While living in Darnestown, Maryland, Karen Davis would frequently walk along a path on her way to a pond located behind her yard. Along this path was a chicken house enclosure that had been buried in the trees behind the yard’s fence. When Karen and her husband first moved in it was empty.
One summer day in July during her daily walk Karen noticed the enclosure had been filled with chickens. Not yet the expert she is today, even she could notice many of them suffered with deformed legs and toes, unable to hold their own weight. Karen would then visit the chickens regularly, concerned about their ultimate fate.
One morning in late August during one of her almost daily visits, she noticed the chickens were gone, except one. By the time Karen was inside the shed, this one remaining little bird had buried herself deep in a far corner. Her body crippled and stained, she was frightened by Karen’s presence. Her adorable chirps, peeps and trills pulled at Karen’s heartstrings as she scooped her up and brought her inside her home.
Karen carried her into her kitchen, made her a bed next to the kitchen table and named her Viva. Undoubtedly inspired by her courage & ability to survive, despite her condition and the terrible fate of the other birds.
Read Viva’s Full Story
Looking back, Karen now credits rescuing Viva as one of the important milestones that inspired the rest of her life.
In 1990 to promote the compassionate and respectful treatment of domestic fowl, Karen Davis launched United Poultry Concerns (UPC).
A Plucky Beginning
Karen grew up in Altoona, Pennsylvania where she spent the better part of her childhood. A sibling to three brothers, she was the oldest of four. Her family was, in Karen’s words, “average.” Her mom, a stay at home mother and her father a trial attorney. Karen’s father, a traditional man with an affinity for fishing and hunting, would later become the District Attorney of Blair County.
While all three of her male siblings were drawn to fishing and hunting, with little to no resistance, Karen on the other hand would argue against these subjects with her family at the young age of 13. These spirited debates would take place over plates filled with animal products which, according to Karen, didn’t occur to her while growing up.
Deeply affected by Tolstoy’s description of his visit to a Moscow slaughterhouse in his essay “The First Step,” Karen stopped eating meat in 1974.
In 1983 Karen became vegan after reading Peter Singer’s 1975 book Animal Liberation and learned about the suffering and abuse of hens and cows for eggs and milk. Once she understood the link between food and animals, Karen was immunized against an animal-based diet.
Unlike many new vegans back then, she found it very easy and had no problem finding good things to eat. “I experienced virtually no struggles other than finding a satisfying vegan replacement for coffee cream,” Karen says with a smile. Contrary to the current notion that “there was nothing to eat back then,” Karen recalls finding plenty.
Although she credits Viva as an important milestone in her journey, she also remembers an experience that sparked the activist in her. She recalls the afternoon she attended a World Laboratory Animals Day with her husband in Lafayette Park.
“I saw two poster photos: one of a nonhuman primate who had had a head transplant with big black sutures. The other was of a laboratory beagle in a metal cage whose side had been intentionally burned in an experiment. Their wounds and most especially the expression on their faces led me, on the spot, to pledge never again to abandon animals to their fate because I couldn’t bear knowing about their suffering and abuse. Henceforth I was an animal advocate/activist.”
Inspired by Ingrid Newkirk, founder of PeTA and Brian Davies, who launched the mission to educate the public about the Canadian harp seal “hunt,” with whom she joined during an organized trip to see the seals in the Gulf of St Lawrence in March 1974, Karen has successfully carved an important niche with United Poultry Concerns.
Scarred but not Maimed
Despite staying away from the experiences of animal abuse for 10 years after being traumatized by her trip to the Gulf of St. Lawrence where she witnessed the harshest of animal cruelty, Karen Davis and United Poultry Concerns have created immense awareness of the plight of domestic fowl and inspired other organizations to follow in their own right.
Karen was one of Farm Sanctuary’s first volunteer interns in the mid-1980s and wrote the first Animal Rights article about Farm Sanctuary titled Farm Sanctuary: A Peaceable Kingdom for Farm Animals, which was published in the leading animal rights magazine at the time, The Animals’ Agenda.
Due to Karen’s stellar reputation as a passionate writer, speaker, well-informed and informative advocate for chickens and a purveyor of ideas, UPC has attracted notoriety, interest, respect, memberships, and funding…a wonderful development for chickens and other domestic fowl.
In the mid-1990s, Karen wrote the first and, to date, the most deeply informative book about the modern poultry industry and chickens, Prisoned Chickens, Poisoned Eggs: An Inside Look at the Modern Poultry Industry.
The U.S. chicken industry is the foundation of modern animal agribusiness and chickens represent 98-99% of all land animals raised and slaughtered for food in the U.S and abroad.
