, the founder and president of Animal Rights International and the Coalition for Nonviolent Food, was inseparable from my decision to start United Poultry Concerns in 1990. He was a member of our board of advisors from the beginning.
“On October 20, 1989, Henry ran a full-page ad in The New York Times that showed [chicken producer] Frank Perdue with a Pinocchio nose (for being a liar) with two chicks at the end of it. It said: ‘FRANK, ARE YOU TELLING THE TRUTH ABOUT YOUR CHICKENS? Is Frank Perdue’s advertising just a pile of poultry puffery hiding the brutal realities of an inhumane industry?’
“The ad went on tartly to answer these questions.
“Henry put the spotlight on chickens, the largest number of abused warm-blooded animals on earth. He put a face on the poultry industry by way of Frank Perdue,” Karen Davis saw.
“The P. word”
“When I was still teaching English at the University of Maryland,” Karen Davis continued, “in 1991 Frank Perdue was appointed to the university’s Board of Regents. Henry joined our campaign to cancel the appointment. He ran feisty ads in University of Maryland student newspaper,” for example “The P. word. There’s a word for someone who does bad stuff for money. Perdue.”
“He took the train from New York City to the University of Maryland campuses to speak at our student rallies against Perdue. Together with students, we attended board of regents meetings around the state where we followed Perdue with our chant, ‘Cluck You, Frank Perdue!’”
“On a Sunday morning in February 1992,” Karen Davis recalled, “Henry took the train to College Park, and he, I, and two other people drove to Salisbury, Maryland, where we spent the morning taking pictures inside chicken houses. When I picked up a day-old chick from the thousands of baby birds at our feet, I couldn’t put him down.
“Henry said this bird should be named Phoenix after the mythical bird who eternally rises from the ashes of death. If you look at the handsome rooster in the upper left- hand corner of UPC Poultry Press, that is Phoenix,” another early resident of the United Poultry Concerns sanctuary, who unfortunately died of congestive heart failure only 14 months later.
Clashed with former hero Peter Singer
“In the video that Henry’s mentor, friend, and colleague Peter Singer did to honor Henry just before he died, Henry Spira: One Man’s Way,” Karen Davis said, “there is a scene of Henry shouting through a bullhorn. That’s our United Poultry Concerns bullhorn in front of the Perdue chicken slaughter plant in Salisbury, Maryland, on May 1, 1992.
“The occasion was UPC’s Second Annual Spring Mourning Vigil for Chickens. Henry came down from New York to be with us.”
Karen Davis met Peter Singer on June 1, 1991. The meeting was the beginning of the end of her longtime admiration of Singer.
“Despite his indictment of battery cages for egg-laying hens and call for their elimination, and despite his powerful discussion of chickens raised for meat and their joyless existence on factory farms in Animal Liberation,” Karen Davis observed, “Singer began to single out chickens for disparagement. I remember how surprised I was, reading an article of his in New Scientist in the early 1990s, in which he repeatedly referred to battery-caged hens as ‘its’.
“A particular animosity toward chickens”
“This was all the more surprising, given that in his preface to the first edition of Animal Liberation, he wrote: ‘I have tried to avoid language which tends to degrade animals or disguise the nature of the food we eat.’”
Karen Davis over the next 15 years noted many other examples of what she terms “a particular animosity toward chickens” in Singer’s writings, including “an op-ed in Newsday, ‘When Slaughter Makes Sense,’ in which he supported the mass extermination of millions of chickens in Asia by means which included burying them alive tied in plastic bags, burning, gassing and beating them to death in order to protect humans from bird flu.
“Singer called distress over the bird flu killings misplaced,” Karen Davis charged, “and invoked his authority as one who is actively involved with the animal rights movement to justify the killings and convince people of their valid purpose.”
“How wrong they were”
Karen Davis found much more inspirational than Singer the work of “Clare Druce, founder with her mother Violet Spalding of Chickens’ Lib in 1973,” a British organization that has conducted a “decades-long campaign on behalf of battery-caged hens, quail, chickens, turkeys, and ducks bred for the British poultry meat industry,” and against “the maniacal pheasant-hunting tradition.”
