United Poultry Concerns Book Reviews
Reviews of Karen Davis' Book "More Than a Meal"

Jim Mason's Book Review of "More Than a Meal" by Karen Davis

More Than a Meal: The Turkey in History, Myth, Ritual and Reality
By Karen Davis, Ph.D.

Lantern Books, New York 2001, 192 pp. $20.00

Reviewed by Jim Mason

This review appeared in the July/August 2002 issue of VegNews and is reprinted with the editor's permission. www.vegnews.com.

Subscriptions to VegNews are $20/year and can be mailed to: VegNews, PO Box 320130, San Francisco, CA 94132. Sample copies are available by emailing [subscriptions@vegnews.com].

This is the kind of book that we need more of-"we" being advocates for animals' rights and vegan living. The author is brilliant and dedicated: Dr. Karen Davis is the founder and president of United Poultry Concerns, the first U.S.-based advocacy organization focusing exclusively on "poultry"-the farming industry's term for birds exploited for food and feathers. With a flair for research, Davis cuts through the pyramid of lies, distortions, and negative images that society has constructed around the turkey; then she helps us get to know the real animal. "The turkey," she writes, "is 'more than a meal' in the sense that every creature is more than a meal outside the range of those who prey on it."

Why," Davis asks in setting the purpose of her book, "do we celebrate this hated bird?" And: "Why do we hate this celebrated bird?" In response, she explains how "turkey" came to be a synonym for failure and stupidity, how the bird got its name, and the weird dynamics of the American ritual meal, Thanksgiving, in which the bird is both celebrated and hated. In my favorite chapter, Davis carves to the bone the annual presidential pardoning ceremony. Although it has roots in deeds by presidents Kennedy, Nixon, and Reagan, the ceremony became official in 1989 when George Bush I-who evidently learned something about showmanship from his predecessor, Hollywood actor Ronald Reagan-added to the imagery of his kinder, gentler presidency by inviting thirty poor and minority children to the White House.

Such information is not just so much entertaining trivia, however. It is a substantial part of Davis' case that meat-eating America needs the turkey as a sort of totem animal in reverse-one to serve as the object of derision, humiliation, sacrificial blood rituals, and other devices so that the nation can more easily insulate its collective conscience from its addiction to finger-lickin' flesh.

This is all the more effective because Davis devotes other chapters to turkeys as they are-breathing, feeling beings with a place in nature. We learn that the species, Meleagris gallopavo, or literally guineafowl-chickenlike peacock, "occupied North, South, and Central America." It may be hard for most Americans to regard the bird as "wildlife"-as native as the Blue heron or the Bald eagle-because the "wild" (or free?) birds are so outwardly different from their inbred, artificially masturbated and inseminated brothers and sisters confined on factory farms. The native birds are swift runners, they fly to roost in trees at night, carry on elaborate courtship rituals, form stable social groups, fight to protect their young, and they play together. The agribusiness turkey is denied all of these behaviors in the interest of growing flesh fast and cheap.

Davis wisely concludes the book with a chapter on changes for the better for both people and turkeys. Today, she says, coverage of "Turkey Day" now includes more reports on the cruelties inherent in, and the threats to human health and the environment linked to turkey eating.

Jim Mason is the author of An Unnatural Order: Uncovering the Roots of Our Domination of Nature and Each Other and coauthor of Animal Factories.

Norm Phelps' Book Review of "More Than a Meal" by Karen Davis

This piece originally appeared in Satya, a monthly magazine of vegetarianism, environmentalism, animal advocacy and social justice. To learn more, please visit www.satyamag.com.

Talking Turkey
Book Review by Norm Phelps

More Than a Meal: The Turkey in History, Myth, Ritual, and Reality by Karen Davis, Ph.D. (New York: Lantern Books, 2001). $20 paperback. 192 pages.

At a hunt sabotage more than 15 years ago, I met an English professor from the University of Maryland. Like me, she was just getting her feet wet as an animal activist. But in the years since, Karen Davis has played a major role in shaping the American animal rights movement.

In 1994, at the National Alliance for Animals' Seventh Annual International Animal Rights Symposium, she delivered a speech entitled, "The Rhetoric of Apology in Animal Rights," in which she argued that we must never be apologetic, tentative or defensive in speaking out for the animals. We must not defend animal rights, Karen Davis told us, we must affirm animal rights. With most of the leaders and many of the rank and file in the room, this was a seminal moment in the development of a fledgling movement that was still struggling to find its voice.

Now, Karen Davis is best known for putting domestic fowl on the animal protection map. The founder of United Poultry Concerns, the first and-as far as I know-still the only national animal rights group devoted exclusively to domestic fowl, she has, by willpower, passion and perseverance, forced the public to become aware, very much against their will, of the terrible suffering of chickens, turkeys, and other farmed birds. In doing so, she has helped assure that the movement stands up for all exploited animals, and not just those that are cuddly or charismatic, or remind us of ourselves.

Davis' newest book, More Than a Meal, reflects both her dedication to domestic fowl and her academic roots. Eighteen of its 192 pages comprise a bibliography containing some 380 entries, nearly all primary sources. Although I gave up trying to count them, there are easily five or six hundred source citations. This is a book that can hold its own in scholarly circles. It is, in fact, a definitive work on turkeys and their role in American culture, as jacket blurbs from the academic world testify.

