Ethologist Marc Bekoff Interviews Karen Davis About For the Birds

Marc Bekoff, PhD, is professor emeritus of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder. He explains:

I recently learned of a new book by Dr. Karen Davis, President and Founder of United Poultry Concerns, called For the Birds: From Exploitation to Liberation-Essays on Chickens, Turkeys, and Other Domestic Fowl. Having known about Dr. Davis’ groundbreaking work focusing on the well-being of “food birds,” I wanted to know more about her new book. I was thrilled she was able to spend some time answering a few questions.

Why did you write For the Birds and how does it follow from years working as an animal activist?

All my life, I have loved birds. Everything about birds–their feathers, their faces, their voices, the way they act–has always affected me deeply. As a child growing up in Altoona, Pennsylvania, I knew song birds, but not chickens or turkeys. Later, when I met these birds, I was immediately drawn to them, as I describe in For the Birds. My experience with chickens and turkeys in the 1980s led me to found United Poultry Concerns in 1990 to promote compassion and respect for domestic fowl. I subscribed to poultry industry publications to educate myself and others about the suffering these birds endure in being locked up in filthy buildings and brutally slaughtered for “food.”

As well, I wanted to influence people to perceive chickens and turkeys in their own right, apart from the categorical traps in which they are typically held captive. Getting to know chickens and turkeys through reading about them, I also got to know them personally through our sanctuary. A successful challenge to the denigration of “domestic fowl” can indisputably be made by observing and interacting with them every day as I have done for more than thirty years. I have seen over and over how, beneath their industry-inflicted traumas, they are able to revive and be happy in an environment that stimulates their evolutionary sensibilities and enthusiasms.

Photo by Davida G. Breier &
UPC sanctuary turkey, Amelia, sits quietly in her favorite nesting place.
Amelia in her nesting place.

Who is your intended audience?

My intended audience includes animal rights advocates, avian specialists, ethologists, teachers, and everyone who cares about and would like to learn more about chickens and turkeys through a lens that illuminates their lives. My book is for everyone who shares my belief that birds are amazing individuals and citizens of our planet who deserve our compassion, understanding, respect, and awe.

Photo by David Harp
Modern Chicken House
Modern chicken house in the United States.

What are some of your main messages and how can they be put into practice?

For the Birds incorporates key messages through themes I’ve pursued throughout my career. There is the theme of people literally consuming chickens and other animals, including the mental and physical suffering these animals endure on their way to being turned into food. There is the theme of belittling birds and other animal species, especially those destined for the table. This includes caricaturing them in ways that make it seem almost as if they “deserved” the punishments we heap on them in the lexicon of abuses that parallel and reinforce the literal abuses we dispense.

There is the theme of who chickens and turkeys are in and of themselves within their own worlds of experience and expression as revealed in circumstances that are as free as possible from the preconceptions that distort our perception of them. The figure of Procrustes came to mind one day as I was reading the summary of a talk by an agribusiness professor that distinguishes between the “science-based” view of animals and the “sentimentalized,” a.k.a. anthropomorphic, view. Procrustes is a tyrant in Greek mythology who keeps an iron bed on which he places his victims after stretching or shrinking the bed in advance to reshape them to reflect his will. If they are too short, he stretches them to size. If too tall, he amputates their excess length. Rhetorically and literally, exploiters do this to animals all the time. What I call the “procrustean solution” is the false kind of anthropomorphism that consists of “re-forming” individuals and groups destructively in order to have your way with them, and attributing your way to their will.

As for practical steps, I urge animal advocates to avoid rhetorical traps that can cause us to replicate and perpetuate the demeaning stereotypes from which we seek to rescue chickens and turkeys as part of our overall goal of rescuing them from the jaws of humanity. An example is comparing cognitively mature animals of other species to cognitively challenged human adults and cognitively undeveloped children. These types of analogies are absurd and unjust to animals. I call on animal advocates never to “apologize” for animals or for caring about them, and to hone a posture of affirmation worthy of those for whom we have chosen to speak. Facts matter and confidence matters. Keeping faith is essential. The rhetoric of exploitation requires a counter rhetoric of animal liberation. That is what For the Birds seeks to deliver on its promise to the birds and all creatures that we will continue our crusade on their behalf until they are freed, and free.

Photo by Susan Rayfield
Cypress Hens
From rotting in cages to roosting in branches, former battery hens enjoy life at United Poultry Concerns.

Are you hopeful?

The emotion inspired in me by chickens and turkeys that informs my writings is inseparable from the analytical perspective that I bring to a consideration of their lives. Focusing on my personal life with these birds over many years and on the injuries inflicted on them by people in countless ways, I would like to be able to share the optimism of those who believe that human beings as a whole will eventually, or already do deep inside, experience a fellowship with them more potent than the overt attitudes that overshadow the primal sympathies.

What would you like to see in the future?

I would like to see a world in which ethics and intelligence come together in humans to facilitate the best life possible for every being in every habitat on Earth. I want to see a world in which human beings value birds and other creatures free from an exploitative point of view. I want to see a world in which the slaughterhouse and its satellite operations are gone. I long for a world in which no chicken or turkey (or anyone) ever wakes up again in a nightmare that never ends for them until death. This is the basis of the work I do every day and would do even if it were foretold that the daily doom we inflict on birds and other beings was written into eternity. I want to see a world in which human food is animal-free. I prefer that this miracle should happen overnight.

Last word to readers

I encourage every interested person to purchase a copy of For the Birds and read, ponder, and share its message. I encourage everyone who cares about birds to join United Poultry Concerns and support our work. Whatever you do, don’t be shy. Stick up for chickens and turkeys. Make a place for them in your heart instead of your mouth–except as their advocate.
Karen Davis

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For the Birds