The Place of United Poultry Concerns in the Chronology of Humane Progress (from Moses to Walt Disney)

United Poultry Concerns thanks Merritt Clifton and ANIMAL PEOPLE for this feature and for permission to reprint it.

Karen Davis
Photo By: Susan Rayfield

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, April 2003
By Merritt Clifton, Editor

More Than a Meal:
The Turkey in History, Myth, Ritual, and Reality
By Karen Davis, Ph.D.
Lantern Books (One Union Square West
Suite 201, New York, NY 10003), 2001
192 pages, paperback, $20.00

This review appears on the same page as the conclusion of the first installment of my "Chronology of Humane Progress," an attempt to put into context the major ideas and events that over the past 3,300 years have often falteringly coalesced into the global animal protection cause of today.

The second installment ends with the major events of 1998, to give current and recent developments at least five years to settle before trying to decide what really made a difference and what was just part of the flow.

Even 1990 is too recent to judge from adequate distance, but as best I can determine right now, the two most significant animal protection events of that year were the first March for the Animals and the incorporation by Karen Davis of United Poultry Concerns.

The March was in effect the beginning of the modern animal rights movement in which the bad guys were someone else, doing awful things in either an academic ivory tower or Dr. Frankenstein's castle. The formation of United Poultry Concerns marked the start of the second phase, in which activists shifted their attention to what they could personally do to set an example and make a difference: fix feral cats, get involved in electoral politics, and go vegetarian or vegan.

There were active vegetarian communes in the U.S. more than seventy years before anyone founded a humane society, and there were many other farm animal advocacy organizations before UPC. Already integral to the animal rights movement were the Farm Animal Reform Movement (1981), the Humane Farming Association (1985), and Farm Sanctuary (1986). Henry Spira, the most accomplished anti-vivisection crusader of all time, had argued since 1985 that the movement should logically refocus on diet, since that would be the next opportunity to effect a steep reduction in what he termed "the universe of suffering."

Neither was Davis the first to point out that chickens and other poultry, doing more than 95% of all the human-caused animal suffering and dying in the world, hold a far higher moral claim on humane movement consciousness than they have ever received. Spira recited that statistic like a mantra while pushing poultry baron Frank Perdue in futile hope of getting him to make reforms. Peter Singer, Jim Mason, and John Robbins had already pointed out the numbers in Animal Liberation, Animal Factories, and Diet For a New America.

But none of them had strong big-group support for campaigns on behalf of poultry. The Humane Society of the U.S. began one campaign decrying the "breakfast of cruelty" featuring bacon and eggs, then backed away as if splashed with hot grease. American SPCA president John Kulberg spoke in favor of vegetarianism and got fired.

Who would stand up for the chickens, turkeys, ducks, and geese? "Not I," said one big-group executive after another. "Then I will," said Davis, flapping her arms and thrusting her beak at Vegetarian Times founder Paul Obis like one furious Little Red Hen (with jet-black hair) after Obis accepted an ad for a prepackaged chicken pilaf mix.

Except for Obis, who could not get away on that occasion, hardly anyone took the Little Red Hen seriously at first. She had no money, no major political connections, and was even by her own admission an extreme eccentric, reportedly allowing rescued chickens to run in and out her windows and across her desk in the middle of the few very important mass media interviews that came her way.

But the Little Red Hen turned out to be the right person for the job. Reporters left those strange interviews saying to themselves, and me, in calls seeking further perspective, "Karen Davis is a chicken! She is telling us what chickens would, if they could." They couldn't help realizing that chickens are much more intelligent and sensitive than they had ever imagined. They found Davis likably charismatic, perhaps because of her oddness, and eventually she began getting more ink than many of the supposed movement superstars.

More important, some reporters confessed that they could no longer eat chicken. Somehow the Little Red Hen had gotten to them.

Speaking for turkeys

Those who know chickens really well are aware that they do not limit their circle of compassion to their own kind. . . . [A] hen will faithfully sit on any eggs she is given, and will mother the hatchlings to the best of her ability whether they are close relatives, reptiles, or even a neonatal kitten placed in the nest to keep warm - and not because hens are too stupid to know the difference. On the contrary, many hens will somehow know enough to lead ducklings and goslings to water, and will even try to lead a kitten to kibble, skipping the nursing stage perhaps because they simply lack the means to nurse.

I like to think that such an instinct is why the Little Red Hen wrote More Than a Meal on behalf of turkeys - and made it her best book yet. Davis has done some first-rate investigative reporting to chase down the origins of myths about turkeys, and the origins of turkeys themselves. Her writing is passionate, yet not shrill. For me, on a recent flight from San Francisco to Seattle, it was a page-turner, opened at takeoff and completed right at landing.

As we taxied to the gate, the young man across the aisle and one row back tapped me on the shoulder, and asked if he could have the title, in order to buy his own copy. He had been reading along with me, he explained, and got hooked.

Handing him my card, I expected to hear that he was an animal rights advocate and militant vegan.
Not at all. He was a second-generation wildlife biologist. His dad was restoring huntable turkey populations not far from Davis' home in Virginia. Still, the young man never knew before that there was so much to know about turkeys, and he sounded as if the Little Red Hen had ensured that he would never see turkeys the same way again. -M.C.

Merritt Clifton is the Editor of ANIMAL PEOPLE, the leading independent newspaper providing original investigative coverage of animal protection worldwide, founded in 1992. PO Box 960, Clinton, WA 98236. Tel: 360-579-2505. Fax: 360-579-2575. Email: