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29 December 2014
From Hunting Grounds to Chicken Rights:
My Story in an Eggshell

©Karen Davis

Published in Sister Species: Women, Animals, and Social Justice,
ed. Lisa Kemmerer, University of Illinois Press, 2011.

Karen Davis, PhD, is founder and president of United Poultry Concerns, which promotes compassionate and respectful treatment of domestic fowl. Her articles have appeared in Animals and Women, Terrorists or Freedom Fighters, and the Encyclopedia of Animals and Humans. Her books include Prisoned Chickens Poisoned Eggs: An Inside Look at the Modern Poultry Industry, More Than a Meal: The Turkey in History, Myth, Ritual, and Reality, and The Holocaust and the Henmaid’s Tale: A Case for Comparing Atrocities . She was profiled in The Washington Post and is in the U.S. Animal Rights Hall of Fame “for outstanding contributions to animal liberation.”

The Concentration Camps

People often wonder how I started as an academic and ended up as an animal rights activist rescuing and defending the rights of chickens and turkeys.

Before I was an “academic,” several things happened that bear on my life as an animal rights activist and founder of an organization fighting for the rights of chickens and turkeys. I grew up in Altoona, Pennsylvania, a railroad town, and I attended two Pennsylvania colleges: Westminster College, which I left in my sophomore year in the throes of a psychological crisis, and Lock Haven State College, where I earned a degree in the Social Sciences in 1968. As a freshman I graduated instantly from reading books like Marjorie Morning Star and Gone With the Wind to fervid absorption in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina and existentialist philosophy. At Westminster I became interested in Russian and German history, above all in Stalin’s slave labor camps and Hitler’s concentration and death camps. So immersed did I become in thinking about these camps that I had to leave school. One autumn day, my father visited me and I mentioned going to law school to become a civil rights lawyer. Two weeks later, I called my parents to come and get me. I dropped out of college, unable to carry on as a student while coping with a growing obsession with the human engineered suffering of people, which had become like a cancer, eating me alive.

Sister Species cover

I became obsessed with the question of retaining personal identity under conditions intended to destroy personal identity along with the core of oneself. By “identity” I mean one’s innermost sense of self, rather than one’s appearance to the outside world. I began trying to imagine myself in the concentration camps and inside the skin – the minds – of people forced to live in those camps. Inwardly, I was driven to “go” to places where I imagined how it would be to no longer feel like, or be, oneself, though still remain alive and functioning. I tried to imagine every conceivable kind of human-imposed suffering and at what point one (I) would stop being oneself (myself) – and how that would feel.

“Tried to imagine” is somewhat misleading. My obsessions had a life of their own. I felt as if I had been invaded by an infection of superclarification of abysmalness and horror. Words for these kinds of perceptions lie somewhere in the region of the profane and inane, for there are states of consciousness for which no verbal equivalent exists. This is why it irritates me to hear the word “language” used to distinguish humans from other kinds of animals. There are many languages besides human verbal language. There are languages of the intestines and the lungs, as well as of the heart and of the animal being, and I say this as one for whom verbal language is extremely important.

Words – books – helped save me from an ordeal that I thought for a while I might not survive. Back home, my father felt betrayed. He couldn’t accept a concentration camp obsession as a reason for leaving school, flouting the education he was paying for. Desperate, my mother arranged for me to see a psychiatrist. When I told the psychiatrist about my need to suffer and how I was plagued with guilt because I wasn’t in a concentration camp (and how I felt guilty, too, because I didn’t want to be in one), he said, “In a way, you are in one.” This was a consoling – almost bracing – thought. Years later I read a book by A. Alvarez, a friend of the poet Sylvia Plath, who described Plath’s particular form of mental suffering as a “concentration camp of the mind.” This captures something of what I was going through at that time.

