Yes, Karen Davis is serious when she says the extermination of 7 billion broiler chickens is the moral equivalent of the Holocaust. Is it possible that's not quite as feather-brained as you think?

By Tamara Jones
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 14, 1999

MACHIPONGO, Va. – Their hunger awakens her.

The world is still dark and slumbering when Karen Davis opens her eyes, alone in her bed in a house so empty that the silence itself seems to echo. She pads past Freda Flower perched atop the bathroom radiator, downstairs to the dining room where Star sleeps, into the kitchen where Charity used to roost in a cupboard and where frail Dolina and crippled Sarah and plump little Holly now wait for her. She puts on a pot of coffee. They know the routine. Each species has its rituals.

Photo by Frank Johnston - The Washington Post

Karen Davis kisses Ringlet, one of the
104 chickens she's rescued. Davis is the
founder of United Poultry Concerns.

The white clapboard farmhouse is tucked back from the country road on several woodsy acres of the Delmarva peninsula, an area that produces 3 billion pounds of chicken a year. Davis bought this sanctuary last spring. For them. She was not looking for a home as much as a headquarters, a goal underscored by the lack of human comforts. A forlorn sofa and nondescript coffee table stand marooned in the vast living room. There are no walls of books with well-thumbed treasures on display – odd, considering her scholarly past. In the tired old kitchen, no signs of cozy retreat.

Much of Davis's time is spent in the front parlor, which she has turned into her file-cabinet fortress, the ops center of her personal crusade. Framed photographs and tiny statuettes of birds parade across the windowsill and tabletops. Drawers, boxes and desktop overflow with research she has been compiling for at least the past decade – since she founded United Poultry Concerns, which promotes "the compassionate and respectful treatment of domestic fowl."

Chickens, mostly.

There are 104 of them living here right now, including the five with indoor privileges, plus two hot-tempered ducks. All are refugees from America's multi-billion-dollar poultry industry; most are sick or maimed. When Davis flings open the doors to the converted garage out back, she greets them by name as they wash in a feathered tide over her ankles. They chortle back to her, and she revels in their company. They depend on her. She is their lifeline, their savior.

Hatching a Cause

Ours is a society shaped by causes and agendas, papered with petitions, mounted on platforms, a tumult of mad mothers and celebrity gun buffs, of green eco-warriors who live in trees and pale doomsday soothsayers who dwell underground. Zealots, heroes, martyrs, gasbags, cranks, lunatics. They shout, they seduce, they implore, they cajole, they warn, they strategize, they threaten, they protest. They embody noble passions and petty gripes. They create a cacophony of booming choruses and solitary voices. Karen Davis would be one of the latter.

Davis is 55 years old, smallish but strong, taut with purpose. The coal-black bangs that graze her eyes and the frosted pink lipstick betray not so much her age as her generation. She is a child of the changeling '60s, when young girls started out idolizing Debbie Reynolds and ended up emulating Marianne Faithfull. She came from "a very traditional" home in Altoona, Pa., where her father was a DA and her homemaker mother obsessed about the dangers of communism and polio.

"There was a lot of yelling, some hitting, no social consciousness concerns," Davis says of her family. She remembers her father forbade her to bring a "colored friend" home from college, and ruled his own house with a sense of entitlement so pervasive that his own children were not allowed, even as adults, to sit in "his" leather chair. Two of her three brothers dutifully trotted off to law school, but the only daughter's ambitions were irrelevant.

"Father and I had a very big fight in his office when I said I wanted to study sociology. What do you mean, sociology? He wouldn't pay for my education. His idea was for me to become a teacher." She obeyed, but catastrophe struck after her freshman year, and she moved back home. She worked at menial jobs, then drifted to San Francisco where she sold watercolors on Fishermen's Wharf. Eventually she returned to school and earned a PhD in literature after writing a dissertation titled "Musical Structures and Tragic Elements in Thomas Hardy."

"Hardy has very strong feelings for animals," she notes. "He sees us as all extensions of the same life force, and he called for an ethic of compassion."

Davis began teaching at the University of Maryland, marrying a fellow English professor and living in a rented bungalow on the woodsy fringes of Potomac. One day she walked through the backyard bramble to visit a chicken coop the landlady kept. The chickens were all gone, save for a little white hen cowering in a corner. The bird's legs and feet were deformed, her eyes lusterless. Davis took her home and made her a bed by the stove. She called her Viva, as much an exhortation as a name: Live.