Karen Davis also recognized that, “An important corollary to stories of contemporary young animal activists/leaders” could be “the story of my launching an organization, at the age of 46, while teaching English at the University of Maryland, and despite the fact that several prominent people in the animal rights movement at the time discouraged me from starting an advocacy organization for chickens and turkeys.
“While a couple of people back then said ‘Go For It,’ some others warned that an organization focusing on chickens and turkeys would never survive, let alone thrive,” Karen Davis remembered.
“How totally wrong they were. United Poultry Concerns has influenced every single farmed animal activist in our movement,” Karen Davis believed, “and our influence and inspiration are worldwide.”
ANIMALS 24-7 would not contradict Karen Davis’ self-assessment.
“International Chicken Flying Meet”
United Poultry Concerns debuted by protesting against high-profile misuses of chickens, such as the “International Chicken Flying Meet” formerly held each October at the annual Bob Evans Farm Festival in Rio Grande, Ohio.
“It consisted of ‘launching’ 100 or more chickens, one by one, from a 10-foot high mailbox by a man wielding a toilet plunger,” Karen Davis described.
“Bob Evans Farm insisted during our three-year campaign that this meet, dating from 1971, would never end, but in 1994 it apparently did.”
All along, though, Karen Davis had much bigger targets in mind.
Sought federal legislation reform
Despite the 1958 federal Humane Methods of Slaughter Act and 1978 amendments, Karen Davis wrote, “mammals covered by the Act are treated as ruthlessly in U.S slaughterhouses today as ever, if not worse, and chickens and other birds, 99% of land animals slaughtered in the U.S., continue to be excluded from coverage.”
Beginning in the 1990s, United Poultry Concerns sought amendments to bring poultry under Humane Methods of Slaughter Act coverage, to no avail.
United Poultry concerns also supported an American Anti-Vivisection Society campaign to amend the definition of “animal” in the Animal Welfare Act enforcement regulations to remove the exclusion of birds, rats, and mice from coverage.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for Washington D.C. held in September 1998 that the exclusion of mice, birds, and rats violated Congressional intent in passing the Animal Welfare Act, but a 2002 Animal Welfare Act amendment introduced by Jesse Helms, formerly the U.S. Senator from North Carolina, made permanent the definition of mice, birds, and rats as non-animals for Animal Welfare Act enforcement purposes.
With those battles still underway, Karen Davis in June 1999 introduced to the U.S. the “open rescue” technique of campaigning on behalf of farmed animals, bringing Australian “open rescue” pioneer Patty Mark (born in Illinois) to speak at the first United Poultry Concerns conference.
“Open rescue” differs from covert removal of animals from laboratories, practiced sporadically since 1976 by various individuals and small groups operating as the “Animal Liberation Front,” Karen Davis explained, because the participants “bear witness rather than acting anonymously.”
While United Poultry Concerns itself never made “open rescue” a standard tactic, several other organizations have, most notably Direct Action Everywhere.
United Poultry Concerns first took on “forced molts” in 1992, but only began to see progress a decade later.
Egg producers, Karen Davis detailed, “currently remove all food from hens for an average of 10 to 14 days, after their first egg-laying cycle, to introduce changes in body chemistry which bring on a second egg-laying cycle. At the end of the second cycle, the hens are considered ‘spent,’ as their bodies are too depleted of essential minerals to continue to produce eggs.
“The practice disrupts the hens’ immune systems, predisposing them to salmonella infection. Ninety percent of the more than 25 million laying hens in California are subjected to this practice,” Karen Davis alleged, “which is illegal in Europe and Britain.”
United Poultry Concerns and several other animal advocacy organizations in May 2000 met with the USDA Farm Animal Well-Being Task Group to address issues that included “forced molts, humane treatment of downed animals, enforcement of the Humane Slaughter Act, debeaking of poultry, and forced rapid growth problems in broiler chickens and turkeys,” Karen Davis frustratedly recalled two years later, after nothing resulted from the first meeting, and all animal advocates except Peter Singer were excluded from a follow-up meeting in May 2002.