I was never in a concentration camp, and I do not pretend to equate my experience with the experience of those who were. Yet the fact remains that learning about these camps affected my perspective, on the threshold of adulthood, more profoundly than any other single previous event. My subsequent preoccupation with the human-imposed suffering of billions of nonhuman animals, far from being an abandonment of the perceptions I gained in the course of my preoccupation with the concentration camps in the 1960s, involved a radical extension of these earlier perceptions to include the largest class of innocent victims on earth.1

During those years, I don’t recall ever thinking about abused animals in the light of concentration camp victims, although I would have been able to do so because of the cruelties I saw, and in some cases participated in, while I was growing up.

At the time of my obsession with concentration camps, I gorged on hardboiled eggs because an article in Vogue magazine had said that it takes more calories to digest hardboiled eggs than they contain, so the more eggs one eats, the more weight one loses. I had no idea, then, that the eggs I devoured by the dozens were the opposite of a “comfort food,” that they came straight from the kind of a hell that I was agonizing over. The battery-cage system of egg production was just then being consolidated as an industry. Perhaps those eggs incubated to hatch my future.

Growing Up

I grew up in a family and community where sport hunting was normal and expected. When I was in grade school, schools closed on the first day of deer season, and probably still do. My father hunted rabbits and ring-necked pheasants (pen-raised pheasants turned out on the first day of hunting season), then “cleaned” them in the basement. He said he didn’t hunt deer because he didn’t want to have to lug them through the woods. His defense of rabbit hunting was “everything hunts the rabbit.” My father and his friends hunted grouse, squirrels, and small birds, but I don’t recall anything about turkeys. Maybe they were “too big” to lug through the woods. We ate some of his killings, and the rest simply disappeared. There was talk such as: “Hell, I don’t want them; give them away . . . or throw them away.” One of my uncles loved to tell the story about how he threw away twenty pheasant pies his wife had baked.

Not until Tim (the oldest of my three younger brothers) was a teenager, and wanted to spend Saturday with his girlfriend, do I recall a family conflict over hunting. My father flew into a rage when Tim announced that he didn’t want to “go huntin’” with his dad. He was accused of being “a girl” because he preferred to be with a girl that day.

My middle brother, Amos, had his eye knocked out with a slingshot when he was five, yet he grew up to be an avid small-game hunter with a penchant for killing pheasants and quails. He could admit that some nonhuman animals had feelings. His own family had a golden retriever named Coffee, who was kidnapped from their yard in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Weeks later, when they somehow got her back, “Coffee’s fur had turned white from fright,” Amos said.

My father always kept succession of hunting dogs at the far end of the yard. These beagles had a wooden doghouse filled with straw and lived at the end of a long chain tied to an iron stake. Whenever I visited “Nellie,” or “Gus,” or whoever was there at the time, the dog would cower inside the doghouse or approach me crouching, with his or her tail curled under trembling back legs. My father trained his dogs by hitting them with a work-gloved hand. I’d hear them whimpering from inside the house. I heard stories about hunting dogs who had heart attacks running in the fields because they had been tied up, without exercise, for months between hunting seasons. My father took the beagles out for runs during the year to keep this from happening. In the fall, the men stood in the kitchen in the early morning talking about the great day of killing that lay ahead, then load Dad’s dog into the trunk with the other dogs, all yelping, and off they’d go.

I was an avid meateater. I loved broiled fat, which I would eat off other people’s plates: “Give it to me, I’ll eat it!” Nonetheless, around the age of thirteen, I started arguing with my father about hunting. We’d be at the dinner table when the fight would commence. I’d be yelling at my father about hunting, and he’d be yelling back – over prime rib or baked ham or broiled lamb chops. Needless to say, my father never changed. He stopped hunting in his eighties only because he could no longer see well enough to shoot, but he hunted for years with poor eyesight before quitting.

I never thought then that I was eating sentient beings. I remember my mother proudly announcing: “I buy fresh chicken from Imler’s” (a poultry slaughter market which is still in business). Chickens weren’t real to me the way pheasants were. Growing up, I saw ring-necked pheasants dead and alive. Occasionally one flew into our windshield on a country road. As a child, I begged my Uncle George, a cabinetmaker, to carve me a big wooden pheasant. I colored in the pheasant’s eyes and neck and carried it protectively under my arm. Now I know that chickens are pheasants.

One of my most vivid childhood experiences was when the white duck who lived up the street with the Mallory family was run over by a car. I cried inconsolably on the couch. I loved that duck, and for some reason it was more painful to me for a duck to be hit by a car than a dog, which I saw often enough, and which was traumatic enough.

As a very young child I spent feverish nights suffering over baby robins that fell out of nests in the trees in our yard. They would be naked and their mouths would be open, crying, and my mother would help me “take care of them.” But the next morning they were always gone.

I loved parakeets, too. My parakeet, Wiffenpoof (a budgerigar, actually), loved to push a rubber jacks ball across the rug with his beak. He sat on my father’s head whistling loudly while Dad yelled sternly at my brother, on behalf of our neighbor, Mr. Feathers: “I told you to stay out of Mr. Flower’s Feathers!” One day I came home from school and Wiffenpoof was gone. My mother said they gave him away. They bought me a wind-up canary in a plastic cage to take his place. It still hurts to wonder where they took Wiffenpoof. In those days, no one recognized such parental decisions as both an act of animal abuse and an act of child abuse.

In truth, my mother couldn’t stand to see an animal hurt and suffering. I still picture her crying in our driveway over a mouse with an injured foot, which she tried to coax (with cheese) into a bucket. At the same time, my brothers and I picked many butterflies off the flower bushes in our yard and put them in jars and cigar boxes, with a handful of grass, until their wings were tattered and transparent, and they died, or we “put them back.” We also caught grasshoppers, grass snakes, and worms. Why were we allowed to hurt these creatures? How could I do that?

Only years later did I recall seeing my best friend’s father pull a brown hen out of a dark shed next to their house one day, lay her on a wooden block, and chop her head off with a hatchet. Her head lay clucking on the grass at my feet while her body ran around the yard. It was definitely a hen. I see her as clearly as if the episode happened yesterday.

When I was eight or nine, my father decided to get rid of the rats under the house by killing them with the whisk of a broom. This project was carried out in the same gleeful spirit as when he and his brother, my uncle Clyde, killed bats in the attic with rolled-up newspapers and tennis rackets. Meanwhile, my mother went through the house shrieking, “God didn’t make rats, the devil made rats.” That was how she dealt with the cruelty she couldn’t bear to watch, much less take part in, but didn’t have the courage to speak out against in our household. I can still see a rat deep in a hole in our yard with two bright eyes looking out, and my father bent over the hole with a broom.

Racial Prejudice and Civil Rights

A story in the teenage magazine, Ingenue, titled “Them!” drew my attention to racial prejudice in the mid-1950s. “Them” referred to the black students being escorted by police into the all-white high school in Little Rock, Arkansas, in a hate-charged atmosphere vividly evoked by the writer. I remember asking my father about the cause of this hatred, which I couldn’t grasp through the writer’s depiction of these students. (Perhaps that was the point of the story.) I don’t recall his answer, but later, when I was at Westminster College, shortly before my obsession with the concentration camps, I became involved in the racial conflicts that were just then surfacing on campus. I dated a few black students, which was taboo, though it was accepted for a white girl to “fast dance” with a black male student in the student union. At the time – 1962 – campus fraternities and sororities excluded black students, though a special status, “associate member,” was created in one of the fraternities for black football players.

One weekend I was home talking with my father about racial issues at school, and he said that if I ever brought a colored person to the house, male or female, he would not let them in. He said that growing up in Altoona, he and his family used to tip their hat to the single colored family in the neighborhood, but never invited them into the house, and the family didn’t want to come in anyway. When I questioned my father’s point of view, my mother said I should respect other people’s opinions. But I replied that I was only obliged to respect other people’s right to hold an opinion, not the opinion itself.