The chicken, Davis learned, had been bred for slaughter to produce a disproportionately large amount of meat while still young and tender. As a result, walking was an awkward, wing-flapping ordeal that left Viva distressed and exhausted. Davis would offer solace, talking to her and stroking her back, rubbing the soft bottoms of her feet. She remembers Viva responding with frail peeps and twitching tail. The bird's condition worsened to the point where Davis had to have her euthanized. She buried the hen in the back yard. Lacking a diary, she recorded it on the inside cover of a dictionary:

"On Saturday, November 28, 1985, soft Viva died."

Davis had been a vegetarian and off-and-on animal rights activist for years, even traveling to the Gulf of St. Laurence to see what she thought were protected baby harp seals. She didn't realize that the international campaign to stop the slaughter had achieved but a Pyrrhic victory. The pups, it turned out, were off-limits only in a designated part of the gulf. As soon as their melting ice floes drifted from this safety zone, they were clubbed to death and skinned. Davis saw the crimson blood staining the snow and the pelts, still warm with life, piled up on the ice. "I felt enraged," she remembers, "and helpless."

She was so devastated, she went to Montreal and spent three days holed up alone in a hotel room, reading "Dr. Faustus" as a way to process the evil she had witnessed.

She gradually became more entrenched in the animal rights movement. With Viva, the commitment became more emotional than political, and the seeds of an obsession took root. Davis had found her focus – the fate of the forgotten: barnyard animals. Why public outrage over the massacre of baby seals but not baby chickens? "Morality is not skin-deep," Davis reflects.

She began taking in chickens, rescuing them when they fell off poultry trucks, adopting them from grade-school hatchery projects, buying "spent" layer hens from what she considered abusive egg farms. Her sorrow hardened into rage.

"Ninety percent of abused animals are farm animals," Davis contends, "and of that, 95 percent are chickens. Farm animals are the lumpenproletariat of our movement." And nobody, she concluded, seemed inclined to shed any tears for them.

"I was just so drawn to the chickens in a way I can't articulate," she explains. "Watching them take a dust bath was the most appealing and enchanting thing. Everything about them is so moving to me."

When Davis was a girl, her father used to go hunting. He always kept a hunting dog out back, a beagle. She remembers him beating and yelling at the dog, and her mother weeping but doing nothing to stop it.

"I would argue fiercely with Father at the dinner table," Davis says, "but I would be arguing over a plate of meat and a glass of milk, never thinking about those animals."

And she didn't have much to say about poultry then, except that she had always loved watching cardinals and robins in the cherry trees when she was growing up in Altoona. As a little girl, Davis kept a parakeet named Whiffenpoof. "I was very devoted to him," she recalls. "One day, my mother, unbeknownst to me, just got rid of him and substituted a mechanical wind-up bird in a cage for Whiffy. I have no idea why. You know in 'Splendor in the Grass' when Warren Beatty and Natalie Wood are really young and in love and their parents wreck their relationship and everything? The father takes his son to hookers." She sees a parallel in her mother's own reckless cruelty.

"She didn't think it would matter to me," Davis says with disgust.

It did, though. It really did.

Photo by Frank Johnston - The Washington Post
Karen Davis keeps a watchful eye on
Pansy strolling arount the living room.

Food for Thought

"The chickens are caught during the night. . . . When they have 3,500-5,000 birds packed into the crates, they are stacked up in flatbed trucks and driven to any one of several chicken slaughter plants. They're grabbed out of the crates, hung upside down in metal shackles. . . . Then they go through this electrified water bath in something called a stun cabinet . . . to paralyze them to facilitate feather release and keep them still on the processing line. The stun cabinet is used to immobilize the birds, not render then unconscious at all. We're talking about a method that's basically pure torture. . . .

"Birds move toward the killing knife with the sensation of severe electric shocks added to their other agonies. Then they go on to a neck-cutting machine. It's like a surrealistic dry-cleaning establishment. You see all these spiraling chickens in phases of disassembly. They go through a round, rotating blade. It's supposed to cut their carotid arteries, which deliver oxygenated blood to the brain, upon which consciousness depends. But if they don't hit the carotid and the backup person doesn't tend to the bird properly, they might slice the jugular. This is agony – conscious torment. They're deliberately kept alive till the scald tank to keep their hearts beating. They go into the bleed-out tunnel and hang there for about 90 seconds, bleeding out upside down with their half-cut necks. You'll see some flapping. . . . They go into a scald tank. They may be alive still. It's a huge fecal soup. Then they end up in the chill tank. They're definitely dead by then."

