By Tom Horton
Washington, D.C.—The young mother passing the White House stopped to read the arresting big posters spread along the grassy edge of adjacent
Lafayette Park. “Be glad you’re not a chicken,” she said to her child.
It was a perfect, mid-Atlantic spring day, trees freshly greening the capital’s parks, ospreys sky dancing over the Tidal Basin, rockfish spawning
farther down the Potomac; a time to celebrate nature—including chickens.
It’s the nature of the chicken, disguised by generations of breeding for maximum meat and egg production, that Karen Davis and her small band of
volunteers were here to impress upon whoever would listen.
The activist from Machipongo on Virginia’s Eastern Shore annually declares this International Respect for Chickens Day (and month).
She’ll be back in November to respect the turkey, as the Obamas across the street sit down to a traditional Thanksgiving feast.
I take my Salisbury University environmental studies classes to the little sanctuary Karen has run for around 25 years as founder and president of United
Poultry Concerns, a nonprofit claiming membership of 15,000.
My aim’s not to make them animal rights activists or vegans; rather to make them think.
Nathaniel and Karen Davis
Photo by Richard Cundari, May 21, 2014.
Students at SU will spend their four years in a region that annually slaughters more than half a billion meat chickens. They will study in
buildings—Perdue Business School, Fulton Hall, Guerreri Center—named for donors who made their fortunes on chickens.
My class hears from David Pollack, who was Perdue Farms’ head geneticist, about all that’s been bred into the modern chicken to put it
economically on your table six weeks out of the egg.
But breeding in rapid weight gain, even feathers to distinguish male from female chicks, doesn’t mean breeding out the essence of the wild jungle
fowl from which all chickens are descended, Pollack acknowledges.
This is clear when we enter the compound in Virginia where Karen tends to more than a hundred chickens, turkeys and ducks; lives; and writes books like
“Prisoned Chickens, Poisoned Eggs” and fact sheets like Philosophic Vegetarianism.
Against a background of cackling and crowing, she lectures on the abuses of factory farming like the professor she was (English literature, University of
Maryland, College Park). As we talk, chickens run freely, a lilt and a bounce to their gait; they sunbathe, wings spread to soak up vitamin D; and they
dust-bathe, fairly wallowing in the soft earth, filling their feathers with it.
Roosters perform little courtship dances for hens.
Chickens perch, scratch and peck after insects as well as socialize with one another. Karen calls theirs a “joyful” existence, and it does seem
All of this, she says, is denied them in the crowded, artificially lit confines of the broiler house or the caged confinement systems for egg layers
(broiler, or meat production, and egg production are different businesses that use different breeds of chickens).
Karen cites research showing chickens are social creatures who see the world in full color and with an intelligence—“cognition” is a
better word — that is surprisingly sophisticated.
This is all subjugated to the pursuit of cheap, abundant meat and eggs, whose production pollutes the water and gives us an unhealthy level of protein
intake (about double our need) she argues.
She has no illusions what she’s up against in asking Americans to like chickens, when what we most really like is chicken.
Back at the White House, she’s in conversation with a curious District of Columbia cop, who looks at some of the grislier posters: egg layers with
big tumors, meat chickens hanging upside down, throats slit. He politely but firmly declares, “I like eating chicken.”
Most of the UPC leaflets, which include meatless recipes, are handed out and Karen and her small band, in T-shirts that say “Too Neat to Eat,”
and “Give a Cluck, Go Vegan,” are closing up shop. “Since I started this, there has been a huge increase in the positivity of
people’s reactions,” she said.
Another reason I take my environmental students to Karen’s little sanctuary in the heart of commercial chickendom: Many may end up trying to save a
world that often acts as if it doesn’t want to be saved. Avoiding burnout is a skill they will need.
“A lost cause doesn’t mean it’s not a good cause,” she tells them. She doesn’t feel her cause is lost, just a long slog, as
was civil rights, gay marriage, women’s suffrage.
I came to DC partly out of respect for chickens, but also out of respect for those who fight against all odds, who dare to question whether all the world
revolves around humans, much as astronomers believed for more than a millennia that the universe revolved around the Earth.
Respect for the rest of nature is a lesson we’re still learning.
Tom Horton is a writer on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. He covers the Chesapeake Bay Area and teaches at Salisbury University. From time to time he
brings students to United Poultry Concerns to meet our chickens and be exposed to our world. This year, Tom also attended our annual
International Respect for Chickens Day
leafleting event at the White House in May. He once described United Poultry Concerns as the “lonely counterpoint” to the Delmarva chicken
International Respect for Chickens Day leafleting event at the White House in May.