Singer asked USDA undersecretary for marketing and regulatory programs Bill Hawks, then supervisor of the federal school lunch program, to buy only eggs from hens who are not subjected to forced molt.
The American Veterinary Medical Association in 2002 adopted a resolution that opposed prolonged total food deprivation, but allowed for “intermittent feeding and diets of low nutrient density designed to force hens to molt,” Karen Davis noted.
Karen Davis hoped that in June 2003 the AVMA would follow up by approving a resolution offered by the Association of Veterinarians for Animal Rights, founded in 1981, absorbed in 2007 into the Humane Society Veterinary Medical Association.
The AVAR resolution recommended that all hens used in commercial egg production receive fresh water and nutritionally adequate food on a daily basis, and that the AVMA should oppose forced molting [to induce a new egg-laying cycle] when it involved withholding water or food, or in some other manner results in malnutrition or other ill health.
This resolution was defeated.
“Even after United Egg Producers issued a policy opposing total food deprivation to induce a molt,” Karen Davis recalled, “the AVMA continued to support the practice. It was only when we obtained a front-page article in The Washington Post and joined a group of other organizations in publishing a full-page ad exposing the AVMA that the bad publicity caused the AVMA to change its policy statement on forced molting.”
“Euthanasia” by wood chipper
That was in 2004. By then Karen Davis and United Poultry Concerns were fighting the AVMA over a broad exemption included in the AVMA Report on Euthanasia for “mass euthanasia in event of emergencies” that allowed the use of a wood chipper to kill poultry who had been exposed to an outbreak of Newcastle disease that spread from fighting cocks to laying hens in southern California in 2003.
“When a horrified neighbor saw ranchers cramming live chickens into a wood chipper, animal advocates thought they had a winning [anti-cruelty] case. Karen Davis of United Poultry Concerns led the push for prosecution,” wrote Peter Singer and Karen Dawn for Dawn’s periodical Dawnwatch.
“Unfortunately,” Singer and Dawn continued, “a San Diego deputy district attorney found no criminal intent by the ranchers. She concluded that they were just following professional advice from two veterinarians,” including AVMA animal welfare committee member Gregg Cutler.
United Poultry Concerns unsuccessfully demanded that Cutler be removed from the AVMA animal welfare committee, and unsuccessfully asked the American Association of Avian Pathologists to rescind an award it gave Cutler for “outstanding contributions to avian medicine.”
Attacked by “vegan police”
Simultaneously, Karen Davis found herself under criticism from younger fellow vegan activists for allegedly “consorting with the enemy.”
“If I may briefly clarify why United Poultry Concerns participates in the Future Trends in Animal Agriculture meetings and has done so since 1990,” Karen Davis responded in August 2005, “it is to correct misinformation about poultry that otherwise goes unchallenged, and to hear what industry is telling the audience.
“It is to demonstrate that our side––the animal advocacy side––is well informed about their industry and that we can address industry issues in an articulate and detailed manner based on our reading of their publications, and that, when they say we don’t understand ‘food’ animals and that the industry is ‘humane’ we can respond that we do indeed have an understanding of these animals comparable to or surpassing industry’s understanding, because we run farmed animal sanctuaries and see for ourselves the results of intensive confinement, the ability of animals to recover their natural behaviors, etc.
“It is my belief,” Karen Davis said, “that the audience at these meetings is not a monolith and that there are people who are receptive to what we have to say and to show. And I like to take advantage of opportunities to speak out on behalf of those for whom I and United Poultry Concerns advocate. Attending these meetings is part of our advocacy.”
Animal abuse, child abuse, & Kaporos
United Poultry Concerns from inception opposed school projects involving hatching poultry and raising chickens to be slaughtered.
“This is an issue of both animal abuse and child abuse,” Karen Davis emphasized, as that campaign gained momentum in 2008-2009, spurred by a school project in San Antonio, Texas, in which “eighth-graders were allowed to build killing devices and cut the throats of chickens,” she explained.