A Rich History
Karen’s memorable experiences include a visit to Henry Spira’s NYC apartment in the late 1980s. This was of course when UPC was a brainchild in Karen’s mind. She remembers his wall to wall manila folder collections. Henry was the first activist to run full page ads in the New York Times and other publications about the cosmetic industry’s “blinding rabbits experiments.” He was also the first activist to confront Frank Perdue who in several ads was represented with the nose of Pinocchio for being a liar. “There is too much to relate about my work for chickens with Henry,” says Karen. “Suffice to say he was very supportive and a true colleague for chickens.”
UPC as it is fondly known today, is home to a large, predator-proof 6,000 square foot bird sanctuary, an extremely robust website, a quarterly magazine, educational materials for children, news releases, as well as national campaigns and initiatives. The organization seeks to make the public aware of the ways in which birds such as chickens, turkeys, ducks and other domestic fowl are used, and to promote the benefits of a vegan diet and lifestyle.
Published since 1991, UPC’s Poultry Press has been recognized by UTNE Magazine as one of The BEST Nonprofit Publications in the world.
Karen and her powerful organization have managed to put chickens firmly and permanently on the AR map. Because of Karen’s dedication and prevision, many groups now, both large and small, including farmed animal sanctuaries and microsanctuaries, advocate for chickens and care very much about them.
Sadly, “chicken,” as food, still remains everywhere. Most people still regard chickens without sentience and mentally inferior to cows, pigs, and other animals.
But Karen remains optimistic and steadfast about her work. She is further encouraged when she meets people in various places who DO care about chickens and who are sensitive about how they are mistreated
On April 20, 2007, Ira Glass, host of This American Life, appeared on Late Night with David Letterman, where he described his visit to Karen’s sanctuary and how meeting her chickens caused him to feel sympathy for them and to stop eating them and became a vegetarian because of their encounter.
Karen tells the story. “Ira Glass ran an annual segment between Thanksgiving and Christmas called ‘The Poultry Slam.’ The show comprised 3 or 4 or more prerecorded speakers making fun of chickens, turkeys, ducks and other ‘poultry.’ It was supposed to be funny but was actually a mean-spirited repetition of pejorative stories about these birds. Via UPC, I launched a campaign against the ‘poultry slam’ urging our members to send stories and photos of their chickens, or of any chickens cast in a positive light, to Ira Glass. He received a bombardment of affirmative stories and pictures. This led him to invite me to be one of the storytellers on his next poultry slam. I said I would but only if he first visited our sanctuary and met our birds, which he cordially did.”
Other individuals who have inspired Karen’s incredible legacy are Donald Barnes, Mary Britton Clouse, co-founder of Chicken Run Rescue in Minnesota, and Mary Finelli, founder of Fish Feel.
“Mary Finelli would send me articles about the poultry industry from industry publications, highlighting the key points with a magic marker, that I incorporated into my writings and presentations from the very start back in the early 1990s,” Karen added.
The Animal Rights Tenacious “D”avis
Karen is an early riser who starts her day at around 5:00 AM.
Every day she is reading, writing, answering emails, researching data, preparing action alerts and other documents. There are campaigns to coordinate and a variety of activities with her staff on a daily basis.
She also assists the sanctuary caregiver on the weekdays and does full sanctuary bird care on weekends.
It’s fascinating to talk with Karen. Amidst the faint crows of the roosters in the background she not only has a master’s grasp of the plight of domestic fowl but also an extensive knowledge about their revered history.
Karen explains, in ancient times the rooster was esteemed for his sexual vigor. It is said that a healthy young rooster may mate as often as thirty times a day. He thus figures in religious history as a symbol of divine fertility and the life force. In his own world of chickendom, the rooster—is a lover, a father, a brother, a food-finder, a guardian, and a sentinel.
“The rooster most notably represents, for men through history in just about all cultures, a thrilling physical aggression in the form of staged cockfights, in which the roosters are traumatized/terrorized by their ‘trainers’ to act out the aggressive pathologies of enthusiasts. Cockfighting has been justified by certain scholars as an admirably ‘democratic’ sport for bringing together (for this sole purpose) men of all social classes from King to Servant.”
After nearly 40 years she remains motivated by the daily site of the lively rescued birds in her sanctuary. Perched in the trees and bushes at night, they are living their best life. At the same time she is reminded of the billions of equally wonderful but tortured birds beyond her gate. There is still much work to be done. To fight for all chickens, and by extension, all birds and animals who need to be liberated from human abuse is her daily commitment.
“Don’t worry about being successful. Just be faithful.”