The opinion at Westminster College (I was sent to this Presbyterian school to satisfy my mother’s concern for my “safety,” not because my parents were religious – they weren’t) was that there were certain lines you must not cross, certain things that were immutable. For example, the school choir’s prize soprano, June Singleton, was black, so she had to stay in separate hotels when the choir toured the South. Despite all the talk about Christian love and courage, the administration defended this policy. One day two girlfriends and I went to the college chaplain and urged him to take a stand against racial discrimination on campus; he argued that separate-but-equal was God’s will.

Such moments marked the beginning of my intellectual awakening of opposition to much of conventional society’s way of thinking. My sensibility began to take shape in the form of ideas and values that were frequently at odds with the norm.

Seal Hunt

After college, in the early 1970s, I lived in a black neighborhood in Baltimore with my boyfriend, and worked at a nursery school at the end of the block called the Little Red Hen. Following that, I became a juvenile probation counselor for the state of Maryland. Out of the blue, I started getting mail from the International Fund for Animal Welfare, (IWAF) in New Brunswick, Canada, about the slaughter of the baby harp seals in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

Seal slaughter opened my eyes to animal cruelty on a large scale. Brian Davies, then head of the IFAW and the author of Savage Luxury (an excruciating book about the Canadian seal hunt),2 sought to convince the Magdalen Islanders in the Gulf of St. Lawrence that more money could be made by treating the seals as a tourist attraction than by slaughtering them for fur. To this day, the effort to protect the seals, though a major campaign, has been unsuccessful.

In March of 1974, I joined an IFAW-sponsored tour to the Magdalen Islands to see the newborn seals and their mothers on the ice floes off Grindstone Island. For two days we were holed up in the hotel waiting for a break in the weather that would allow the helicopters to land us safely on the ice where the seals were nursing.

I assumed that everyone on the tour opposed the “hunt,” which was not really a hunt, just a clubbing of infants. The other visitors were an eye-opener. A retired oilman from Oklahoma had brought a tripod to set up on the ice to film the slaughter for his friends back home as a form of entertainment. A wildlife reporter wanted a piece of fresh-skinned fur to take back to her editor. Several woman in our group said that, while they felt bad for these baby seals, they couldn’t work up the same emotion for the bachelor seals, who are clubbed to death each year on the Pribilof Islands in the Bering Sea, because they were unattractive (to their eyes). Visitors said things like, “I could never stand to see a dog mistreated, but I don’t have the same feeling about cats (or rats).”

These discussions clarified why laws are needed to protect the defenseless against the caprice of human sentiment. The idea that most people have compassion for nonhuman animals, and would be kind to them if society would just encourage compassion, overlooks the extent to which each of us depends on legal protection. Anyway, where does “society” begin if not with people? Who in the United States would surrender the protections afforded them by the Constitution and entrust their fate entirely to human compassion – an easily overridden emotion even when it is present?

On Grindstone Island I met a professional wildlife photographer named Bill Curtzinger, whose color photograph of a baby harp seal’s whiskered face on the ice was a beautiful and popular poster at the time. Bill hated the seal hunt. He told me that growing up he’d dreamed of becoming a photographer for National Geographic, a dream that came true. One of his first assignments was to cover a beaver colony. For several days he waited quietly for the beavers to feel safe in his presence before taking pictures. But his editor at The National Geographic Magazine didn’t like his pictures, and asked him to wreck the beaver colony in order to procure a certain story angle. Bill refused and another photographer was sent to complete the assignment.

On the third day of our stay, we were helicoptered onto the ice floes. Imagine a universe of infants crying piteously in all directions. That’s what the ice floes sounded like. Baby seals and their mothers were everywhere, and so was pink-stained ice. Beyond us were the local sealers, the “landsman,” with their long clubs, clubbing the seals—not for “survival,” but for sport.

A Washington Post journalist to whom I later told this story wrote that I couldn’t “process the evil” I’d witnessed that day on the ice.3 Mistakenly, I thought that the seal hunt would not be taking place during our visit. Indeed, I was devastated. I couldn’t go straight home, but instead spent three days blanketed in a Montreal hotel reading Thomas Mann’s novel, Dr. Faustus.

Throughout my life I have found solace and exhilaration in authors who express my pessimism aesthetically and insightfully, without illusion. Describing Ivan Karamazov’s despair in The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoyevsky says that Ivan’s soul was sunk in a heavy mist, and Thomas Hardy describes Jude Fawley’s clairvoyant suffering in his novel, Jude the Obscure, in biblical terms – the blackness of darkness. Around the time of the seals, I wrote a pessimistic poem titled “A Confession of Ultimate Night,” which ends: “For I am composed of countless unlighted places / that never will know the light of any summer sun / nor feel how warmth can melt even a dark and weighted space of lead and iron / and Age that began to be Old on the very First Day.”

Becoming a Vegetarian

I ate so much steak one summer in the late 1960s, while working as a waitress at [the] General Putnam Inn in Norwalk, Connecticut, that the landlady of the boarding house where I was staying bought me a steak knife as a joke. After graduating from college in 1968, I spent a semester at the University of Maryland’s School of Social Work, in Baltimore. Almost every day after classes, I’d run to the Lexington Market, buy a barbecued chicken, take it back to my room on Cathedral Street, and devour it sitting on the bare floor next to the big iron bed, crunching bones with my teeth, chewing and almost sucking in the skin, then bolting the flesh. Occasionally there’d be a rubbery vein or something which gave pause – not a moral pause, just a kind of distasteful “hmmm, what is this?” Yet the day was approaching when I would discover the meaning of “meat” and become one of those people who, in the words of a former chicken slaughterhouse worker, “just couldn’t look at a piece of meat anymore without seeing the sad, tortured face that was attached to it sometime in the past.”4

Just as I became obsessed with concentration camps in the early 1960s, so in the early 1970s I began to agonize over the suffering and abuse of nonhuman animals. After the seal hunt, I visited a large dark warehouse in Maryland, filled with thousands of parrots, who were stacked in tiny cages waiting to be sent to pet stores. In 1972, I bought a parrot from a pet store simply to get her out of there. My parrot, Tikhon, and I lived happily together until her death, for more than twenty years.

Shortly after I bought Tikhon, I discovered an essay by Tolstoy called “The First Step.”5 In this work, Tolstoy argues that being a vegetarian is the necessary “first step” to becoming the type of nonviolent Christian he aspired to be in his later years. It wasn’t Tolstoy’s conceptual arguments that convinced me to stop eating nonhuman animals (though they would have, were I a Christian). Rather, it was his grueling description of cows and lambs in the Moscow slaughterhouses. Meat-eating, milk-drinking “egghead” that I was, I needed no further prompting to drop flesh from my diet. I agreed with Tolstoy, and a decade later, with Peter Singer. Because I had never “supported” eating animals in the first place, I did not need to be persuaded to abandon one position in order to take up another; I only needed to be made aware.

Becoming an Animal Rights Advocate

Three events in the early 1980s brought me into the Animal Rights Movement, which was just then getting underway. A few months after the seal hunt, I moved to San Francisco, where I remained a vegetarian (with a few lapses). I worked for a short time at a no-kill shelter called Pets Unlimited, which was a terrible place for the dogs and [cats] who died slowly, going crazy in an upstairs room where visitors did not venture. After that, for the most part, I stayed away from animal issues for nearly a decade, fearing their effect on me. But one’s temperament follows its own path.