A campaign against the Hassidic Jewish custom of Kaporos, in which men at Yom Kippur swing a live chicken overhead before slaughter, begun in 2006 with New York City registered nurse Rina Deych, began to realize some success in October 2016, when a federal judge granted a temporary restraining order on behalf of United Poultry Concerns against performance of Kaporos that year by the Chabad of Irvine.
Live poultry markets
While the Kaporos ritual itself is self-evidently cruel, Karen Davis pointed out, most of the chicken abuse and neglect associated with it occurs earlier, as the victims are trucked into big city Hassidic neighborhoods and left stacked in crates at curbside for days awaiting sale, often without access to food or water.
“All cities in the U.S. have live animal markets in areas occupied by ‘old-world’ ethnic populations, in particular Jewish, Hispanic, Muslim, and Asian,” Karen Davis reminded. “Live bird markets, called ‘wet markets’ in Asia, are linked to frequent avian influenza outbreaks.
“Although live markets are considered time bombs with respect to bird flu,” Karen Davis fumed, “the U.S. Department of Agriculture and state agency counterparts refuse to shut them down and pay mere lip service to regulating them. Protecting business trumps health, safety, sanitation, and animals at every level.”
Former Pew Charitable Trusts deputy director of philanthropic services Robin Ganzert took office on August 31, 2010 as chief executive officer of the American Humane Association, founded in 1877 to advance humane treatment of both animals and children, with a statement distancing the AHA from “extreme ideas purported by those who argue that people have no right to raise animals for food.”
Then the American Humane Association, in its first farm animal policy action under Ganzert, on September 7, 2010 endorsed what it termed “a new method of controlled-atmosphere stunning for poultry called Low Atmospheric Pressure System, or LAPS, as a humane practice.”
LAPS is for all practical purposes killing by decompression, a method endorsed by the American Humane Association in 1950 for killing dogs and cats in animal shelters, but abolished as inhumane throughout the U.S. by 1985.
“Birds could suffer even more than mammals”
“If decompression was banned in the U.S. for use on dogs and cats, given that birds, including chickens, have been scientifically characterized as having in all important respects the same neurophysiology as mammals,” Karen Davis responded, “it is reasonable to conclude that the suffering endured by dogs and cats in being subjected to decompression would be similarly experienced by chickens and turkeys, quails and other birds.
“Chickens and other birds, like dogs and cats, would experience excruciating pain, panic and other forms of intense suffering. It is conceivable,” Karen Davis said, “that birds, or certain birds, could suffer even more than mammals, and take longer to die.”
Electric stunning & carbon dioxide
Karen Davis had in truth studied poultry killing practices as intensively as anyone in the industry.
“It was I who, from the early 1990s on, alerted PETA and everyone else that the electric ‘stun’ bath” through which poultry are dragged upside down at commercial slaughtering plants before being killed, “is designed not to render the birds pain-free or unconscious, but to paralyze the muscles of their feather follicles to facilitate feather removal and to immobilize the birds on the slaughter line.
“I am 100% opposed to the electric stunner,” Karen Davis continued, “but I am also concerned when animal rights organizations tell their naive readers that following oxygen depletion the birds ‘go to sleep’ while inhaling carbon dioxide, and colluding with slaughter companies’ ads about ‘sedating’ the birds and other soothing illusions.
“I am not satisfied that the carbon dioxide method is relatively humane,” Karen Davis concluded.
“‘Bonding’ & ‘connecting’ do not necessarily entail compassion”
Karen Davis ruffled feathers again in July 2011 by challenging “An idea put forth by sectors of the animal welfare community that killing one’s own animals for food will somehow develop empathy in the killer.
“What does it mean to bond with an animal or anyone else one chooses to kill for pleasure?” Karen Davis asked. “Bear in mind that rapists and serial murderers sadistically, ritualistically ‘bond’ with their victims” they know their victims’ pain and they experience it vicariously as pleasure.