“As an atheist,” Karen says, “these words ‘just be faithful’ mean that it’s not about having faith but about keeping faith. That is my summons. It has nothing to do with religion.”
As an educator Karen uses various forums and channels of communication available on the internet and through United Poultry Concerns. She has been publishing and updating for more than 20 years an informative teachers guide, Hatching Good Lessons: Alternatives to School Hatching Projects.
Karen has written a vegan cookbook, Instead of Chicken, Instead of Turkey, a children’s book A Home For Henny, countless articles, op-eds and letters-to-editors. She has also been interviewed by The Washington Post as well as other very respected publications.
Inducted into the National Animal Rights Hall of Fame for Outstanding Contributions to Animal Liberation in July 2002, her speaking engagements include podcasts, webinars, multiple conferences, vegfests, as well as in-classroom and academic lecture halls.
Karen has graced the stages of dozens of AR gatherings including the
Animal Rights National Conference, North American Vegetarian Society Conference, Speaking About Animals in Canada Conference, Yale University Chicken Conference and Animal Personhood Conferences, Tom Regan’s International Compassionate Living Festival, University of Virginia Animal Justice Advocates’ Panel, City College of New York, TAFA Conference, Poplar Spring Animal Sanctuary, UPC’s annual Conscious Eating Conference, University of Wisconsin-Madison, and University of Maryland-College Park and Salisbury, just to name a few.
Pearls of Wisdom
“A committed activist who won’t burn out needs three important things: facts, confidence, and passion. Activism requires persistence, a friendly manner and firmness. When we know our subject and can articulate our issues, our confidence grows along with our credibility, and we become stronger and more effective every time we speak. But facts by themselves may not be persuasive. If we lack or fail to convey passion for our cause, we will have a hard time getting people’s attention.”
“If you need to take a break, do so – but come back energized and ready to contribute your time and talents to helping the animals. Every social justice movement is frustrating in one way or another to its participants. The important thing is to stay active and optimistic as an activist for animals and animal rights.”
“Don’t let your friends, family and coworkers ‘get to you.’ Remember that the average person is not a revolutionary. Try to influence your critics by your example, personal and professional.”
“I am concerned about the growing intersectionalism dominating the animal liberation movement’s conferences and discourse to the extent that the animals are overwhelmed by human social justice issues. Similarly, promoting veganism for strictly health reasons eliminates the animals from consciousness, which is a grave and cruel betrayal.”
“Veganism is very important from what I know about the effects of animal agribusiness on land, air, water, wildlife habitat, the destruction of forests for animal grazing and crops like corn and soybeans grown to feed industrially-raised birds and pigs and the use of toxic sprays to protect such crops. By choosing vegan, we eliminate the torture of billions of animals while enjoying the benefits of better health, a cleaner environment, and a more humane life.”
Karen’s books also include More Than a Meal: The Turkey in History, Myth, Ritual, and Reality (Lantern Books); and The Holocaust and the Henmaid’s Tale: A Case for Comparing Atrocities (Lantern Books).
The 2009 Revised Edition of Karen’s landmark book Prisoned Chickens, Poisoned Eggs (first published in 1996) is described by the American Library Association’s Choice magazine as “Riveting . . . brilliant . . . noteworthy for its breadth and depth.”
Karen’s latest book, published by Lantern Books in 2019, is For the Birds: From Exploitation to Liberation – Essays on Chickens, Turkeys, and Other Domesticated Fowl. “The book can only be described with superlatives – extraordinary writing, exemplary research, and heart-wrenching pathos.” – Animal Culture Magazine.
Presently Karen is focused on her annual International Respect for Chickens Day May 4/month of May annual campaign, which this year includes a collaboration between UPC and Chicken Run Rescue in the form of an “art and ideas” contest. In addition, Karen is developing a weekly podcast series where she will host 10-minute episodes on various topics relating to the plight and delight of chickens and other domesticated fowl: “Thinking Like a Chicken: News & Views” will be launched in the coming months.
“I want to influence people to perceive chickens and turkeys in their own right, apart from the categorical traps in which they are typically held captive.” – Karen Davis
Please visit UPC-ONLINE for more information about Karen and her amazing work
Social Media: Follow Karen Davis and UPC’s news and updates about her feathered friends on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter
35 thoughts on “Feathered Friends”
Hi feathered friends, we are a self help group called Rainbow self help group in Nairobi Kenya that wishes to start up a hatchery business. we have a passion in hatching chicks but have no capital. so please we request a fund of Ksh120,000.