And there you have it, Karen Davis will tell you: murder.

"In the processing plant, the chickens are slaughtered in the most humane manner possible, which includes calming them in a low-light room and stunning them early in the process with a low-voltage electric shock that anesthetizes them before processing begins. The stun bath renders them unconscious. They're definitely dead before they reach the scald tank, which is a hot-water spray on the carcass that loosens the feathers so they can be removed. . . . It's much more humane than chasing a chicken around the barnyard with a hatchet in hand. We realize that the idea of killing chickens in any manner treads on delicate ground with many people. But we would ask those people to understand that for millions around the world who depend on an affordable protein source, our operations are essential. And we're doing our best to ensure that those operations are carried out as humanely as possible."

And there you have it, Tyson Foods Inc., will tell you: dinner.

The Sky Is Falling

She can hear their voices in the distance, and in her red Sunbird she slowly patrols the back roads surrounding her property until she comes upon the rows of makeshift chicken coops in a rundown trailer park where migrant farm workers live. "I think it's a cockfight way station," she murmurs. The chickens, she notes, are cramped in dirty pens and don't seem to have fresh water. "That's why they're yelling," she says of the roosters she has heard crowing day and night. She leaves, contemplating a midnight raid to liberate the prisoners.

Back home, she takes two heads of cabbage and a cluster of green grapes from the refrigerator, which belongs, she allows, mostly to the chickens. There are chicken potholders and place mats in the kitchen, and she drinks juice from a glass painted with yet another chicken. There are other chicken knickknacks scattered around the house. The decorations seem more abandoned than arranged. She doesn't collect them herself, Davis says. Her husband was the shopper, just loved flea markets and antique stores and such. She has no patience for it, sees no purpose in it.

She is an intense woman with no reservoir of small talk; conversations have a way of quickly escalating to lecture. Idly ask if there is a more humane way to kill chickens for food, and her dark eyes ignite with instant fury. "What's the best way to slaughter babies?" she hisses. To her, they are one and the same. There are "nonhuman animals" and "human animals."

She goes outside to the large cages that serve as her ICU and pulls out Morning Glory. "I know it hurts, dear. I'm sorry, I'm sorry," she coos as she swabs out an infected ear. The bird whimpers but doesn't resist. Finished, Davis turns her attention to three other ballooned-up young broiler hens too misshapen to walk. She carries them one by one to a spot in the front yard where they can sun themselves, and hand-feeds them grapes. She wishes the birds would stick to a vegan diet, as she does, but nature prevails despite her lavish treats of fresh vegetables or warm linguine with a corn-syrup sauce. Vivid in her memory is the time she turned over a rock in the yard and discovered a tangle of worms. She spoke to them happily until a chicken named Bonnie rushed up out of nowhere. "She gobbled every last one," Davis rues.

She walks around back to let the rest of the chickens out of the garage-cum-henhouse so they can scratch in the yard and take dust baths while she mucks out the straw and checks for eggs. "I smash them against the cinder blocks so they can eat them or I hard-boil them and give them back to them," she says.

"I would like nothing better than to see chickens living a natural life in their jungle habitat. Roosters would be able to play a wonderful father role, the hens are perfect mothers." But that is not an option: If she let them hatch, "I would soon be overrun."

Besides, the chickens bred in the world are doomed to suffer: "I'm protecting the unborn against being born."

Feeding, cleaning and tending to the sick and wounded chickens takes only a few hours each day, and Davis has the routine down to an efficient art. When not actually tending to the birds, Davis is most likely to be found in front of her computer writing about them. There is a quarterly newsletter to produce, plus letters-to-editors, commentaries and press releases and a Web site to maintain. Davis left the university nearly a decade ago, but still considers herself an educator. She is both prolific and sly. She compiles and sells vegan cookbooks, though she privately confesses to little interest and less skill in cooking. She quotes the Bible in response to those who argue that God gave humans dominion over animals, but she does not believe in God herself. She loathes sentimentality but circulates a cloying nursery song about an orphaned chick to the tune of "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star." Whatever it takes.