“Bonding and ‘connecting’ do not necessarily entail compassion,” Karen Davis reminded. “When humans intentionally hurting animals, the rhetoric disconnects from reality as easily as the face disconnects from a small helpless body under the smack of a hatchet.”
Humane Society of the U.S. & United Egg Producers
Also in July 2011, the Humane Society of the U.S. withdrew initiative petitions filed in Oregon and Washington to require cage-free housing for egg-laying hens as part of a deal with United Egg Producers to pursue passage of a proposed federal bill setting cage standards for the laying hen industry nationwide. Those standards would have required only slightly larger “enriched” cages, meaning that the chickens would have some plastic toys.
In exchange for United Egg Producers cooperation in seeking the federal standards, the Humane Society of the U.S. also agreed to suspend doing undercover investigations of egg farms.
Three years of lobbying effort failed to advance the proposed federal bill, however, leaving the Humane Society of the U.S. with nothing of value from the agreement.
“A huge step backward”
Karen Davis vocally opposed the deal with United Egg Producers from the moment it was announced.
“Once the U.S. egg industry invests a projected $4 billion dollars into converting to ‘enriched,’ so-called ‘colony’ cages, and those cages have been installed,” Karen Davis warned, “that system will be firmly in place for the remainder of the 21st century, and probably far beyond.
“Acceptance of cages for laying hens, however euphemistically ‘enriched,’ is a huge step backward, in our opinion. Unfortunately, victories for organizations do not necessarily translate into victory for animals, and this is how we view the deal.”
United Poultry Concerns and the Humane Farming Association campaigned against the United Egg Producers deal until it was dead, and also campaigned against weaknesses in two California ballot propositions which, when passed, were heralded as “victories” by the Humane Society of the U.S., but allowed agribusiness to continue housing chickens in battery cages.
Sought fire protection for barns
The National Fire Protection Association in 2012 proposed an amendment to the 2013 edition of NFPA 150: Standard of Fire & Fire Life Safety in Animal Housing Facilities which would have required all newly-built farmed animal housing facilities to have both sprinklers and smoke control systems.
United Poultry Concerns on February 10, 2014 posted a Change.org petition in support of the National Fire Protection Association proposal, sent the National Fire Protection Association a formal public comment about it, and urged other animal advocacy organizations to do likewise, but only the Animal Welfare Institute is known by ANIMALS 24-7 to have actually done so.
Opposed serving animal products at “humane” fundraisers
Among Karen Davis’ first contributions to ANIMALS 24-7 was a September 2014 comment recommending that “animal rights advocacy organizations should urge local humane societies to serve only animal-free foods at their fundraisers and provide vegan recipes and other encouragements,” a campaign that United Poultry Concerns and the Animal Place sanctuary in California had already waged for more than 20 years.
“The effort to persuade local animal societies to serve compassionate animal-free meals at their fundraisers is hampered, not helped,” Karen Davis noted, “when a large organization like the Humane Society of the U.S., claiming to oppose animal cruelty, sponsors events featuring slain animals on dinner plates. This is harmful role-modeling.
“If HSUS, the American SPCA, and the like are going to participate in and promote ‘humanely slaughtered’ chickens, turkeys, cows, and others, let’s have video footage of the entire process so that everyone can see what the rhetoric actually means,” Karen Davis challenged.
Encouraged Mary Finelli & Fish Feel
Leafleting on behalf of turkeys outside the White House in Washington D.C. at Thanksgiving 2019 was among Karen Davis’ last demonstrations, but she continued to encourage demonstrations led by others, especially her longtime friend Mary Finelli, founder of Fish Feel.
“I had never heard of cownose rays,” Karen Davis admitted in June 2015, “until Mary Finelli explained to me who they are and the torture that awaits them when they reach the Eastern Shore” of Maryland, where they were targeted by killing contests until legislation promoted by Finelli to protect them was passed in 2019.
“My friend Deborah Tanzer, a psychologist in New York, had a fish named Fisher who would always swim to the top of the aquarium to be petted,” Karen Davis mentioned. “I observed Fisher do this several times when visiting Debby. I stroked his head myself. The more we learn about all animals and especially those historically and conventionally deemed stupid and insensate, the more clear it is that these views do not hold water.