What a wonderful profile of Karen! Her tireless dedication and passion for our kindred animals are inspirational. Karen is creating a kinder, more compassionate world, raising awareness of the soulful beauty to be found in a chicken’s eye and a bird’s song.
Good afternoon Dr. Kong.
Thank you for your kind words. Karen has certainly touched many people’s lives. I am exceptionally pleased with the response we have received with this article about Karen Davis and all she has done for animals and will continue to do. She obviously has many fans and rightfully so.
Thanks for this wonderful appreciation of Karen Davis’s extraordinary life and work. No activist has inspired me as much as Karen has over the years. Her unflagging commitment to animal justice has made her a true moral and intellectual beacon of our movement, as well as to me personally. Karen speaks truth to power. And she does so boldly, without apology, and with the eloquence of one who, having found the courage to peer unblinkingly into the abyss of human evil, is unafraid to hold our species to account for its domination. There is no mightier, more consistent advocate for the animals anywhere on the earth.
Powerful words John, and all true. It was truly a pleasure getting to know Karen. I learned a lot from her in the short amount of time we spent together preparing for the article. She is a model advocate and hero to the animals.
Beautifully said, John, and I wholeheartedly agree.
I am heartened by every kind and generous comment inspired by Lisa de Crescente’s penetrating article about my work, via United Poultry Concerns, to make a better life for chickens and all animals. Thank you to everyone who has taken the time to read the article and to commend it in this invaluable public forum.
You’re the best, Karen. Thanks for all you do for the animals.
Thank you for this excellent article about Karen Davis who, according to many, is the gold standard for animal activism. Karen’s taught me so much about chickens and other birds–their lives, their ways of communicating, their incredible intelligence, the abuse they suffer–and I am honored that she accepted my invitation year after year to be part of my Left Forum animal rights panels. She’s always an inspiration. What seems to me to be her masterpiece, PRISONED CHICKENS, POISONED EGGS, AN INSIDE LOOK AT THE MODERN POULTRY INDUSTRY, should be required reading for every American.
Thank you, Joan. I am humbled by your appreciation. Karen is definitely someone to look up to. I hope that many more movement newcomers are inspired by her journey and success thus far.
The number of comments on this CHARM feature is evidence of Karen’s value and impact within the animal rights movement. Her work, and the importance of UPC, cannot be denied. I hope this feature inspires others to learn from Karen and stand up for animals.
I am delighted to see this in-depth article about Karen. Sincere thanks to Lisa for writing it, and to FARM for publishing it.
I met Karen in the mid-1980s, and she has been an inspiration and mentor ever since. She truly has an indomitable spirit, and her enthusiasm is contagious. She is a fascinating person with a brilliant mind. Philosopher Tom Regan credited Karen as being “my bellwether in the political storms that animal rights advocates have to face,” and Merritt Clifton (Animals 24-7) explained that she “works around the clock on a shoestring budget.” She also has a great sense of humor!
Including Karen’s advice to activists in this article is a great service to us since, in addition to having accomplished so very much, despite her decades of intense work and the countless horrors she has learned of, Karen has retained her immense empathy and compassion rather than becoming inured to them, as happens to so many activists.
It’s a great pleasure to be friends with Karen, and I consider myself very fortunate to know her. UPC was a huge inspiration for initiating the organization, Fish Feel, and I will always be so grateful for it. Karen is a magnificent champion for animals. Thank you for helping others learn about her. I will be sharing this article!
Just to note: “Cockfighting has been justified by certain scholars as an admirably ‘democratic’ sport for bringing together (for this sole purpose) men of all social classes from King to Servant.”
They have attempted to justify it in that way but it was false justification: it’s unjustifiable.
Thank you Mary for taking the time to reflect further on such an important personality on the movement. You both are inspirational.
Thank YOU, Eric, very much, and especially for all you do, and long have done, to help animals!
Thank you, Mary. You are too an inspiration to all of us in the movement.
We also appreciate your support. Karen is truly a blessing.
Thank you, FARM, for this magnificent interview with Karen Davis. I have done activism with Karen for 22 years and read every interview she does and I ALWAYS come away with a new insight. She is a powerhouse. Entries to UPC’s and Chicken Run Rescue’s International Respect for Chickens Day “art and ideas” contest can be viewed at https://www.facebook.com/Chicken-Run-Rescue-4475016785200/photos/a.10166164790900201/10166226414280201 We want to year YOUR ideas for ways to inspire compassion and action for chickens. Submit your poems, prose, sketches, photos, videos or written descriptions to firstname.lastname@example.org by May 4, 2022. The sky is the limit.
Thank you, Mary.
