Animal Protection >
The Karen Davis Interview – giving a voice
and dignity to the Battery Hen
Karen Davis is a campaigner/animal activist
who's organisation, United Poultry Concerns, is a voice in America
that actively promotes the compassionate and respectful treatment of
domestic fowl. If you've never heard Karen speak before all I'll say
is, if you were in a fight you'd want her on your side. Here Karen
shares her views with us on a number of issues ranging from forced
moulting practices in the States to looking at the darker underbelly
of so-called 'humanity" in its relentless pursuit of cruelty to
factory "farm" animals.
Interview by Claudette Vaughan.
First published in Vegan Voice, December 2000.
CLAUDETTE: It's been said before that love and anger
drive feminists to achieve goals of non-violence, reproductive
freedom, creature rights for all and rigorous ecology-based
action. Is this what drives you Karen?
KAREN: It is true that I am driven by love and anger
– love, certainly, for chickens and, in a sense, for all
creatures who are deliberately and unjustly made to suffer.
And I am angry at the abusers. In general, I am not fond of
the way the human race behaves in the world. More than
violence, I hate cruelty and injustice. If I or my chickens or
my mother were attacked, I wouldn't hesitate to use violence
to get rid of the attacker if necessary. I think violence,
like "reproductive rights", is a complicated issue. Cruelty,
however, is not morally complicated. Blanche Dubois tells
Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire (Tennessee
William's play), "Deliberate cruelty is unforgivable." I
completely agree with that.
CLAUDETTE: Why do you think people are so
invested/infested in being violent towards non-human beings?
KAREN: I think, in part, people are so violent
(cruel, abusive, and unfeeling) towards non-human animals
because they resent the fact of being animals – mortal,
contingent, woundable. Human cultures (myths, fairytales,
religion, legends) in which despite all appearances, they have
a "divine" origin and a "divine" destiny, a status that
elevates them above the rest of existence.
Humans behave with cruelty and violence on a large scale,
also, because we have no accountability. There is nothing
stopping us. No God comes out of the sky and says "enough." No
God protects battery hens, for example. People can rationalise
anything they want to do. I do not agree with those who say
that humans hate violence. I think that in some fundamental
and pervasive way, the need to exert power and control are
driving forces of human existence.
CLAUDETTE: Have the Egg and Dairy Industries
targeted you for criticism?
KAREN: The US egg industry has targeted United
Poultry Concerns in response to our campaign to eliminate the
economic practice of staving hens for days and weeks at a
time, known as "forced moulting". The industry cited our
campaign as a reason for creating a "welfare advisory
committee" in 1999 to deal with forced moulting, debeaking,
and battery cages. Actually, it is we who have targeted them,
and they who are burdened with responding to our
CLAUDETTE: How have you targeted them?
KAREN: We have responded to the egg (and poultry)
industry's effort to justify their practices by continuing to
educate the public. We use the Internet, letters to the editor
and op-eds, advertising campaigns, public protest demos, radio
talk-shows, and other opportunities to publicise the facts and
urge people to stop eating animal products and "Go
CLAUDETTE: How did your own awakening to non-human
suffering affect your personal and professional life?
KAREN: My own awakening to animal ABUSE (that is the
animal suffering that concerns me politically and
professionally), led me, ultimately, to stop teaching English
and start United Poultry Concerns in 1990. My personal life
was given a specific direction, a specific objective. At a
deeper level, there is no way to cope. There is contemplation
and a recognition that these terrible things are happening,
which I do not accept.
CLAUDETTE: At this point in your life, what do you
feel is your role in the animal rights struggle?
KAREN: My role is to insist on the value of each
individual animal's life and to show that value by
representing the life of chickens, as individuals and as
social creatures, so that people will begin to see them for
who they are and thus care about them and want to help them
and stop hurting them. Examples are my essays including
"Animals and the Feminine Connection", "Muffie", "Thinking
like a Chicken", and "Memories inside a Boiler Chicken House".
I think the emphasis in the animal advocacy movement on
"suffering" as opposed to "abuse" has the potential to
overlook responsibility for the specific suffering which it is
our business to eliminate: the suffering imposed on non-human
animals by our species.
I don't share the idea that as long as an animal doesn't
"suffer", killing isn't so bad. To "suffer" means to bear an
injury or harm, whether or not the injured party experiences
the wound as pain or other discomfort. If you wound an animal
in a laboratory experiment or stun an animal in a
slaughterhouse, you are causing the animal to suffer because
you are inflicting injuries, wounds. Anaesthetisation doesn't
In addition, the emphasis on "animal suffering" blots out
identity, individuality, and the value of animals. It implies
that non-human creatures are containers of suffering and
bundles of nerve endings with no distinctive contribution to
life or preciousness in themselves. If they are killed it
doesn't matter as long as they don't "suffer". I think this is
the final injustice to them.
I support Animal Rights. I believe creatures have a right
to express and experience their nature as they choose, and
that to violate that right is wrong. ( I am not talking about
the "rights" of fascists and serial murderers nor disputing
the need for boundaries.) Chickens, for example might spend
their day outdoors in a stimulating environment (stimulating
with respect to chickens' interests), to take sunbaths and
dustbaths and to socialise with one another in ways that
define them as chickens. As experiencing fellow mortals, they
have claims on us. I draw the line at "reproductive rights"
for domesticated animals (including humans), under the
circumstances. If it were up to me, there would be no
"domestic" animals, by which I mean there would be no slavery,
no animal property, no "pets". Other creatures would live
their lives, raising their families, having their own
CLAUDETTE: What is your opinion of PETA (People for
the Ethical Treatment of Animals) using sexism in their ads?
Is it possible that they have misunderstood the fundamental
premise that all oppressions are interlinked or are you of the
opinion "By whatever means necessary....?" Also do you see
sexism in their ads as a betrayal of those woman who already
work on behalf of the animals?
KAREN: I am ambivalent about some of PETA's ads. I
have no problem with the "Go naked" campaign – men and women
are featured, and the models consent to being naked or
whatever. If PETA resorted to images of sadism and cruelty in
order to promote animal rights, I would object to that (unless
it was designed to show an analogy and had been well
researched to reach a particular audience), but this isn't
what PETA is doing. I do not believe that pornography is
strictly about male domination and that women are always
"victims of oppression," I think that womens' psychology is
more entangled with mens' psychology, that there is more
complicity, than this suggests.
The "Got Beer" campaign aroused a lot of feelings in the
animal community. It's a clever approach to the cow's milk
issue, but probably too clever for the American mainstream
public it was aimed at. Whether such campaigns are necessary
shock tactics to wake people up and whether they promote or
retard animal liberation, I am not prepared to say.
I think we are obliged to be self-critical within our
movement with respect to tactics and strategies that, in our
opinion, do and do not advance the goal of animal liberation,
but I do not think people in our movement should waste
precious time on radio interviews, for example, talking about
(distancing and downgrading themselves) PETA. We should be
forging our own strategies that we believe work, and not let
ourselves be diverted from the opportunity to put the plight
of animals before the public and get that message out there.
That, plus what people can do about it.
CLAUDETTE: Thankfully we don't have forced moulting
over here. What does it entail and is it close to being banned
in the States?
KAREN: The US egg industry force moults –
intentionally starves for 5 to 14 or more days – entire flocks
of hens to manipulate their metabolism, forcing exhausted hens
(hens subjected to 17 hour days for 10 months or more) to lay
eggs for a few miserable months before going to slaughter. And
the reason for forced moulting is that it is cheaper to
"recycle" the survivors of a forced moult than it is to raise
and feed flocks of pullets (young hens) for each new
egg-laying cycle. "Moulting" refers to the replacement of old
feathers by new ones. It is a process that all birds go
through over the course of a year in order to maintain good
plumage at all times. Forced moulting is different. When food
is withdrawn, the lack of nutrients causes the hens' feathers
to fall out and they stop laying eggs after a few days. Eggs
can't be formed without nutrition.
Forced moulting is a complex matter. Those desiring a
fuller understanding should visit our website
(www.upc-online.org) which has an entire section on forced
moulting. But to summarise: During the forced moult, starving
hens peak desperately at empty metal food troughs and are
driven to pluck and eat each others feathers to obtain
nutrients; feathers are mainly protein. Meanwhile, the hens
lose up to 35 percent of their body weight. Countless hens die
during and after the moult, including choking to death from
impacted crops when their food is restored.
Forced moulting is so stressful it increases bone breakage
and impairs the hen's immune system, predisposing the birds
and their eggs to Salmonella infection.
Fortunately and amazingly, the United Egg Producer's own
welfare advisory committee, while opposing a California bill
that would have banned forced moulting in California earlier
this year, stated in it's letter of opposition to the bill (AB
2141) that "Behavioural and immune system measures indicate
that the welfare of the hen is compromised when feed
withdrawal or restriction is used to induce a moult," and
therefore, "We do not believe that feed restriction or
withdrawal to induce a moult should be continued."
The fact that forced moulting is illegal in the United
Kingdom and the European Union, and in Australia and New
Zealand; the fact that US government scientists have shown the
link between forced moulting and Salmonella enteritidis as a
result of immune system breakdown in forced moulted hens; and
the fact that the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association
recently issued a policy statement opposing forced moulting on
welfare grounds – all of this has strengthened our campaign.