United Poultry Concerns claims about 10,000 members and annual revenues (donations, book sales, etc.) of around $125,000. Davis estimates that food, veterinary bills and supplies for the rescued chickens cost around $5,000. Organization money paid for the sanctuary last year after Davis outgrew the rental property in Potomac and decided to transplant her campaign to the heart of enemy territory. The Delmarva peninsula is one of the top regions in the country for poultry production, trailing only Arkansas and North Carolina.

"In Maryland, we just had one story, too many boxes, filing cabinets, the chickens and me and my husband," Davis says. "Now I don't have my husband. I have two floors and a lot of filing cabinets." And the chickens, of course.

She shrugs off the marital split – he needed more in his life than the cause, and, being older and arthritic, was no longer able to help much with the chickens anyway.

Right now, she is trying to finish her latest book, which examines Thanksgiving turkeys and the American psyche. Not merely a vegetarian rant against the consumption of holiday turkeys, the work-in-progress attempts to plumb the darkest alleys of mankind's relationship to what Davis not surprisingly considers a maligned fowl. She hates the cutesy newspaper articles, despises the phony "presidential pardon" of a fattened tom, rails against any perception of the turkey as dim or dirty. She seeks out the enemy's soft spots and takes merciless aim:

"Humans have a real problem with being animals," she begins, and turkeys "are so obviously vulnerable and mortal and easy targets, resembling the human condition. . . . One way to avoid having to confront what really brings turkeys to the table is to hate the victim."

She celebrates Thanksgiving with an open-house potluck at her chicken sanctuary. She will cook some rice and vegetables for the birds, too, "so they are part of things and we're celebrating with the birds instead of on them."

Turkeys, she goes on, are merely the annual scapegoat for the resentment Americans feel about having to endure terrible traffic to spend a day with relatives they can't stand and then proclaim their gratitude.

Thanksgiving, she concedes, is pretty much a lost cause. "What's happening at Thanksgiving is going to happen," she says. It's not just the killing she wants to stop. She also fires off angry letters and organizes protests when she comes across activities that demean the birds, like bowling with frozen turkey carcasses.

She is immune to the contempt of people like the local man who showed up chomping on a drumstick at one of her anti-poultry-industry protests, announcing that he was going to buy a pound of processed chicken for every protester he counted. Davis is accustomed to mockery, and being ridiculed comes with the territory. What does hurt, however, is her own feeling that by exposing their suffering, she is exploiting chickens herself.

"I hate having to hold the naked misery of a chicken up to the eyes of scorn, the very scorn that has created their misery," she says. "I hate exposing these poor souls to yet more derision."

The chickens are innocents, prisoners humiliated and tortured, murdered en masse.

"I've seen pictures of chicks being gassed in research laboratories, their little eyes looking out the windows."

"When you visit these broiler chickens in these chicken houses . . . if you stay long enough, sometimes they'll walk toward you. They're very lonely birds and you can see that. Everything about their life is alien to them. Their body is alien to them. They're baby animals. They would be frisking around and very active, normally. But they're in this huge prison camp."

In the United States, more than 7 billion broiler chickens are raised and killed for food each year.

"During their 47 days of life, broiler chickens are forced to live in filthy litter, unchanged through several flocks of 25,000 or more birds," Davis argues in UPC literature. "In this atmosphere, excretory ammonia often becomes so strong that, along with their breathing problems, the birds develop an eye disease called keratoconjunctivitis, which causes them to go blind. So painful is this condition that affected birds attempt to rub their hurting eyes with their wings, and let out cries of pain."

The poultry industry knows her well – Davis once even posed as an art student doing research to get a slaughterhouse tour – but does not engage her directly. "Take a look at the facts and make your own decision there," Tyson spokesman Ed Nicholson says when asked what to make of this woman who has appointed herself emancipator of chickens. "There are not a lot [of people] who would make it an occupation," he adds.

Davis's main concern of the moment is the alleged starvation of layer hens, which causes them to lose their feathers and increase egg production. Forced molting, she claims, also promotes the development and spread of salmonella – a point she hopes will prod the FDA into taking action. Developing a plan to prevent food-borne salmonella is on the agency's docket, and Davis is in full propaganda mode. If they think they are protecting humans, she reasons, then she can protect the chickens.