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Karen’s advice for us at Safe Haven Farm Sanctuary has been invaluable. And she reminds us of the terrible plight as well as the wonderful personalities of our feathered friends. Thank you, Karen!
Thank you for everything you do at Safe Haven Farm Sanctuary. We appreciate your support.
Karen is hero. She’s a great scholar as well as a great activist, and I have continually relied on her wisdom.
She always says what she believes and what is in her heart. Humans as well as our animal relatives are in
Thank you, Bill. Karen is indeed a hero and we appreciate your support.
Lisa, thank you for this piece about Karen Davis! It’s brimming with detail about her long time commitment to the stopping of animal cruelty everywhere-especially in the poultry world. I’ve admired her tenacity on their behalf for many years. As I think you captured here, Karen never fails to articulate, in the most moving & heartfelt way, her genuine love and appreciation for chickens and their lovely uniqueness. She’s also able to confront those who perpetuate cruelty with the same humanity, always, of course, providing indisputable facts to boot.
(Love how she mentioned above how her chickens were enjoying the sun and fresh air on April 1st! She sees & feels them & respects what matters to them). Karen embodies kindness. She continues to inspire me. I am so grateful for her, & the advocacy for chickens she models every single day. UPC website is always chock filled w/info about everything poultry:))
Thank you, Nancy. Your appreciation for Karen and the article is very heartwarming. The CHARM series has been such a labor of love for me over the last 16 months and knowing that it is an inspiration for others is exactly why FARM promotes the articles. Thank you for standing up for animals and supporting our work.
This is a terrific portrait of Karen Davis, whom I’ve admired for many years, and continue to learn from all the time. (And thanks to Karen for her shout-out to Mary Finelli, another friend!) Karen’s latest book, “For the Birds,” is brilliant, and I recommend it.
On “the growing intersectionalism”: Given that many millions (15 million? 20?) of chickens alone, to say nothing of all the other captive exploited animals, are killed every day in the US, for any social-justice activist to claim that justice for animals is a great intersecting cause, and then to treat it as of minor interest, is plainly to be acting in bad faith. The pro-animal activists are being used, and meanwhile the animals are being put to death, unlamented, all the same.
On “promoting veganism for strictly health reasons”: It is indeed an awful corrosion of the meaning of the term “veganism,” that it is widely understood nowadays to mean no more than vegetarianism-plus, with no thought given to the animals. We really need to keep the cause of justice for animals foremost whenever we talk about veganism; in fact eating animal-free is not its central meaning, though that way of eating is an obvious direct consequence of its core value. We could even say, Eating animal-free would be the right thing to do, even if there were no health benefits for us — so isn’t it nice to know that it is in fact very healthful?
Thank you, Mark. Very insightful! Thank you for supporting our work and the CHARM series.
Thanks, Mark! I so agree with your well-stated points about intersectionalism and veganism.
Karen has been a role model and thought leader for me over the years. Thank you for including her “pearls of wisdom” as they represent Karen’s treasure of wisdom and practical advice all advocates need to hear.
You are most welcome Will. Thank you for being a supporter of our work and the CHARM series.
All the best.
Thank you, FARM, for this. I have done activism with Karen for 22 years and read every interview she does and I ALWAYS come away with a new insight. She is a powerhouse. Entries to UPC and Chicken Run Rescue’s International Respect for Chickens Day “art and ideas” contest can be viewed at https://www.facebook.com/Chicken-Run-Rescue-475016785200/photos/a.10166164790900201/10166226414280201 We want to hear YOUR ideas for ways to inspire compassion and action for chickens. Submit your poems, prose, sketches, photos, videos, or written descriptions to email@example.com by May 4, 2022 The sky is the limit.
Thank you, Mary. We so appreciate your work and everything you have done for the movement.
Karen is magnificent. I am awe-stricken that she has so much heart and yet plunges daily and all-day into the heart-breaking suffering of animals. Heart and strength. And ethics.
I agree. Thank you for being a supporter of our work, the CHARM articles, and a friend to the animals.
Thank you so much Lisa and FARM for this thoughtful and informative profile article about me and my work and the activities and goals of United Poultry Concerns! I really appreciate your attention to the chickens and the endeavor to liberate them from the oppression under which the majority of chickens on earth are now forced to live. Meanwhile, our sanctuary chickens are enjoying their day, the 1st of April, outside in the fresh air and sunshine which mean so much to them.
Dearest Karen, it is I who is grateful for the opportunity to meet you and hear all about your journey. You are a true inspiration to so many and a hero for animals. Please keep doing what you are doing! We appreciate you and UPC tremendously.
All the best,