But the thing is, it was our campaign that got things moving
at all. The US Department of Agriculture and the egg industry
had the information but weren't doing anything with it until
United Poultry Concerns started publicising their findings. I
urged a journalist at The Washington Post (Marc Kaufman) from
November 1999 until April 2000 to do an investigative story
about forced moulting, sending him the material I had
accumulated and keeping him posted on the California bill. The
result was a front page article on Sunday, April 30, "Cracks
in the Egg Industry: Criticism Mounts to End Forced Moulting
Practice." This was a major breakthrough, a major
accomplishment on behalf of chickens in this
CLAUDETTE: The Animal Rights Movement is
predominantly female and yet there can be a kind of emphasis
placed upon male-defined liberation where emotions run
secondary or are dismissed as "unprofessional". What are your
insights here Karen?
KAREN: It isn't "emotion" per se that is dismissed
as "unprofessional" by some (or many) men in our movement, but
the display of emotions of distress and pain, I think.
Emotions of pride and achievement are not frowned on
particularly by the men in our movement as far as I can see
that among both men and women in the animal movement there is
a lot of self-doubt and anxious desire to please society, to
seem 'normal' and 'not offend'. Over the years I have heard
animal rights speakers, men and women, hasten to reassure
their audience that they are not "anti-science" or
"anti-human", "not crazy". They are not trying to "make
everyone become vegetarian overnight".
The animal rights movement has a huge built-in
disadvantage, which is the inability of the victims to
participate in it. People in our movement often make it a
point of pride that they are "not angry", I do not consider
not being angry at an abuser a cause for pride. To me that
kind of tolerance is flaccid and apathetic. How to structure
legitimate anger along with other elements in order to wake
people up and free the animals is the question. I believe in
passion, and one must hold a position. I think rational
argument is important and so is arguing fiercely from the
heart. I don't see incompatibility among these things. If
there is no passion in one's advocacy, no charisma, it's going
to be hard to get and sustain people's attention. But one has
to be very firm, hold that position, stay on track, not fold
when the radio guys try to getcha. We need more
self-assurance, more tough-mindedness, more sass perhaps. I
would like to see our movement stop telling people to take
only little steps and encourage them to take BIG steps. There
has to be a meaningful correlation between the problem and the
CLAUDETTE: You have said previously that men have
traditionally admired and even sought to emulate certain kinds
of animals but they have never sought to emulate either women
or minorities – certainly not the battery hen. Can you expand
this thought for our readers please?
KAREN: I have criticised the environmental movement
in particular for it's machismo, specifically for Romantic
male identification with Mountains and Wild Animals and
corresponding disparagement of "domesticated" animals, most of
all "farm" animals. I consider this aspect of environmentalism
to be puerile, caddish, and no more than a way for the male
ego to find a mystique whereby to continue acting out
aggression in the guise of "communion with nature." If people
really care about wild animals, they cannot forsake and blame
them for having "allowed" themselves to be domesticated
(dependency, "softness" etc) is something to be feared. If you
are living a soft comfortable life you can still go out and
kill animals and "Think like a Mountain". It is one of the
forms human self-idolatry takes, an illusion that your
play-acting is like the life of a Tiger or a Wolf.
CLAUDETTE: It reminds me of the times I've
petitioned for the Battery Hen and Broiler Hens and in the
vast majority of cases it is the women who rush to sign. The
men, many men (not the exception to the rule) are indifferent
or hostile. What do you think is going on here? Is it some
form of patriarchal self-protection – that they feel
threatened by any change to their lifestyle – or do you think
it's something else?
KAREN: I am not convinced that women are more
compassionate and just than men. Being a women in the feminist
movement doesn't count – that's self interest, like protecting
one's children. I do not scoff at this at all. But I have
heard women say, for example, that while they "care" about
animals, when it comes to "my baby or a dog", let the dog be
damned. I think that when it comes to the rest of the living
world, humans, both men and women, are inclined to be
patriarchal, cruel, and unfeeling. In Thomas Hardy's novel
Jude the Obscure, it is not Jude but Arabella who is
callous and brutal when it comes to killing the pig. I think
that there is a human problem that needs to be addressed.
CLAUDETTE: Out of all the qualities available what
are the ones you think that represents the best hope for
creating a huge, unified political campaign?
KAREN: I think confidence, persistence, and focus
|United Poultry Concerns can be contacted
P O Box 150,
Machipongo, VA 23405-0150
or visit their website: http://www.upc-online.org/