“With Fish Feel and SHARK speaking out knowledgeably and passionately for fish,” Karen Davis opined, “the animal advocacy community has new opportunities and responsibilities – new animals – to embrace.
“Insects are sentient individuals”
“I share the view that insects are sentient individuals,” Karen Davis added, “and that we tend to mis-assume that being tiny (relatively speaking) renders a being insentient.”
Karen Davis recalled “all that enthusiasm in the 1970s and 1980s over teaching nonhuman primates to understand and communicate that was supposed to prove these animals are intelligent and, to some flattering degree, ‘like us.’ Hence, if they could learn to ‘speak like us, and to us, they might be deemed worthy of some ethical consideration, unlike all the animals with wings, fins, claws, and paws who, even if they understand American Sign Language, do not have fingers with which to ‘speak’ in sign language.”
Karen Davis herself lost few opportunities to speak in any language.
“Through the years,” Karen Davis recalled, “I’ve had many conversations with strangers in airports and other places where my ‘Stick Up For Chickens’ button or my turkey button ‘Don’t Gobble Me’ sparked a question.
“Many times through the years I’ve handed a brochure and spoken to a stranger unsolicited, and rarely has the response been hostile. The most common experience I’ve had is surprise at how willing people are to engage when I say to them, brochure in hand, ‘Would you like to learn more about chickens and turkeys?’
“Dying for Dinner”
“So when one of our members, Barbara Moffit in Oklahoma, sent me a two-sided card she had handmade and printed, featuring chickens ‘Dying for Dinner,’ I was like, ‘Wow, this is great!’ We quickly had these cards designed, printed, and ready for sale and distribution.
“I carry a small packet of “Dying for Dinner” cards wherever I go,” Karen Davis said, “placing them here and there on store shelves and handing them directly to cashiers, receptionists checkout people, wherever I happen to be. The image of the chickens on the front of the card and the words on the other side have a perceptible effect on the person receiving it. I watch them and say, ‘Please don’t eat chickens. They suffer so much.’
“A checkout person I handed a card to recently at our local supermarket said how sad it made her feel. We talked a little longer and I told her about all the chicken-free and other delicious vegan products the store now carries – a variety of Gardein, Morningstar Farms, Tofurky, Follow Your Heart, Lightlife, Boca burgers, Chik’n nuggets, patties, and more – and she asked me to show her where in the store these products were located, which, of course, I eagerly did.
“Yes, we want people to cry”
“Once, I gave a talk at an event about chickens that caused some members in the audience to cry as I was speaking, and the moderator said, ‘Well, we certainly don’t want to make anyone cry.’
“Yes, we do,” Karen Davis contradicted. “People should feel the sadness and experience sensations commensurate with the helpless terror of a poor little bird.
“Many animal advocates fear that any effort to reform agribusiness practices will placate the public with illusions of ‘humane’ treatment of farmed animals having no basis in the reality of actual farmed animal production practices,” Karen Davis added.
“They fear that advocacy for a compassionate vegan diet is undermined and contradicted by campaigns that seek to mitigate some of the cruelest abuses of an inherently animal abusing industry.
“They fear that whatever welfare reforms are enacted into law will not be enforced regardless, and that all efforts to reform animal agribusiness are a betrayal of the animal victims. All of these fears are reasonable,” Karen Davis conceded.
Sought both welfare reforms & vegan world
However, “The position of United Poultry Concerns,” Karen Davis explained, is that “the best way to address poultry welfare issues is by combining an affirmative animal rights-pro vegan advocacy with efforts to improve conditions for the billions of birds who will never live to see a vegan world.
“We recognize there is little we can do to help animals trapped in food production,” Karen Davis said. “The number of animals, the globalization, the human population – the entire worldwide agribusiness system of producing animals, raising animals, transporting animals, depopulating animals, slaughtering animals, experimenting on animals – all of it is too huge, horrible, hidden, and complicated to monitor, let alone control.