While teaching a writing class to pre-nursing students at the University of Maryland, College Park, I provoked a furor in the classroom over a student paper that sought to absolve the Silver Spring Monkeys experimenter, Dr. Edward Taub, of wrongdoing. Taub was convicted of cruelty to animals in 1981, in Maryland.6 My request that the student redo her paper sparked a semester-long, emotionally-charged discussion about the treatment of nonhuman animals and animal rights. This discussion evolved to include an outpouring of pent-up emotions over the question of how much compassion they should sacrifice in order to meet the demands of impersonal professionalism, drilled into them by their instructors. They saw a connection between the experiments they were expected to perform on living beings, and the detachment they were expected to cultivate toward their human patients, even those who were dying. As one troubled student wrote, “I would like to be merciful, but I have to be professional.”

In 1983, The Washington Post published a long, dismissive article about Ingrid Newkirk titled, “She’s a Portrait of Zealotry in Plastic Shoes.” Ingrid, with Alex Pacheco, had recently founded People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). 7 The article sought to discredit Ingrid by describing her compassion: Cupping her hands with water for thirsty chickens stacked in crates in the mid-summer heat at a slaughterhouse loading dock in Maryland. I saved the article. A few months later, when I saw a newspaper ad for World Laboratory Animals Day in Lafayette Park near the White House, I went.

Lafayette Park was the turning point. As I looked at the posters showing scenes of nonhuman animals suffering in laboratories, two images in particular struck me. One was of a beagle whose body had been burned. The other was of a nonhuman primate whose head had been transplanted onto another animal’s body. The look on their faces, the suffering in their eyes, transfixed my attention. It was an indescribable look that said from the depths of their being, “Why have you done this to me?”

The faces of the individuals on posters in Lafayette Park spoke of the terrible things that had been done to them by human beings. Standing there, I remember thinking about what Peter Singer had said in Animal Liberation: If you find it unbearable to imagine what these individuals are going through, remember that what you find unbearable merely to imagine, the animals are forced to endure in reality. At that moment, I pledged never again to abandon nonhumans to the iniquity of our species simply because I couldn’t bear the knowledge of their suffering. From that moment, I became an animal rights activist, a person who seeks and calls for a remedy.

Choosing Chickens and Turkeys

I did not grow up around chickens and turkeys. I did not come to know these birds until I was in my forties.

My first encounter with turkeys took place at Farm Sanctuary in the mid-1980s, where I worked one summer as a volunteer. At Farm Sanctuary, there was a flock of about twenty white females and two bronze turkeys named Milton and Doris. One thing that impressed me then, and has stayed in my mind ever since, was how the turkeys’ voices, their “yelps,” floated about the place in an infinitely plaintive refrain. Doris wandered about the farmyard all day by herself like an eternal embodiment of a “lost call,” the call of a lost young turkey for her mother. Milton followed visitors around on his gouty legs and swollen feet, impressing them favorably – they were surprised at how companionable he was. From behind a bristling armor of iridescent brown feathers, his dark eyes watched us through pendant, heavily wrinkled pouches of colorful, folded skin –like a soul imprisoned deep inside his body.

Soon afterward, my husband and I adopted two young female turkeys named Mila and Priscilla. They both loved to forage in the woods around our house, and sunbathe and dustbathe together, though their temperaments were completely different. Mila was a gentle and pacific turkey with a watchful manner. Priscilla was a moody bird, frustrated by her inability to hatch the many unfertilized eggs that she laid in the wooded nooks, where she nested. When Priscilla got into one of her angry moods, she would glare at us combatively, ready to charge. What stopped her was Mila. Perking up her head at Priscilla’s signals, Mila would stand directly in the path between Priscilla and us. She would tread back and forth in front of Priscilla, uttering soft pleading yelps, as if beseeching Priscilla to calm down, and she did.