But unlike most scholarly books, More Than a Meal is a good read, as Davis explores America's love-hate relationship with this quintessentially American bird. Why has the turkey become the symbol of incompetence, stupidity, and failure at the same time that he is the centerpiece of the most beloved of American holidays? As Davis puts it, "'Why do we celebrate with this hated bird?' and 'Why do we hate this celebrated bird?'" In pursuit of the answer, she takes us on a journey that begins with native American cultures and continues through the near eradication of the wild turkey by hunters, the (surprisingly recent) identification of turkeys with Thanksgiving, and our newest Thanksgiving tradition, the annual "pardoning" of a turkey by the President in a White House ceremony.

But for me, as engrossing as I found this cultural history, the high point of More Than a Meal was the long chapter (33 pages) on "The Mind and Behavior of Turkeys," in which Davis demonstrates from the work of scientists and naturalists-augmented by extensive personal observation-that turkeys are sentient, intelligent and self-aware. She notes that in a natural environment, turkeys function within complex social structures and adapt intelligently to changes in their surroundings. They can be highly affectionate with each other and with humans.

Observing that "Celebration can include evolution," Davis ends More Than a Meal with a challenge for us to "invent new traditions" that do not cost other sentient beings their freedom and their lives. "Substitution of new materials for previously used ones to celebrate a tradition is an integral part of tradition," she reminds us. "In the religious realm, if we can substitute animal flesh for human flesh and bread and wine for all flesh...and view these changes as advances of civilization and not as inferior substitutes...we are ready to go forward in our everyday lives on ground that is already laid...If the Peaceable Kingdom is a genuine desire and a practicable prospect, fake meat is the food to which dead meat has aspired, and the fake meat makers are as deserving as anyone of the Nobel Prize for Peace."

Norm Phelps is spiritual outreach director of The Fund for Animals. You can visit their Web site at www.fund.org. His book, The Dominion of Love: Animal Rights According to the Bible, is being published by Lantern Books in June.

Maribeth Abrams' Book Review of "More Than a Meal" by Karen Davis

The Turkey in History, Myth, Ritual, and Reality
By Karen Davis, Ph.D.
Lantern Books
New York, New York
2001, 192 pages, $20.00

Reviewed by Maribeth Abrams

This review was originally printed in Vegetarian Voice Magazine.

Several years ago, I read an article by Karen Davis addressing the widespread myth that turkeys are stupid. At the time, I was surprised at this notion. But now, since reading More Than A Meal: The Turkey in History, Myth, Ritual, and Realtiy, I've been giving the topic a lot of thought.

With well-documented information on the history of turkeys, their uses by humans, behavior in their natural habitat versus in captivity by humans, and posture on the Thanksgiving table, author Karen Davis, Ph.D. brings to light the scape-goatesque manner in which turkeys have historically been treated in the United States.

Consider the "Turkey Olympics," which ran for more than ten years until just a few years ago, in which turkeys were mocked and taunted while being forced through a variety of obstacles -- all in the name of pre-Thanksgiving fun. Sponsors purported that the "games" were not cruel because turkeys are dumb, and are going to be eaten anyway. Interesting points: not smart, going to be eaten anyway.

Here's another one: a group of people tie the legs of turkeys together, then place each turkey in the hole of a rubber tire on the ground. Each turkey gets a pat on the head, and a smoothing-down of feathers in a motherly fashion. Then, humans take bulleted aim at their heads. Sometimes the turkeys die, but if not, their bodies are flung from the tires only to roll until coming to a stop, where the same woman who just minutes earlier smoothed down their feathers now hacks at their necks with a hatchet.

The above stories are recent, but the history of such mockery, humiliation, and "fun" with the intent to harm turkeys goes way back. And the rationalizations, the excuses, are always the same: turkeys are stupid, they are going to die anyway, and besides, they taste good.

One could argue the philosophy, as Karen points out in the book, that the question at hand is not "[are they smart], but rather can they suffer?" However, Karen devotes much of her book to illustrate how specific turkey behaviors that are regarded as dumb by humans are actually complex and instinctual traits, that in a natural setting, would actually enhance survival.

For example, farmers are likely to say that turkeys are so dumb that they'll drown in the rain. Here's what Davis has to say about that: Young turkeys instinctively look up to see what's falling on them -- and if it's rain, their noses can subsequently clog with water. This would never happen in nature, of course, because young turkeys would be nestled under the wings of their mothers. But in large-scale captivity, where the animals are essentially brutalized at birth, poults never even meet their mothers let alone receive maternal protection. And yes, this can sometimes lead to the drowning of young turkeys.

And how about that Presidential Pardoning Ceremony. Is it a reminder of presidential power, a way to alleviate guilt while chewing on the leg of the bird that didn't make it to the Rose Garden, or just a matter of good public relations? The most obvious question at hand, as put forth by Davis, is that if a turkey has committed no wrong, then how can it be pardoned? (Might some people think that the turkey's "wrongdoing" was simply being born a turkey?)

The meaning of the turkey's role on the Thansgiving table is given extensive coverage, including the role of the typically-male presentation of dismembering and slicing the muscle off the corpse.

In More Than A Meal, Davis presents facts in a scholarly fashion. Mostly historical facts, but also, sadly, facts pertaining to turkeys that ring true right now, this year, this second. While her belief in the sanctity of life for all creatures --human and non-human -- is completely evident, she uses these facts to help readers come to their own conclusion.

United Poultry Concerns, Inc.
PO Box 150
Machipongo, VA 23405-0150
FAX: 757-678-5070

(Book Reviews: Karen Davis' Book "More Than a Meal")

Home | What's New? | News Releases | Action Alerts | PoultryPress | Resources | Merchandise | Links | E-mail