“Yet we believe that we cannot be held hostage to these factors, and that as activists we must pursue every avenue on behalf of farmed animals, including that of welfare reform, but without overstating what can actually be accomplished.
“Won’t hold my breath”
While welcoming progress in developing technology to “prevent newborn male chickens from being macerated, gassed, electrocuted and suffocated to death in hatcheries around the world,” Karen Davis added, “I won’t hold my breath waiting for technology or legislation or whatever the key is to ending this practice.”
Karen Davis recalled that “In 2016 I wrote about this subject in connection to the pet food industry, which incorporates these destroyed chicks, known as ‘hatchery waste’ along with the egg shells, into dog and cat food. It’s all too evil and dismal to apprehend, including marketing eggs from tortured hens with a ‘respect’ label signifying that the male chicks were supposedly dispatched ‘humanely.’
“We should avoid hyperbole, stick to the facts, and tell the unvarnished truth,” Karen Davis emphasized. “We must educate the public to understand that the only true way to animal welfare – to animals faring well– lies in eliminating the demand for animal products in favor of vegan food.”
“It is unethical for an ‘animal welfare’ organization,” Karen Davis continued, “to suggest to the public that millions and billions of people can continue to eat the same number of animals, as long as these animals are raised ‘humanely’ on non-factory farms.
“Human beings will never set aside hundreds of millions or billions of acres to accommodate billions of animals living ‘free range,’” Karen Davis said, “yet this is the false prospect being offered to a public that wants to believe that incompatible desires and realities can be reconciled.”
Testified Farm Animal Rights Movement founder Alex Hershaft, “Karen Davis introduced the concept of chicken and turkey liberation to our movement and to the American public. She was one of the key founders of the farmed animal liberation movement. Her loss will be deeply felt.
Recalled New York City vegan activist, former animal rights lawyer, and former journalist Mike Winikoff, “I worked with Karen on her very first newsletter for United Poultry Concerns around 34 years ago, and even though I was already a vegan then, she opened my eyes to what wonderful creatures chickens are, friendly and loving if treated right. Rest in power, Karen. You did good and you won’t be forgotten.”
West Coast animal rights lawyer Adam Karp called Karen Davis a “paragon of animal rights virtue, a prolific and powerful writer, a straightforward rhetorician who unwaveringly gave voice to the billions of birds who are so ignored, tortured, and vilified in our society.
“I admired her strength, dedication, articulateness, and no bullshit personality,” Karp said.
Suggested PETA founder and president Ingrid Newkirk, “More important than lighting candles is to do something for chickens in her honor, perhaps feed a vegan chicken dish to a meat-eating neighbor, donate vegan chicken to some worthy cause, post a video about the wonder of chickens, or show it to someone, and so on, please.”
ANIMALS 24-7 recommends re-reading one or more of the essays Karen Davis wrote for us, many of which later appeared in UPC Poultry Press and/or as chapters in some of her later of many books:
December 26, 2016: Food Fictions
January 30, 2017: Would “healthier” chickens harm the environment?
November 17, 2018: The Thanksgiving Turkey as Ritual Scapegoat
December 30, 2018: Thoughts on “Killing the Female” & Pennsylvania hunting memories
November 19, 2019: Turkeys: Sympathy, Sensibility, and Sentience
November 26, 2019: Protecting purity from pollution, or protecting pollution from purity?
January 15, 2020: Plane crashes & slaughterhouses: who suffers more?
January 31, 2020: Wet markets or Walmart? Animal consumption & the coronavirus
October 26, 2021: Moral injury in animal advocates and nonhuman animals
December 6, 2021: Does guilt have a place in animal rights activism?
January 30, 2022: Blurring the boundary between humans and other animals
February 2, 2022: The dilemma of backyard chicken-keeping
February 19, 2022: Forever Young: Thoreau, Einstein, Bronte, Thurman, Goodall, & Carson
February 28, 2022: (How) does salmonella grow on trees? Answer: it doesn’t
November 23, 2022: The “Thanksgiving” turkey: object of sentimentality, sarcasm, & sacrifice