Over the years, I became more and more interested in turkeys and more and more revolted by the ignominious role that society has assigned to these remarkable birds—and the absolute brutality of the turkey industry.8 I adopted several more turkeys – Aubrey and Amelia, who still live in our sanctuary even as I write. I was attracted to their friendly, though sometimes prickly behavior, and lively inquisitiveness. Determined to bring the truth about turkeys to light, I researched the matter extensively, and in 2001 I published More Than a Meal: The Turkey in History, Myth, Ritual, and Reality. 9

In 1990, a crippled and abandoned chicken from the meat industry, named Viva, led me to found United Poultry Concerns. From the moment I pulled Viva out of a muddy shack in Maryland, and saw her face, I knew I had a story to tell that would never let go.10

When I met Viva in 1985, I was an English teacher completing my doctoral dissertation at the University of Maryland, College Park, and though I was spending more and more time on animal issues, attending protests and learning the facts, I expected to teach English for the rest of my life. At the same time, I was increasingly drawn by the plight of farmed animals; the number of these tortured beings was astonishing. At the very bottom of this gigantic pile of forgotten victims were billions of birds, totally out of sight of consumers. Farmed animals were generally dismissed as beyond the pale of equal – or any – moral concern, because they were bred to a substandard state of intelligence and biological fitness, it was argued, and because they were “just food” that was “going to be killed anyway.”

My experience with Viva put these matters into perspective. Viva was expressive, responsive, communicative, affectionate, and alert. Viva was cursed with a “man-made” body, forced to bear many times the weight of a normal chicken, resulting in a weak heart, a crippled skeleton, and related genetic infirmities that prevented her – as they prevent all chickens (and turkeys) bred for meat production 11 – from claiming her birthright and earthrights. But there was nothing wanting in her personally. She already had a voice, but her voice needed to be amplified from within the oppressive system in which she was trapped. I knew Viva, but I also knew there were billions of Vivas out there, who were just as special.

Viva’s death hit me hard, but she clarified my future. Viva was a valuable being, somebody worth fighting for. She was not “just a chicken.” Viva was a chicken, a member of Earth’s community, a dignified being with a claim to justice, compassion, and a life equal to anyone else’s. I dedicated my book Prisoned Chickens, Poisoned Eggs to Viva, and to working for a future in which the voice of every hen is heard. 12

Pessimism of the Intellect

I work towards this end, this longed-for future, but I am pessimistic about the fate of chickens. Chickens (and other so-called poultry) are propagated by the billions in industrialized hatcheries around the world. The human species has not shown any significant sign of evolving to a more compassionate way of being.

Though there are places in the world where chickens continue to live the free-roaming life of their jungle ancestors, billions of chickens now live indoors. They do not enjoy even the “pampered” life of farmyard chickens in the Victorian era, when roosters and hens were idealized as models of domestic felicity and decorum. Today the majority of hens and roosters exist only as unrealized potentials, slaughtered as babies without ever knowing the comfort of a mother hen’s wing, or the reassuring sound of a rooster’s crow.

Unnatural Suffering

As a college student, I was obsessed with trying to imagine what it would feel like to be in a place that was utterly inimical to one’s sense of self, against one’s will – to be forced into the abyss of total imprisonment, moral abandonment, and bewildering cruelty – a concentration camp or a death camp where everyday suffering is overwhelmed by human-induced suffering. For me, it is natural to try to imagine what it must be like for a nonhuman animal (like a chicken, or a turkey, or a sheep) to be forced into a human-contrived, inimical universe. For these individuals, the hell they experience is unnatural. There is nothing in the psyche of chickens to prepare them for having their beaks burned off, at birth, and being crammed inside a filthy building filled with toxic gases along with thousands of other suffering, terrified birds. How do these foraging creatures, with the leafy green world of the jungle embedded in their genes, experience entombment? How do turkeys – birds who evolved not only to run and fly, but to swim, roost high in trees at night, and roam with their mothers for five months after they hatch – how do they experience being stuffed into buildings as contaminated as cesspools? How does a grazing animal feel when forcibly herded onto a huge ship jammed in a filthy pen, and freighted from Australia to Saudi Arabia or Iraq. How is it for a sheep to float sea-sickeningly across the Persian Gulf on the way to slaughter?