The U.S. Poultry and Egg Association acknowledges that forced molting involves withholding feed from the birds for five to 10 days, with the objective of reducing body weight by up to 30 percent. Some laboratory experiments "have shown an increase in susceptibility to salmonella" in molted hens, the industry group says, but whether that same risk is present in commercial conditions is unknown.

Sitting in her cluttered office, bundling material to mail, Davis hears a frenzied clicking noise and looks up. Freda Flower is racing across the wooden floor of the living room. She pokes her tiny head into the office. Davis beams at her like a proud parent interrupted by a precocious child. "No, dear, there's nothing new," she reports. Freda pauses to relieve herself. Davis is nonchalant about the mess; it happens frequently with chickens roaming the house, and she scoops it up with her bare fingers.

Photo by Frank Johnston - The Washington Post
Karen Davis at her home with her chickens.

The Witness

The pain was excruciating, beyond description, and she wanted to die. Karen Davis can no longer pinpoint exactly how old she was when she took the overdose of Librium in an attempt to escape the torture chamber her own mind had become. Nineteen? Twenty? Sometime around then.

She had been studying Russian history, and became obsessed with Stalinist death camps and the suffering the oppressed prisoners endured. "I became completely immersed in the concentration camp experience and had to leave school," she recounts. "I felt guilty that I hadn't been there and couldn't be there. It was really unbearable, a total state of mind. It was not within the normal range of emotions, like sadness."

Davis found herself unable to stop thinking about the evils perpetrated on innocent victims stripped of their dignity, their humanity.

"One day, I was knowing these things," she says, "and the next day, I was living in them and they were living in me."

She wound up in the infirmary, and then back home. "My parents were furious: 'We spent all this money on college and you pulled this?'‚" Her mother got her a job in a clothing store. The work was rote enough for her to continue to dwell, in her mind, in a concentration camp.

"I can't justify my existence," she told a psychiatrist.

She emerged from the abyss gradually, for "obscure reasons." Eventually, she stopped living in a harrowing state of apprehension, but the pain never left, it just became bearable.

"I don't repress anything," she muses. "I know it all the time and I hate it all the time."

Someone once asked her if being a vegan makes her more peaceful.

"No, it makes me more aware of myself and the possible inconsistencies between my beliefs and action," she concludes. "I'm not excluding myself from human beings that I'm disappointed in."

She considers herself, if anything, an existentialist. The horrors she has seen and felt and imagined convince her that there can be no caring, omnipotent being watching over this Earth. She is talking again about hens lying broken in their filthy cages, dumped into scald tanks, being hung upside down on hooks‚. . .

"If God's not there for them, I don't care if He's here for anyone."

Somebody writes her a letter saying she will never end cruelty, there's too much of it in the world. "There's nothing you can do but as much as you can, in your allotted lifetime," Davis answers.

She considers herself a happy person. She loves to read and to drink coffee. She is a huge fan of "Law and Order" on television and wishes her father were still alive so he could watch it with her. They always did share the same love of the polemical, of black-and-white arguments about issues. Both loved confrontation, thrived on it, really. If she hadn't become what she did, she would like to be a lawyer, fighting to abolish the death penalty. She was talking to her father about going to law school when he last visited her at college. She felt she was finally winning his approval.

The next day, she fell into the abyss.

When he died last spring, at 91, she skipped his funeral. She couldn't leave the chickens that long. Someone had to take care of them.

"I have a job to do," she says, "and I'm here to bear witness."

Cause and Effect

Does a cause become life or give it?

When asked about the personal price of a singular passion, she offers not an answer but another question: "What do you think it is?"

Loneliness is relative. "I consider the chickens my friends. I get genuine joy from their company. I love the fact that they want to be with me." She is certain there is an emotional bond there, that just as she senses their pain, they know hers.

Once, a neighbor's dog stole into the yard and killed a rooster Davis cherished. As she sat by herself weeping over the loss, a hen named Sonja approached. "I leaned down and she buried her head in my neck and I did likewise," Davis recalls. "I put my arms around her. Chickens will purr like a cat, a little trilling sound. She stood there for a long time. She knew I was sad. She restored my soul. . .‚.

"I wished I could stay in that moment forever."

© 1999 The Washington Post