Keeping Faith

In thinking about the bizarre and hideous cruelties that our species inflicts on others, I believe that nonhuman animals suffer in ways that no human has ever dreamed of or experienced, and that there are elements in human nature that exult in creating strange new worlds of misery. With such thoughts, it is tempting to give up on a better world, which is why I find inspiration in the words of the writer, Colman McCarthy, a peace advocate whose nonviolent teachings and lifestyle include nonhuman animals and vegetarianism. Asked by an animal rights activist, “Do you think we’ll ever succeed?” McCarthy replied: “Don’t worry about being successful, just be faithful.” 13

This advice has the advantage of realism over romanticism. Though we hold the moral high ground, and though we work with dedication, we may not prevail over the forces arrayed against nonhuman animals to build the world that we long for. We do not have full control over outcomes, but we do have control over whether we are, and will remain, faithful. And if we are not faithful, we surely will not succeed.

Faithfulness is not about having faith, but about keeping faith. This recognition has been a point of light shining into the otherwise dark places to which our species condemns countless billions of our fellow creatures for reasons that, despite various explanations, remain unclear.


1 I developed these perceptions into the argument of my book The Holocaust and the Henmaid’s Tale: A Case for Comparing Atrocities published in 2005 by Lantern Books.

2 Brian Davies. 1970. Savage Luxury: The Slaughter of the Baby Seals. London: Souvenir Press.

3 Tamara Jones. 1999. For the Birds. The Washington Post 14 November: F1, F4-F5. This article about Karen Davis and United Poultry Concerns won the Ark Trust Genesis Award for Outstanding Newspaper Feature about animals in 1999.

4 Slaughterhouse Worker Turned Activist: UPC Talks With Virgil Butler and Laura Alexander. 2004. Poultry Press (quarterly magazine of United Poultry Concerns) 4.3 (Fall): 1-4.

Virgil Butler died in 2006. See Virgil Butler, Ex-Tyson Slaughterhouse Voice for Chickens, has Died. 2006-2007. Poultry Press 16.2 (Winter): 5-6.

5 This extended essay on “food” animal slaughter and vegetarianism was written in 1892 as a preface to the Russian edition of Howard Williams’s Ethics of Diet (1883). Williams’s book is a biographical history of philosophic vegetarianism from antiquity through the early nineteenth century.

6 Alex Pacheco with Anna Francione. 1985. The Silver Spring Monkeys. In Defense of Animals. Ed. Peter Singer. New York: Basil Blackwell. 135-147.

7 Chip Brown. 1983. She’s a Portrait of Zealotry in Plastic Shoes. The Washington Post 13 November: B1.

8 A concise summary of turkey industry practices is provided by United Poultry Concerns’ “Turkeys” brochure which is also available on UPC’s Website.

9 Karen Davis. 2001. More Than a Meal: The Turkey in History, Myth, Ritual, and Reality. New York: Lantern Books.

10 Karen Davis. 1990. Viva, The Chicken Hen (June? - November 1985). Between the Species: A Journal of Ethics 6.1: 33-35.

11 A concise summary of chicken industry practices is provided by United Poultry Concerns’ “Chickens” brochure which is also available on UPC’s Website.

12 Karen Davis. 1996. Prisoned Chickens, Poisoned Eggs: An Inside Look at the Modern Poultry Industry. Summertown, TN: Book Publishing Company. This book revised and updated was republished in 2009.

13 Bartlett, Kim. 1988. An Interview with Colman McCarthy. The Animals’ Agenda. September-October: 7-11. For many years McCarthy was a featured columnist with The Washington Post where he wrote outstandingly about animal abuse and animal rights. He continues to write and teach about peace and justice: “An ideal world is where wealth is shared, where love is recognized as the strongest force we have, and where charity is no longer needed because we have justice.”

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